5 Essential Tips for Collecting Ceramics
Installation view of “The Planter Show,” 2020, at Fort Makers. Courtesy of Fort Makers.
These days, it seems like ceramics are everywhere—from small, independent galleries and concept boutiques to major art institutions, auction houses, and fairs. However, this wasn’t always the case. Despite being one of the world’s oldest mediums—dating back at least as far as the Paleolithic era—ceramics have long been excluded from the status of fine art, often sidelined as craft or design in the Western art market. But over the past few years, ceramics have garnered staggering mainstream interest and acclaim, earning their rightful place in the fine art lexicon alongside painting, sculpture, and photography.
There are a few reasons for this shift. Meaghan Roddy, the senior international specialist in the design department at Phillips, explained that “artists who were traditionally sold in design or decorative art auctions are now being sold in contemporary art sales and shown in contemporary art fairs, which is helping to boost their profile and market value.” She noted recently spotting David Gilhooly’s works at Frieze Masters: “It made my heart sing,” she said.
In addition, while ceramic art as a whole is rapidly increasing in market value, it is also a uniquely accessible acquisition for new collectors. Jeffrey Spahn, a secondary-market ceramics and sculpture dealer, consultant, and gallerist based in Berkeley, California, explained the appeal of the medium for both seasoned and first-time collectors. “One of the reasons that ceramic art is gaining more attention is that a lot of collectors’ walls are already full,” he said. “Ceramics bring color and texture and ideas off the wall and into three dimensions at a whole variety of price points…from an entry level of $500 to $500,000, and everywhere in between.”
Another factor in the growing interest in ceramics is, quite simply, that they’re fun. In a time when daily life is largely conducted online, the tactility of ceramics is a refreshing change of pace that, as Spahn explained, can “bring a lot of enjoyment to your life and to your collection.”
The aesthetic, conceptual, physical, and textural possibilities of ceramics are virtually endless, and the diverse applications of the medium are continually evolving. To help navigate this newly blossoming market, we rounded up some tips to consider when collecting ceramic art.
Look for artists that are breaking the mold
Today, many contemporary artists are approaching ceramics in new, whimsical, genre-bending, and even tactfully irreverent ways—from Bruce Sherman’s surrealistic glazed ceramic sculptures to Rubi Neri’s large-scale figurative vessels or collaborative duo Pansy Ass Ceramics’s glazed porcelain BDSM kitsch objects.
Duane Reed, owner of Duane Reed Gallery in St. Louis, Missouri, advised that collectors ask themselves a simple question: “Does the work tell a story, exude magic, or make you question space or form?” He pointed to innovators of the medium who are subverting traditions and breaking rules, such as Steven Young Lee, whose work alludes to the rich history of ceramic art with meticulously crafted vase forms that are often punctured and caving in on themselves, or overlaid with pop culture references.
The field of contemporary ceramics contains an immeasurable breadth of varied approaches and explorations of the medium. “As a potential or current collector of ceramic art, it is good to explore all things, even when the work seems alien to you,” said Reed. “Enjoy the journey of investigation.”
Embrace the new—and the newly rediscovered
While contemporary artists are continually creating new, trailblazing ceramic works, Reed noted that there are also many artists that have laid the groundwork. These earlier artists like Peter Voulkos, Betty Woodman, Ken Price, Toshiko Takaezu, Viola Frey, John Mason, Marilyn Levine, and countless others made tremendous strides in reimagining how we think about ceramics. Their contributions have only recently begun to break into the fine art market.
“Auction houses are constantly finding excellent ceramists from the 1960s, 1980s, even 1890s to ‘introduce’ to our audiences,” said Roddy, the Phillips specialist. “These are names that are typically fairly well-known to ceramics collectors, but our aim is to broaden that audience.”
The phenomenal success of recent auctions—including the December 9th sale of Peter Voulkos’s 1958 ceramic work Black Bulerias for $1.2 million—speaks to the extent of this renewed appreciation for these early 20th-century masterpieces. According to Roddy, the key to unlocking this largely untapped market is doing your research. “Museums and galleries are some of the best resources for learning and seeing more,” she said. “The more you can see, the better.”
Follow institutions that specialize in ceramics
Because ceramic art is so new to the art market, it can be difficult to determine which works will accrue the most value in the long term. For those looking for a stable investment, a vetted artist that is represented by a trusted institution or gallery is the best bet.
In the United States, there are several specialized museums and institutions with extensive collections of ceramic art. Spahn recommended the Everson Museum of Art, the Crocker Art Museum, and Arizona State University’s Ceramics Research Center as great resources for learning more about the history of the medium, which will help to inform collectors regarding any potential acquisition.
For those interested in emerging ceramic artists, Reed said that the best way to discover new work is to “follow galleries that pay attention and are dedicated to educating themselves not only on the artists they are exhibiting, but also to others in the field.” He explained that many contemporary galleries are closely watching revered craft schools and residency programs, which are “incubation centers for some of the great artists coming into the field.” He also noted that “those [who] work in clay tend to be…involved in a tight-knit group eager to share and support their fellow sculptors.” This attribute makes discovering and learning more about contemporary ceramic artists highly accessible.
Social media platforms are another great way to discover up-and-coming artists. Nana Spears, co-founder of New York–based contemporary art gallery and studio Fort Makers, believes that collectors should start by going to galleries and finding work that resonates with them, and then do follow-up research online. “If you love a gallery and then you go look on Instagram, you’ll see all of their past shows and find an artist you love,” she explained.
Don’t be afraid to put ceramics on display—but do take care
Because of their traditional associations with utility, ceramics make for great household objects. With that in mind, ceramic works are meant to be put out on display and enjoyed—and sometimes even used for practical purposes. Fort Makers’s recent Planter Show featured a bevvy of ceramic objects filled with plants, breaking down the distinction between art and functional objects. As Spears said, “I like setting scenes with my ceramics. I recommend buying things that you think will enrich your life.”
Roddy offered practical advice, advising ceramics collectors not to smoke. “Years of cigarette smoke in the air around ceramic artworks can leave a residue and over time,” she explained. “What used to be a brightly colored object can turn it into a dark and dull one.”
And of course, ceramics tend to be delicate, so make sure that they are displayed in a safe spot.
Trust your gut instincts
Ultimately, the most important factor in collecting ceramics is to follow the lead of what moves you. “Collectors should always look for work that speaks to them,” said Reed. “The true investment lies in the heart of that person making the acquisition and how living with the work will enhance their lives.”
In terms of long-term investment pieces, Spears posited that collectors are, in a way, betting on themselves and simply advised that one ought to “buy the work that they think is good.” In identifying this quality, Spears recommends finding works that make you feel something different every time you look at it. She noted that “some of the best art collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim, have been gut-driven…you just have to trust your gut.”