Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Cowboy Who Played in Clay: Confirmed

In the first article about a rare ceramic painting by Western artist John Wade Hampton, I carefully analyzed the item. After listing all of its artifacts, and comparing with his print ink work, I set forth my personal opinion about the identity of the subject.

Ceramic plate painted/glazed by John Wade Hampton.

This theory was in direct conflict with established Hampton contemporaries, who believed the plate to be Red Ryder:

I personally think the plate cowboy looks like Hampton's own character that he drew of himself, in the strip shown at the beginning of this article. It would make sense that the hip brand is the same as his own first initial signature, if it is a self-portrait. Also, the hair and costume colors are wrong for it to be the Red Ryder. I leave it to the reader to decide which fellow they think is on the plate.

 Left: Hampton's self-portrait in red Ryder strip.

I had resigned myself to accept that no proof of identity, one way or the other, was likely to surface. After all, this is JWH's only known ceramic original art, and there is no way to ask him about it. Recently, friend Teresa Rogers sent me a scan of a 1957 Western Horseman magazine article. This was about the "11th Trek of the Desert Caballeros", a group of entertainers, artists, businessmen, and stock breeders who made an annual 150-mile trail ride through the Arizona desert, complete with campfires and musical accompaniment. On the first page of the article, there is this image (provided by Teresa as a scan):

© Western Horseman magazine 1957

That's JWH, posing for the camera, astride a horse that looks very much like the one on my plate. The angle of neck, croup, dark color, and most of Johnny's gear even synced up with the plate.

Note also how the plate has a ghost-line drawn for slack rein or lead, like those in the photograph, yet the rider is painted raising his arm in greeting, so the reins were strongly painted taught and raised. It may be a hint at the artist copying the photograph's rope cowboy halter and lead (white on the horse's head in photo). The spade bit bridle has no noseband, and yet, there is the "invisible" halter's noseband in the painting. I like that he even indicated the stripes on his saddlepad.

Hats off to you, Mr. Hampton!

This makes me wonder if Johnny had posed for more than one photo, and used a print of himself in the leaning back/greeting pose for this plate painting? Or, did he just take some artistic license with his pose in the Western Horseman image? Interestingly, the date of publication, 1957, puts the plate smack dab in the middle of my estimate of creation. My article said between 1947 and 1965, and that is 1956-7. 

I'm touched to have played a part in discovering a long-lost JWH self-portrait, in his rarest of media, to share with the collecting world. I hope this inspires other collectors to take chances on the unusual, and chase the stories these artworks have to tell.

Thank you, Teresa Rogers, for providing the historic photo resource that confirms the plate is a self-portrait by John Wade Hampton.


Author unidentified. "11th Trek of the Desert Caballeros." Western Horseman magazine. August 1957: pp. 10-11.

Francis, Kristina Lucas. "When The Cowboy Played In Clay." January 2017. Muddy Hoofprints blog. Online.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

When The Cowboy Played In Clay

What happens when you find something wonderful... that should not exist?

This is a true story of a ceramic piece by a very famous Western artist, which, as far as I've uncovered, has never been seen nor recorded working in this medium, before. He is known for his etchings, watercolors, oils, pencils, inks, and bronzes.

Mysterious, one-eyed horse.

Where had I seen this brushstroke, before? Turns out, I'd seen his art early on. My junior-high-through-college art days were heavily influenced by cowboy art and Maureen Love's works. Our junior high school library had an aged collection of (and current subscription to) Western Horseman Magazine, which was our lunchtime go-to entertainment. Paintings (including this artist's) on the covers, great old-timey stock horses, and more ink art and cartooning, inside. Of course, when you see the ads for "The Executive" desktop pen caddy, you giggle so much, the librarian barks at you, or threatens to call your mom: this was the price to be paid. 

In college, my professor for Drawing and Watercolor classes was a legit cowboy artist and poet. He was my biggest cheerleader for pursuing representational and cowboy art, in an art department that had a heavy lean towards everything else. I remember how tickled he was that I signed my art with a stylized cow skull, as my first initial. Symbols, added or dropped, are a recurring theme in cowboy artist signatures, to be discussed later. He introduced me to the art of Ed Borein, and a whole range of Western artists. At the same time, he was friends with leading illustrators, animators, etc. He passed away in 2015, and the West is poorer for it. This chance discovery of vintage, original cowboy art would have him hopping about with glee, telling all his students about it.

The Cowboy Artists of America was started by four founding artist members. One of those founding members was an apple-cheeked, smiling-eyes gentleman by the name of John Wade Hampton. 

Photo from Arizona Republic newspaper, September 5th, 1962.

Like other artists who make a living with their art, Johnnie initially worked in commercial illustration. The earliest date I found for him doing pencil work (the basic drawings the inker then traces over, before printing) was 1947. You might recognize him, drawing himself as a guest star, in the old Red Ryder newspaper comics. 

