Lawsuit may reveal existence of early English pottery fakes

ANTIQUES

July 28, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

A well-known London dealer has brought a lawsuit against a Buckinghamshire antiques dealer and potter for the return of ZTC 34,000 pounds (about $55,000), paid for pottery he claims are modern fakes.

The suit was filed in High Court by Alistair Sampson Antiques Ltd., of Brompton Road, against Guy Davies of Frith Hill, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire. Mr. Sampson says he bought a salt glaze bear, a redware taper stick and an agateware cat said to be 18th century originals, but claims they were fakes made to reproduce as nearly as possible the appearance of originals.

Scotland Yard is investigating, with the aim of pressing criminal charges. Although only three pieces are mentioned in Mr. Sampson's charge, it is believed that the potter has sold hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of early English pottery, some of which has been passed by vetting (authenticating) committees at the most prestigious international antiques shows, been through major auctions or country sales and been cited in scholarly books.

Scotland Yard is investigating the extent of Mr. Davies' production. At least three American collectors have been contacted by the investigators, who want to inspect specific pieces in their collections. Mr. Sampson has alerted his customers that certain pieces he sold them might be fakes and advised them to have the pieces tested. If they are fakes they will get their money back.

A process called Thermoluminescence can determine the age of clay with accuracy to within a hundred years by the amount of carbon present. It is not, however, a foolproof test. A laboratory at Oxford is best known for this work and its findings are respected around the world. A conservator generally drills a small amount of clay from the piece, often from the underside of a foot, the tiny hole is plugged and the dust sent to Oxford. The process is costly: about $85 for drilling and $300 for the laboratory work. The test is regularly performed on early Chinese objects and pre-Columbian pots and figures, which have been widely faked.

Now that the alleged fakes have been publicized, experts say that certain characteristics seem apparent. "The moment one knows a piece is not right it becomes obvious what is wrong and other similar fakes are easy to spot," claims Anton Gabszewicz, who heads Christie's ceramics and glass department in London.

Jonathan Horne, a respected London dealer, said that although he has not been directly involved he is deeply concerned about the discovery of fakes.

"Some of the pieces have always been held to be spurious, although it was difficult to condemn them without proof," he said. "These recent revelations have made the situation much clearer." Mr. Horne contends that "although the forger was skilled, he has a very distinctive style and on the evidence gathered it will not be too difficult to tell right from wrong now."

According to Mr. Horne, about 40 pieces of Whieldon-type tortoise shell, agateware and white salt glaze are now regarded as suspect. The maker allegedly made very careful copies of early Whieldon coffee pots, teapots, a tea kettle on a stand, a candelabra, bear-shaped tobacco boxes, owls and other forms more common in glass or silver or in other types of pottery.

Among the alleged fakes is a Whieldon-type candelabrum exhibited at the International Ceramics Fair in London in 1989. It passed the vetting committee, was sold to an American collector and then was held up for an export license. Only when no museum in Britain could match the sum to buy it "for the nation" in the time allotted was it sent to the United States. It is in the collection of Henry Weldon, a New York collector, and is pictured in color in the sumptuously illustrated book "English Pottery 1650 to 1800, the Henry H. Weldon Collection," by Leslie B. Grigsby, published by Sotheby's last year, which sells for $390.

As Mr. Weldon and several other wealthy American collectors developed an insatiable appetite for English pottery and were willing to pay higher and higher prices, rare forms began appearing in the marketplace.

What triggered the investigation was the appearance of a Whieldon-type tortoise-shell coffeepot at the International Ceramics Fair in London in 1990. Hugh Tait, deputy keeper of medieval and later antiquities at the British Museum, who was on the vetting committee, questioned the coffeepot on the stand of Alan Kaplan, the New York dealer, and it was removed from exhibition. Mr. Tait is not an 18th century English pottery expert and some questioned his judgment.

Mr. Kaplan said he had the piece tested by the laboratory at Oxford and only when it was proved to be made of modern clay did he return it to the London dealer from whom he bought it. "Until I heard about Mr. Davies I thought it was a fake made in the 1920s, when high prices were paid for these wares," he said.

Mr. Kaplan predicts no one will again buy very expensive English pottery without having it tested.

Mr. Horne in London is not so pessimistic. "There is no reason to panic; the market has not collapsed," he said. "The goods involved are only a small part of the English pottery market. When the suit against Mr. Davies is heard in September or October there will be full disclosure and pictures of the fakes and full descriptions will be widely publicized."

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