If you’re in the auction business, you make house calls. Consequently, during my 50+ years as a dealer and auctioneer in this field, I have been in more than my share of homes. If time permits, while waiting in a living room or other common area, I always make sure to look at the spines of books filling the shelves, or the edges of record albums and CDs. Dreams may be the window to one’s soul, but a glimpse at Jimi Hendrix or Gustav Mahler albums might be the next best thing.
The same is true of the art people choose to collect. Glass buyers generally aren’t pottery people, and Grueby collectors are usually of a different breed than those gathering work by, say, George Ohr. It’s not just a matter of one’s eye, but at least as much of one’s intellect and temperament. Sometimes these categories are broadened by related work, like a Rookwood collector also buying ceramics mirrored by early Weller and Roseville. Or perhaps someone wishes to form an encyclopedic grouping of Arts and Crafts era art pottery, in which case an artist like Hugh Robertson might be a member of a larger ensemble. Such predilections say much about a client’s tastes and tendencies and have helped me over the years to both find what they want and open their eyes to the work of other artists or companies.
And then there’s Bob Ellison.
The first time I met Bob was in my parents’ kitchen in 1973. I was an 18-year-old college student and part-time pottery dealer, and Bob had responded to an ad I ran in the Antiques Trader, which in the early days had a strong following for ceramics. I had no idea this brief meeting would mark the beginning of a fifty-year friendship.
Bob, it turned out, was an artist; I used to visit his fifth floor walk-up on Allen Street (I walked up those stairs a hundred times carrying boxes. I was much younger then…) and marvel at the shoes he wore when painting, the tops of them layered thick with a rainbow splatter of oils, not unlike his canvases. I can still see his studio walls, white spaces where the canvases had hung, “framed” by a technicolor halo of flung pigment. Abstract Expressionism was, to my teenage eye, truly abstract to the point of being unfathomable, though this proved to be only one of many things about which he would teach me. Our two-decade age difference was a lot to one so young, but the relationship slowly matured from paternal, to avuncular, to fraternal with each passing year.
Bob was not a normal collector, if such a thing ever existed. It’s important to remember that, early on, all of us operated in something of a void because so little information on American art pottery was available. We are presently spoiled by the hundreds of books and thousands of articles on the subject that have since been published, but in those early years of the revival of interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement, knowledge was usually hard won by trial and error. But, as I came to understand, one’s eye for art is at least partly genetic, and Bob was blessed with two of the best.
While most early collectors focused ardently, if not entirely, on photo-realistic Rookwood, Bob tended towards the less literal Arts and Crafts-inspired ceramicists like George Ohr, Theophilus Brouwer, William Grueby, and the like. Further, while most early collectors were drawn only to American work of the period, Bob saw the connecting web between French and American makers such as August Delaherche and Grueby, Ernest Chaplet and Hugh Robertson, and the English brothers Martin and George Ohr. He also happened to buy some of the most beautiful Rookwood. Consequently, his was one of the few collections that took a more spherical approach to defining the ceramic arts of the era, and in far more depth than all but a handful.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the three separate donations he made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, beginning in 2009. The first grouping focused mostly on pre-war American ceramics, representing at the time the most important and thoughtfully curated collection on public view. His next gift was entirely of European ceramics of the same era, including masterworks by Chaplet, Guimard, Dalpayrat, and the Martin Brothers. His last donation captured the panoply of organic forms, American and European, from the 19th through the 21st centuries. Viewing all three collections would provide one a crash course in 20th century western ceramic history, and a window to Bob’s mind and soul.
One might think that, after giving away so much of his collection, there couldn’t be much left. One would be wrong. This present sale offers another glimpse of the fruits of passionate, informed collecting, and the dedication of five decades in pursuit of the rare and the beautiful. I had no idea, half a century ago in my parents’ kitchen, that I would continue my relationship with Bob, posthumously, by being entrusted with these beautiful objects.
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