Red Ryder strip, October 10th, 1962.
Syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Before we go further, I want to point out that saying "Red Ryder" between 1938 and 1964 was like saying "Batman", today.* It was an immensely popular property, spanning newspapers, comic books, serials, feature films, novels, licensed merchandise, radio dramas, and more. The artists who worked on the original comic strip were pop culture legends, and then, they transitioned to fine art. Take a moment to digest that.

This wasn't just a desk artist, working for a print comics giant. Johnnie walked the walk, too, and tried out his hand at being an actual cowboy. He was told he was good at both, better at art. The benefits of being an artist, and the reduced physical wear and tear, are fairly obvious. I can't blame him. He still kept the cowboy lifestyle, moved from NY to NM, and settled in AZ. He passed away in 1999.

Fast forward to 2015, my random discovery of an online auction. Seller location: Casa Grande, AZ. That is less than a two-hour drive today, from the artist's last home. The auction only described it as a handmade plate, no artist named. Indeed, there were only initials for a signature. By checking the auction photos against online examples of the artist's signature and watercolor style, I identified it as a John Wade Hampton. 

How did his art end up on a ceramic plate, of all things? Was it a decal? Probably, like equine artist Paul Brown's drawings were replicated on glassware.

Not only was the description and title not very helpful, but the auction photos were out of focus. It was charming old pottery that I love, and a nice piece for the price. 

"I'll display it with my Ed Borein decal plate", I thought, expecting a similar item.

1982 Ceramic Reproduction of 1932 Ed Borein Calgary Stampede poster art.

A decal in ceramic is just like in other media: pre-existing art, mass-replicated. The artwork is reproduced with pigments on waterslide decal paper. The art is limited by those pigments which are able to tolerate firing in a kiln (temperatures for fusing decals vary by material). The decal is laid on top of the glazed item, and during the heating process, bonds to the glaze. Like the overglaze gold luster around the edge of the plate, it is bonded on, but can be rubbed and worn through, with use. The decal on the backside of this plate indicates that it is for display, not food use. This could be due to lead content, or due to the fact that some pigment from the yellow of the decal actually came off, dusting with a damp towel!

A closeup examination of the art shows the texture of the decal, visible in the shine.
The bronc's name is "I-See-U", which may be where you end up, if you try him.

The mass-produced plate also has a decal on the backside, which is smooth and evenly dipped in glaze. No stilt marks. The light patch is the edition number, PhotoShopped out. It was hand-written in gold overglaze.

When the eBay plate arrived, I was stunned. The JWH plate has none of the markers of mass production, nor even those of hobbyist decals. Homemade pottery, hand-painted, yes, indeedy!

Now that I could see, up close and in focus, that this plate was an original, my ceramic history curiosity was keeping me awake at night. I needed to know more. Was it a series, like a service set for his family? It had no stains in the crackle, so if it had ever been used, it was long before automatic dishwashers, and before age crackle set in. Maybe it was a rodeo award? Or a memento from a one-time visit to a neighbor's home pottery? Did he have his own pottery? Did any of his later bronze subjects get cast in earthenware, like the plate? Was it really a self-portrait, and if so, did he do many self-portraits, outside of the guest art for Red Ryder?

With some Googling, I contacted the gallery that handled his art estate. I received this reply after I sent photos:

Dear Kristina, I'm sorry to say we know nothing about John Hampton (d.) ceramics and also do not know where to send you for reference. We're only familiar with his oil paintings and bronzes. I wish you good luck in your search.
Clay Molinero
Big Horn Galleries

The Cowboy Artists Association does not offer resources about their past members. In fact, their FAQ directs visitors looking for information about a member to Google a gallery representing the artist. Sadly, that route had failed.

Next, I tried the Museum of Western Art. This was the former museum of the CAA, and currently has an exhibition including JWH's work. Seemed like a logical place to try...

I'm Megan from the Museum, Stephanie forwarded me your email to see if I could answer your question. I asked one of our staff members, Hans, about the piece since he knew John personally. He said that he does not recognize this plate, but does recall that at some point several of the CAs decided to do something on ceramic using their art. As far as John's ceramic practice goes, Hans could remember little beyond saying that it was not prolific. It sounds like several CAs decided to take on these experiments around the same time (like Gary Cooper doing tiles). Beyond the specific piece, is there other information you were looking for? Hans can answer some questions - and tell some good anecdotes - he's here at the Museum Tuesday thru Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm, with a lunch running from noon to 1:30 usually. If you are looking to really dig deep, his widow's name is X (and she is still alive as far as we known, although Hans is not sure how much help she could be) the number we have on file for her is xxxxxx although I'm not sure if this is still current as we have not been in touch with her for some time. I would suggest you also reach out to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum - we were the home of the Cowboy Artist of America from 1983 until the early 2000s, and then they moved over to that museum - so maybe they can provide you some answers as well since they are the current CA affiliated museum.
Just let us know if there's any other way we can help. Good luck with your research!

