The Buyable Past

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This is American art pottery at its most beautiful. Pieces frequently boast floral motifs, lush landscapes, or seascapes rivaling those that contemporaneous artists painted on canvas. Even modest items with glazes untouched by Rookwood’s talented decorators can boast subtle color gradations—as when the pink body of a vase fades gradually into an apple green rim.

Cincinnati-based Rookwood was in part a patriotic venture. George Ward Nichols, a judge at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, lamented that “in decorated wares there is scarcely any competition with foreign countries.” His wife, Maria Longworth Nichols, who founded Rookwood with the backing of her affluent father in 1880, would soon remedy that. Mrs. Nichols was an amateur potter, but her enterprise soon became very professional indeed, thanks to gifted staff artists like Albert Valentien, who joined the firm in 1881, stayed for 24 years, then retired to California to paint wildflowers. In 1889 Rookwood won a gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle, and it took the highest award at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. More such honors followed, and even though the firm began to waver during the Depression, it managed to keep going until the 1960s. Today the building that housed Rookwood is a restaurant. If you visit, you can sit at a bar near a kiln and raise a glass to the artists whose masterworks blossomed in its glow.

Identifying Rookwood is never a problem, since the company marked the bottom of every piece with a logo and the year it was made. In 1886 the familiar reverse R joined to a P appeared, and a flame point above or around it was added each year until 1900. From 1901 on, Roman numerals beneath indicated the year of manufacture. There were style numbers, glaze codes, and other specifics, and when one of Rookwood’s resident artists decorated an item, he or she monogrammed it. Even seconds are identifiable; each has a crude X scratched into its bottom.

A lot of Rookwood pottery is available, and prices span a vast spectrum. You can find a small vase without artist’s decoration for less than $100 and lovely decorator-monogrammed pieces for under $1,000. The very best can soar much higher; last June a 1900 Kataro Shirayamadani carved and painted vase with an electroplated base fetched $305,000 at auction.