Japanese ceramics on auction block

by Anne Pepper

Contemporary Japanese ceramics took center stage in New York recently, when Phillips, the world’s number three auction house, lifted the hammer on a sale titled “20th Century Japanese Ceramics and Design.”

Held May 17 at the American Craft Museum, the sale marks the first time that 20th-century Japanese ceramics have been the central focus of a major auction in the U.S.

While small lots of contemporary Japanese ceramics have previously been included in American auctions of Japanese and Oriental art, no house until now has mounted an entire sale in the U.S. devoted to 20th-century Japanese ceramics and crafts. Although such items have sold well at London auctions for over a decade, according to Ben Williams, the London-based head of the Phillips ceramic department, interest in the U.S. was felt to be too limited to warrant holding a similar auction in New York.

Sensing a change in the American market, Williams and his colleague Cyril Frankel, dean of contemporary ceramics in the London art world, started pushing for a Phillips’ auction in New York. It took almost two years to put together the 145 lots comprised by the recent sale.

The majority of items were stoneware and porcelain. Nearly half of the ceramics came from a private collection in Japan. Most of the ceramics were prewar, with heavy emphasis on Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach. Among other prewar potters were Kenkichi Tomimoto, Kanjiro Kawai and Munemaro Ishiguro. Postwar potters featured included Tatsuzo Shimaoka, Shiro Tsujimura, Shinobu Kawase, and several others.

Some three dozen lots consisted of furniture, textiles, baskets and other decorative objects. Furniture predominated, with works crafted by Sori Yanagi, George Nakashima and others.

Bidding was spirited, both from the floor and from a bank of phones. Several items went for well above their pre-auction estimate. A Hamada vase estimated to go for $14,000-$18,000 brought $63,000. A large Hamada jar estimated at $8,000-$12,500 sold for $29,900. Some other Hamada pieces, as well as works by Leach and Kawai, brought bids far above their estimates.

Results of the auction: over $610,000 with premium — proving, said a Phillips’ official, “that New York is destined to be a prime marketplace, along with London, to offer these 20th-century works.”