Hans Poppe, at the Museum of Western Art in Kerrville, TX, was very friendly, and most helpful on the phone. He informed me that several of John's contemporary Western artists had experimented with licensing their paintings for collector plates. It was not "ceramic experimentation" in the sense that we potters use: they were trying a new source of cash flow for existing art. Those mass-produced items would have all been decals on press-molded china. 

But, on this plate, the color is under the glaze, not a decal on top of it. So, maybe it is a in-glaze decal? Nope, no print dots. These brush strokes are strokes. An outline decal, hand-colored? Nope. Strokes, again. This was hand-painted with ceramics pigments, then glazed over. The glaze crackle goes over the pigments, not through them. Around the edge, two guidelines were lightly incised, then the rickrack pattern was hand-incised deeper into the ware, with a hint of the same blue pigment, tracing the cuts. Clearly not a mass-produced effect. You may have also noticed that the plate itself is not symmetrical! That is a handmade flaw.

Signature analysis, such as my amateur effort is:

Above Right: the plate

The earliest I found online for his addition of the spur to the end of his signature was 1970. This 1958 signature shows the larger W and no spur, just like the plate. 

The same "J" initial is the brand on the horse's hip!

What about the rider? He sure looks familiar.

Hans showed my plate photos to a couple other living contemporaries of Hampton. He reported that they believe the plate cowboy is supposed to be the Red Ryder character. He went on to say that the signature also indicates that this plate was painted during Hampton's assisting in drawing the strip and the comic books (1950's to 1960's). Another source cites 1947 forward as the time that Hampton was doing art (at first, ghosting) on the Red Ryder comics and comic books. Nothing wrong with that: I started out ghost-sculpting for another artist, too. It was a thing that was done in apprenticeships, since time immemorial.

This plate was certainly painted sometime between 1947 and 1965, when he co-founded the Cowboy Artists of America, and the publication cease in 1964 ended his Red Ryder cartooning days. I found evidence that after 1969, he began to add the spur symbol, and sometimes "CA" (for his Cowboy Artist Association membership), to his signatures.

If I could find evidence of the year that he began inking for Red Ryder, I could narrow this plate's origin even further. This plate painting is an excellent example of professional inking style.

I personally think the plate cowboy looks like Hampton's own character that he drew of himself, in the strip shown at the beginning of this article. It would make sense that the hip brand is the same as his own first initial signature, if it is a self-portrait. Also, the hair and costume colors are wrong for it to be the Red Ryder. I leave it to the reader to decide which fellow they think is on the plate.

That is a very stylish, colorful background for the cowboy. Here are examples of John using the background blue, on his later paintings.

While the plate was either greenware or soft-bisqued, he carved a design border. It looks like a little of the blue background paint was washed into the rickrack lines, which made it look deeper.

There is no denying this is handmade: see the misalignment of his carved guide lines, below. You would not see this on a mass-produced collector plate.

The plate has stilt marks, which are an artifact of home hobby pottery. If this was a mass market piece, these sharp defects would not be acceptable. They would be dryfooted or otherwise propped, so as not to interrupt the glaze. Stilt marks can be sharp points, left when hot glaze oozes down onto the metal prongs of support (the stilt), then cools in place. Plates like this are fired face-up, with the backside resting on the stilt. Because they fire face-up, little bits of kiln debris can land on, and fire into, the top surface. Note the hip brand detail photo above, with a chunk of kiln brick that fell in the glaze. 

Mass-produced plates are pressmolded, using machines. By contrast, the JWH plate was hand slipcast in a hobby mold designed for home use. This is easy to determine by the presence of bubbles in the slip, along the "foot" of the plate. This foot edge is the highest point of the plate during the casting stage (the pour hole would have been on the backside center). 

Joan Berkwitz used to pour similar blank plates for me to decorate, while I was at Pour Horse Pottery. I drew directly on the unglazed bisque with underglaze pencils. 

The texture of the underglaze pencil is more like a charcoal, and you can see that in the strokes.

Upon completing each drawing, I would drip and blow liquid raw glaze across the surface, to seal and prepare it for the glaze firing. The backside and edges could have glaze brushed on, which was apparently the same method used on the JWH plate. I found brushstrokes of clear glaze, on the backside. Those would not be there, if it had been dipped.

We, like most home potteries, did not have the space nor finances to commit to large equipment that would only be used for occasional, fun projects. The slipcast horse figurines were our bread and butter. The minor imperfections of the slipcast plates, such as warping, asymmetry, hard spots, and slip air bubbles, could be corrected with elbow grease. That extra effort and time would not be efficient in a large factory setting, and we didn't have a huge market for plates.

Hampton's long-lost surviving artwork was a serendipitous discovery, a one-of-a-kind event, yet it feels like so many of my adventures with vintage pottery. My investigative techniques have brought me to this place, and I do feel a bit "trained" by all the people I've met, and by the roads travelled in this blog. Branching out to raise awareness of other long-lost ceramics is a good thing. It's giving me goosebumps to wonder what other ceramics he may have painted. If you know more about John Wade Hampton's pottery, or have insight about the identity of the cowboy in the painting (and his one-eyed horse), please comment below. I would love to know more.

