Contemporary crafts are highly valued by savvy collectors

ANTIQUES

January 03, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

What's an emerging collecting field to watch in 1993? Contemporary American crafts. A late-December auction at Christie's in New York City confirmed what some crystal-ball gazers in the art market predicted: A growing number of savvy collectors are as enthusiastic about buying what's new as what's old.

Revolutionary masterpieces in ceramics, glass, fiber, metal and wood, created from just after World War II to the present and long touted by cutting-edge New York City art dealers like Max Protetch and Charles Cowles, are beginning to find a secondary market at auction, where age generally is valued as much as beauty. Best of all, prices haven't gone haywire for works by the finest artists, many of whose names aren't household words but are destined to be. There are bargains to be had as the market sorts itself out and auction house experts get a feel for realistically estimating prices.

Buyers were choosy at Christie's December sale, held the evening of a devastating rainstorm: Despite active phone bidding, only 37 of the 57 lots offered sold. Sotheby's March 6th New York auction, largely from a private collection assembled in the 1980s, will further test the market.

There is a wide audience for innovative glass, judging by the competitive bidding at Christie's for works by Dale Chihuly, although the prices weren't shattering. His 981 "Seaform Set," composed of four free-blown round glass bowls of white, blue, pink and orange seafoam colors in Venetian patterns fitting inside an 11 1/4 -inch-high bowl, fetched $5,500 against a $5,000 to $7,000 pre-sale estimate. A 22-inch-high nine-part Chihuly glass sculpture set from 1990, cerulean blue with flame-like swirls of red and golden yellow, sold for $10,450 (estimated at $8,000 to $10,000). In comparison, dealer Charles Cowles is asking $14,000 to $30,000 for some large Chihuly glass sculptures.

"Sliced Arc," a 1983 hot-worked glass sculpture by Harvey Littleton, streaked with orange, yellow, blue and green, its two-part abstract form suggesting a mother and child sculpture by 20th century British artist Henry Moore, brought a strong $12,100 (estimated at $7,000 to $9,000).

Ceramics

Much contemporary ceramic work appeals to collectors with a sense of history. Betty Woodman's sensually elegant and accurately named "Pillow Vase," circa 1970, 14 inches high, an oversized classic Chinese form with yellow, green and brown glazes inspired by T'ang Dynasty pottery, sold to a phone bidder for $7,150 (estimated at $7,000 to $10,000). A 1970 Woodman letter holder made of slabs of clay with runny green and brown glazes, also reflecting early Chinese influence, went reasonably for $2,200 (estimated at $3,000 to $5,000). However, three minor Woodman works (two bowls and a vase) each estimated at $800 to $1,200, failed to find buyers.

There was no bidding for a classic piece of "California funk" sculpture, the West Coast version of pop art: Robert Arneson's 1964 "Official Souvenir Trophy," a tall, glazed ceramic conical cup with a gold-glazed handle topped by a pair of projecting breasts, resembling a fanciful ice cream sundae (estimated at $12,000 to $16,000).

"Rocking Pot," Peter Voulkos' innovative 1956 unglazed stoneware sculpture featured on Christie's catalog cover, went unsold. It was estimated to bring $55,000 to $75,000, but bidding stopped at $35,000. This historically important work was part of Mr. Voulkos' famous series in which he broke with tradition, literally turning the vessel upside down, cutting and fitting fragmented and exploded forms like abstract expressionist painters, and transforming his pots into sculpture. It is similar to one on view through Jan. 24 in "American Crafts: The Nation's Collection," a 130-work exhibit worth seeing at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington.

Museum shows

Art museums have been the leaders in collecting these non-traditional works and helping to introduce the public to artists now considered masters, such as Mr. Chihuly and Howard Ben Tre in glass; potters David Gilhooly, Ken Price and Richard Devore, as well as Ms. Woodman and Mr. Voulkos; furniture sculptors Scott Burton and Wendell Castle; metal smith Albert Paley; and fiber artists Claire Zeisler, Lenore Tawney and Shiela Hicks. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Oakland Museum in Oakland, Calif., and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh have impressive collections on view.

The American Craft Museum at 40 West 53rd St. in New York is the country's only art museum focusing solely on crafts, which its director, Janet Kardon, calls "art forms traditionally defined by media: clay, fiber, metal, glass and wood." The museum's goal, she says, is "to seek quality work that reflects its own time, work that affects other artists, and innovative works that other artists respect."

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