If a time-traveler had told seventh-grader-me that I would write about the lost ceramic venture of the painter on the covers of Western Horseman magazine, I would have laughed so loudly, the librarian would have shooed me out.

* For nearly the entire run of Red Ryder's print life, he and Batman were competing in the same print field. Batman first appears in comic form in 1939, one year after Red Ryder's debut. They made character properties to last, back then!

Gratitude to: Hans Poppe, Megan Shepherd, Teresa Rogers, and my very understanding husband, who believed in my ID skills, from the beginning.

Additional art:
This comic book seller notes that the pencils for this issue were done by John Hampton. The issue was printed in March 1950.

This source says Hampton did pencils for a 1947 Red Ryder comic book, the earliest date I found for his work on the comic.

Poppe, Hans. Personal comm. 11/15/2016 and 1/4/2017.
Shepherd, Megan. Pers. comm. 11/12/2016 and 1/4/2017.

A special "thank you" to Teresa Rogers for finding these images:

Photo from Arizona Republic newspaper, September 5th, 1962.

Red Ryder strip, October 10th, 1962. Syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association.


Monday, October 31, 2016

A Mystery Solved Backwards

Known: the small male Quail, reissued under license by Share The Love in 2014, is a Maureen Love design. The mold was in her estate, and was collected by Dawn Sinkovich. We measured the interior mass, poured the rubber master into the mold, and preserved it, as her subcontractor. There is no doubt of its provenance. Then, Dawn personally cast and glazed the edition.

Share The Love Quail
(I bought this one because I liked the backwards plume.)

What we didn't know, with any certainty, was the purpose of the design. Was it for Maureen's own pottery, or for a big company? Were there just a few, or were they mass produced? Why did they bear such a striking design resemblance to the Large Quail that Maureen designed for DeForest of California?

Was he meant to be a maquette, or finished at full size? Share The Love, as far as we knew, was the first to finish and release a never-made, waste-mold quail.

These questions might have gone unanswered forever, if not for a chance find on eBay, one random night, when I had a bout of insomnia. Scrolling through esoteric search headings helps put me to sleep... that is, until I stumble upon a new-to-our-collecting-world Maureen Love sculpture on a cheap Buy It Now. Then, I twitch, toss, and turn until daylight. Tracking number, what's the tracking number?!

The BIN listing dimensions had me already formulating this blog post. She was exactly the right size. Her very existence solved a mystery. She was unmarked, so how could I identify her factory? 

Easy. DeForest birds have tells. 

1. The fantasy wing shape.

2. Pink dryfooting on white-bodied ware. (The interiors are white bisque.)

3. Groovy art glazes.

This was, without a doubt, a deForest small female quail.

Her very existence indicates that the STL small male quail was originally issued by DeForest, too. Even the carved bases match. Figurine pairs and families were typical in California potteries. It encouraged more sales, and the marketing strategy continues to this day.

As this is the only example known to our hobby, I volunteered to have her molded for Share The Love.

In 2017, collectors will be able to reunite the quail pair. For once, insomnia pays off; this time, it gives collectors more to Love, and solves another mystery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Curios-er and Curio-served

Cabinet space has become a bit of an issue for me, lately. My collection grew in a very short time span, and I have not been able to acquire the fixtures to keep up. Not for lack of trying, but most of the time, it's logistics of cabinet weight and size. I am also changing the way I display, which is moving away from the "library stacks" style, and towards a more artistic, museum-display style. That style requires more real estate, but the enjoyment of the artworks is maximized. I also can consider more fanciful, less practical cabinet designs.

There is a forsaken corner of my studio that has needed a makeover, for years. It had a cheap bookcase, and a open-edged, dust-magnet, tiny cabinet. These became catch-alls for all manner of studio debris. The cabinet is a bad match for a dusty pottery room, and needs to be moved to the clean office. I needed something that kept dust out, and also lit up the corner.

I recently completed a collecting goal of one of each of the HR DW foal molds. To me, foals are the true gauge of an equine artist, because they should not look like miniature adults. Although I love them as reference, they were jammed to the back of my large curio, a foot away from the viewer, and shadowed by larger sculptures. They needed to be in a cabinet that they wouldn't get lost in.

My mother-in-law and I love to do the occasional "junking", hunting at flea markets and thrift stores. I have found great monsters and tiki at these low-end resalers, but never anything for my own collection. In a single day this month, I scored not one, but TWO small curios to ease the clinky congestion. 

In the last booth, in the last indoor flea market, I spied a tall corner cabinet. It was very reasonably priced, even with delivery. The seller assured me that the third glass shelf was included, she just was displaying a tall figurine in the bottom. The bottom section of the curio was a solid cabinet, for stashing books and the like. It looked mint, in the dim corner, and the booth was so crowded with junk that I took her word that the light fixture worked. It looked ideal for my studio corner, and I felt like a Responsible Collector, getting a proper, safe place for my foals.

The cabinet was delivered the next morning. This seemingly innocuous event was but the beginning of a three-hour physical workout and brain tease. The gentlemen who worked for the flea owner carried it in, brought the glass shelves, and stood it in the corner. Well, more like, leaned it out of the corner, looming towards the room. We checked that the light worked, even with a plug unlike any I had seen before, and off they traipsed. It had been cleaned before delivery, which was about the only relief to what followed.

With the curio at six feet tall, a bottom quarter being the solid section, and only three shelves, there was no question of DW headroom inside. Still, I needed to inspect the shelf holders and the shelf height options. Imagine my surprise that there were none! Yes, it was mighty dark in that booth, especially with the cabinet light off. Only enough holes for the existing three shelves, forever stuck at those heights?! Who built this crap? This must be made in China.

Then, I got a good look at the shelf holders. Clear plastic. One had shorn off inside its hole, rendering the entire shelf useless. The bottom shelf. You know, the one that had been removed to "display that tall figurine"? Uh huh. Who used cheap plastic to hold up heavy glass shelves? This must be made in China.

Now, the geometry of a corner cabinet, being an Isosceles triangle, means that the acute angles where the shelf holders are inside their holes are such that the rear ones cannot be pulled. That's right, the shelf holders were installed before the mirror and backing were mounted to the entire curio. Forget drilling new holes when they shear off and ruin those existing spots, because you will never fit a drill up against that mirror, anyways. Who assembles a single-use curio with no shelf height options? Who seals in those pegs with a mirror and staples? This must be made in China.

It had become abundantly clear to me, at this point, that I had a fixer-upper on my hands. I can't abandon it. It has to be dealt with. There are no other options: I must remove the entire back wall to reach the mirror, then access the pegs jammed in that acute angle. After that, I can measure and drill new holes, and set in steel shelf holders. You know, like a reasonable furniture manufacturer would have done, in the first place. Who made this disaster? This must be made in China.

Yes, this curio was delivered by two men. So what? I understand leverage and I am nimble. I doubled a quilt (because all the furniture moving blankets I keep buying have disappeared) over my utility sink and floor, walked the cabinet over to it, and leaned it there for surgery. The paperboard backing wasn't even the strong Masonite you see as backing on cheap furniture. Nope, this was like barely-pressed-together sawdust, the worst grade of paper fiberboard. It turned to dust when I tried to remove the staples. I then made the backing's weakness work for me, and ripped it... Let this sink in... I ripped the entire backside off a curio, like it was upholstery fabric. Who uses sawdust paper as furniture? IKEA would reject this. This must be made in China.

I carefully examined how the mirror was secured before attempting removal. What luck! It wasn't secured, at all. It was held in place by gravity against a tiny lip of oak at the top of the "solid" segment of the cabinet. Who sells and ships glass mirrors, just bobbing loose in paper backing? This must be made in China.

... But, how did it survive overseas shipping?

The staples, meanwhile, were dug in like ticks, bonded to the narrow frame. They made clinging Job One- being just about the only thing in the whole curio, besides the light, that had a work ethic. I had to pry each staple out of the entire six feet twice, and the top and bottom, for it covered the entire back surface. The staples could not be left in place, or else the backing would not go back on flat. The bottom stability segment was not "solid" oak, at all. It was half paper! Staples, paper, plastic. Is this a TPS report on my desk? No, it's a curio cabinet, made fast and cheap in China, I guess!

My husband checked in, saw the insanity, heard me huffing and hauling on staples, clattering nails, and was like, "What piece of junk did you get?!" Something made in China .

I didn't bother doing my workout that day, because it was Arm Day on the curio machine, apparently. I carefully measured for new holes, from the curio's own landmarks. I got the correct diameter drill bit, placed the holes horizontally slightly off-center of each back wall frame, so the steel holders would not occlude and crack the mirror backing. There was no centimeter spared in this construction, not even when common sense said "You will break." This must be made in China.

I set the steel shelf holders in place, laid the mirror back on its rest, and put what was left of the paperboard back in place. I hammered steel finishing nails in, sometimes using an old staple hole for the hardest parts of the wood. Then, I had the bright idea to sweep out any spiderwebs that may be left in the base underside, while the cabinet was at a 45-angle. When am I going to have access to the bottom again, really? I bent down, reached under with my hand-broom... And heard the bristles strike something that wasn't oak. It was paper. A paper label, this will confirm my worst fears.

This was not made in China.

It was made in my state, one hour's drive away, 36 years and 1 day from the date it was delivered here. If that datestamp doesn't give you the shivers, it should.

Commence the TNsplaining. Begin with the there-theres. 

Thoroughly geography-shamed, culture-shamed, industry-shamed, I now began to baby the curio. "I can't believe you survived 36 years in the state of your birth without being broken! I know residents who can't claim that." I stood it back up, dusted it off, positioned it in the corner. It still lurched forward, posture not really being a thing in TN. I grabbed the heaviest objects I had handy- my own plaster molds- and loaded the cabinet bottom compartment until it stood solid, pressure fit to the corner. Please no jokes about Tennesseans having to be loaded to look normal.

The mirror is reflecting a painting.
Check out the crazy plug.

The last thing to do was to wipe down all the glass again, after soiling everything with my drill sawdust. The rubber holding the glass of the door had been originally installed crooked and curled. Ah, you know, these things happen. QC is clearly not the same thing as Quality Assurance Production Control. Don't be silly. They only need to assure you that the quality is the usual for all production. This is usual. Of course, decades later, that rubber fitting wasn't going to be coerced into a correct position. It was done. I cleaned the shelves and set the first one in place, wearing gloves so it had no fingerprints. What's this? My carefully measured-to-the-cabinet-landmarks holes were off. Not a little, a lot. I can't believe this, I grumbled, as I reached for the bubble level. The cabinet can't be taken apart, now. Who makes furniture in a factory where you can't adjust the shelves, and their holes are crooked, to begin with?!

American made, in Tennessee. Can't blame China for this one.

I was forced to locate some adhesive foam padding, cut it to fit the pegs, and stack it until the weight of the glass held it firmly in place. They had drilled one shelf's worth of holes correctly, so I had one shelf that likewise was solid on the first try. 

The happy ending is that it is a great display for my HR DW foals. I really love it, when I just look at it and don't remember anything. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who are not ceramics collectors, complimented the set up. The modified cabinet is doing its job, and that is all I needed it to do. The serving of humble pie was a bonus.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What Clinky Collectors Already Suspect, But Were Afraid To Ask Outright

With several serious HR collections dispersing in the past handful of years- Cheryl Greene, John Renaker, Keith Bean, Denise Deen, Nancy Kelly, The Hagen-Renaker On-Line Museum- and another on the horizon (Karen Grimm/BHR), there is an uneasy vibe about what will happen to the china values.

"What's going to happen?"

We can look at FB and MH$P to see the first effect: cascading. In the face of the sudden availability of so many great HRs, collectors are prioritizing their own collections, and culling items that do not fit their current focus. This results in lots of makes and models hitting the market at the same time. Just because HRs are the most plentiful right now doesn't mean that other makes are immune. The need to raise money to buy their wish-list HRs cascades down through other makes, including bone china studio ware, Beswicks, and Made-In-Japans, causing a flood. It's a cascading effect of all types of collectibles, surpassing demand and thus lowering asking prices. If an item is to move with any speed, the prices must be made attractive, or even below market value, to entice buyers. If time is not a factor, and the seller can afford to sit on inventory (like a lot of us non-shop-owners, with zero overhead), their prices don't change.

What if there are stubborn sellers, who refuse to lower their prices, or sell for less than they paid? Is it fair to make comments berating them for their refusal to make a discount deal with you or your friends? No, it isn't. The private seller of second-hand collectibles is not obligated to stick to values in books (which are outdated and give built-in lowballing) nor to a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price. It's their own vintage or secondary market item, and they can price it as they see fit. I would argue that you should be thanking those sellers for their steadfast dedication to values. They are the thin line defending and insisting on values, so that our entire hobby market doesn't crash.

My husband has taught me a useful, but cheeky, shut-down phrase to use when I am asked to ridiculously reduce prices on my original art or collectibles: "If you don't like my price, buy it at Kmart." Of course, the chain store name is interchangeable, but the gist is, if you don't like my price, try and find this unique or hard to find item for sale at discount just anywhere. You aren't going to find it at the corner store, and certainly not priced by the pound.

"What should be my strategy?"

Everyone who has written me for advice this week has received this: Few things are going to hold universal value when the market floods. It's not an If, it's a When. Say your heart is set on a piece that you know was produced for more than a year, well, chances are, another will be available in the next few months. Don't despair that this one sold; you'll have another chance. This item was made in quantity.

"What if I just want just an example of the mold, not a competition/show horse?" 

I advise checking the years made, and reading up on which variant is the oldest and made the shortest time. Try to buy mint items. Older mint condition items survived to the present day, through collector care, and there's a lot to be said for that. In HRs, the oldest horses had character eyes and lined nostrils and mouths, which hold them back in breed/realism judging. They are golden for collectibility. If you decide to collect for history, not showing, don't reject the non-realistic finishes; select for age and condition.

"I am ready to spend, and I am excited about all the stuff available. I have been waiting for a dispersal like this." 

If there is no upper budget, consider that the test, one-off goof, and employee customs are unique (or close to it). There won't be another just like it coming up for sale, ever.  if anything, that exact piece might come up for sale sometime in the future, but only that one. Thus, demand for the most attractive tests is never met. Also, tests in particular tend to hold their value every time the market dives. This is not so much true of the value of batched Samples, which are sometimes called tests, even though they are seldom unique trials on damaged ware. Examples of tests' values persisting include documented Breyer tests despite the plastic market ups and downs, and vintage HR tests (less so for batches of Samples) holding their collector values throughout the market flooding of eBay, and so on. When buying from collectors, expect to pay collector prices for these investment pieces. Sometimes, one gets lucky on eBay finding a bargain test for sale from a non-collector (steel/ash gray Roan Lady!), but don't expect those who educate themselves in the fancy to ask anything less than full value. 

I am loathe to guess what broken/glued or restored items will bring compared to their mint counterparts. As shown in examples in John's estate dispersal, the same item damaged can bring just as much as a mint one, or one leg break can reduce it by half. My speculation, without accounting for world situation and larger problems like war or food shortages: The first wave buying tests and uniques will see their values held, perhaps even see those grow as investments. There will be a big ocean of regular run, long-produced pieces swirling about, unsold, for a while. Before it's all over, we'll see collectors exchanging things like HR DW Swaps for $30 (my personal yardstick for HR secondary market low, yours may vary). All the while that the big estates are settling, experienced collectors continue to disperse pieces and retire from the hobby. After even the BHR sale, there will be more collections up for sale, due to unforeseen circumstances. If you miss out on a mass-produced grail from any of the dispersals, know that there will always be another. And another. Do not despair. Also, think back to before you learned that X piece was even attainable, before it was offered at auction/for sale. You still enjoyed your collecting hobby then, without X, so do not let a one-time loss tinge it now.

If you do not want to wait another decade for your grail, I'd say, find funds outside the already-squeezed horse hobby, and buy it now. Clear out the garage, have a yard sale, make crafts, cook at home more often: all the things we used to do to support our hobby spending when the HR market was ferocious, in the pre-eBay 1990's. Now there are even more opportunities to raise money in one's spare time, without going back to school. Try driving for Uber, or walk dogs, raise your own produce, etc. My point is, it's folly to expect all your grail funding to be generated from sales to the very same market that is already flooded.

In closing, the best advice I received in collecting, I share again with you: a grail will find its way, however implausibly and circuitously, to the person(s) it was meant to find. We are all temporary curators. It may be heart-wrenching to see your long-loved favorites exchange hands beyond your grasp or even imaginable price range. Remember that is just a little delay. Maybe you worry that you didn't know the right people, you're too new, or feel outside a clique? We all start as outsiders, and we all did our tours as newbs. Keep your reputation clean, keep on with collecting in your favorite way, and eventually, your diligence will pay off. I would not pass along this as a fairy tale, I have experienced it and it is fact. Impossible, unfathomed things found me, and I know they can find you, too. I hear from collectors every year about crazy chains of events that led to their amazing $5 Finds, or gifts from friends, PIFs, all manner of unexpected avenues. Aim high with your patience. Shed no tears if you missed recent opportunities; smile and save up for the opportunity winging its way to you, on the gusts of time.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Plea for Private Museums

Disclaimer: I have only a passing familiarity with this subject. If you are a professional in this field, you're welcome to add to our understanding by posting in the Comments. I have had the great fortune and honor of visiting several important, private model horse, sci-fi, art, and exotic animal collections, from coast to coast. I put in a year at a public zoological institution as a volunteer keeper, and saw exactly how it limits what staff and collections can do, fix, edit, manage, and become.


Why do we insist on bringing up this wish, this fantasy that seems so unattainable, as we sit in our cars, on the drive to model horse shows? This soft, gray-edged possibility, as we nurse our cuppa tea or coffee, before the day's work snaps back reality?

Because the art we love is fragile, yet it will outlive us.

Because some collectors have no heirs, or if we have them, they have no interest in learning how to properly handle and/or disperse our collections. Perhaps geographical distance or lack of resources makes a careful dispersal implausible. Relatives may have, in all seriousness, mentioned boxes to the dump, or a Craigslist blow-out.

Because what we collect is not quite acknowledged as Fine Art, and not quite Folk Art. In many cases, the vintage ceramic animals are products of industry, not private art studios.

Because toy museums are not appropriate settings for these delicate beasts. They have different display and restoration needs, not just a different audience.

I live near a major tourism center, and I see private museums open up to the public, flourish, then fade and close, with regularity. Some are free, but attached to businesses; others charge parking and amusement-park-priced admission. Some evolved from being an "industry secret" by-invitation-only, to full-fledged tourist destinations.

It's easy to confuse the terms "public" and "private". Someone may say, "Of course my museum will be open to the public!" That is not what public means. Public means, put very simply, that a true public institution with a board of directors control and enhance the museum. Essentially, it can't be run by one person. Imagine if the world's institutions were run by one person each, what an opportunity for corruption and "missing" treasures! A Board must handle all decisions for the public museum. Curation lists can be assembled by the curator(s), and brought before the board, but a curator can't just thin the herd without the Board's approval.

A public museum is subject to certain federal laws, since it ultimately gets at least partial public funding. Beyond this, regional and worldwide museum organizations set requirements and inspections to verify it is worthy of membership, affiliation, or accreditation. On top of that sundae of bureaucracy, there are loans of items for temporary exhibits, regional laws about loaned works, and all the hoops to jump through with their agents.

Few folks know that public institutions can purchase exhibits from the private sector.
This animal was captive-bred by a private keeper, and sold to the public Shedd Aquarium (photo on exhibit).
Just like the rest of us, public institution staff search online to source additions to their collections.

Private means, owned by someone, an individual or corporation, in the private sector. The decisions regarding operating hours, whether or not it is ever open to the actual public, and how it displays (and restores, disperses) its collection is within their own purview. The exceptions to this may be the private museum's compliance with federal and state laws regarding endangered species, live animal welfare, weapons, and even hazardous artifacts (can't let the visitors be exposed to radioactive stuff!). I'm sure there are more exceptions, but the laws are applicable to all citizens permitted to possess such items. If you don't have a permit for it, your private museum doesn't, either. Just putting the word "museum" on something doesn't give one carte blanche.

An impressive display in the Skeleton Museum in Orlando, FL.
This is a shining example of a private for-profit museum done right.
In my opinion, the displays are of superior quality to the public museums in DC. 
The subject happens to be both of scientific and general interest.

"How hard can it be, if essentially uneducated entrepreneurs can do this? It's not like any of these are attached to institutions!"

Turns out, it's both simple and difficult to bop out with a new, privately-owned museum. There needs to be a perfect blend of resources: time, climate-controlled space, traffic to support it, parking, storage, people who will work, showmanship, curation, carpentry, maintenance, paperwork, promotion, and security. 

The simplicity emerges as one key factor: not being a public institution. Standards and federal regulations for a public museum are very stringent, and from what I have read, are not viable for operating a model horse museum. The number one reason being that the foundation of model horse collecting is based on mass-production, and that means OF duplicates will need to be curated with an eye to preserve storage space for future items. Generally speaking, museums receive bequests of selections or entire collections. If three bequests/donations have 200 duplicate OFs between them, a curator must analyze which are the best examples to keep in the museum's collection, even if they are not on display rotation. The extra pieces must then be dispersed. Dispersal stays in the control of the private museum, not normally true of the public institution. There are exceptions, where living donors offer their items with the caveat that the museum cannot disperse any part or whole, in perpetuity. Because of the limits of space, this is a very unattractive deal to museums.

For the most part, serious museums do not consider collectible ceramic-production animals to be even "folk art". They are not considered institution material, unless a singular mass-produced item has a connection to a person or event of broad historical interest (ie, this item was flown on a space mission, or owned by a President). Even so, famous historical figures owned a lot of stuff. They have to draw the line, somewhere.

For example, at one time, the International Museum of the Horse, on the Kentucky Horse Park grounds, had an impressive display of Kinstler wood carvings (wooden model horses). Now a handful are scattered over a few exhibits. The decisions made by equine specialist museums do not necessarily reflect what model horse collectors might consider important. If this is how historic, valuable Kinstlers (arguably, worthy folk art) are managed at a horse museum, imagine how far out of a "normal" museum's storage we'd see any donated custom, or mass-produced plastic or china? Ironically, if they were carousel horses, they'd have a better shot at eventual display.

A couple collectors have mentioned donating to The Smithsonian, partly because they have broad "Americana" collections. Arguably, California Pottery examples should be considered worthy of the term. The trouble is, our field of interest is not considered academically important enough- not now, nor to an imagined future generation- and museums are already chock-a-block with items that do not have museum quality or academic merit:
Until fairly recently, there were few concerns about the size of collections or the practical aspects of holding them. To get a few items of value, collecting units often accepted collections that contained many unwanted items. The prevailing assumption appears to have been that governments and philanthropy would always provide the necessary resources, and that collections could be culled later. Throughout the 20th century, many museums tried to acquire as much as possible in their subject areas. The collections that evolved were often large and lacking in cohesion, and sometimes contained materials that were not of museum quality.

- Smithsonian Acquisitions, p.142

This same document puts the acquisition of mass-produced items in very blunt terms:

... Cultural history and art collecting units continue to struggle with questions about the acquisition of contemporary materials. One nettlesome issue for cultural history units is the sheer volume of potential acquisitions in a world of mass-produced, disposable, and constantly changing consumer items. 

- p.146

The Smith document cites a survey responder who said that instead of accepting 10% of offered donations, the new number is about 1%. If a donor specifies that the "unsuitable" parts of the donation cannot be disposed of by the institution, the institution refuses the entire donation. 

These days, an institution needs to cherry-pick the most important (what is historic to us and to the future- if the curator ascribes to gambling on what future generations will find interesting) from the ocean of donations.

Not that anyone wants to hear this part, but private museums have the same need to edit. They, unlike public institutions, typically reserve the right to edit or dispose of materials that do not enhance the collection, unless some stronger document is drawn up between individuals. Quantity suffocates many a public museum's storage. If even the public institutions are running out of room, imagine what the pressures are for private, with considerably fewer storage resources? Furthermore, there are no tax write-offs for donating to a private museum. Donations to a public museum gain the donor a tax credit.

Private usually gets no public (government) funding, so a broad fundraising plan is necessary. This may includes dinners, events, and the "disposal" (selling) of unsuitable or duplicate donated items. I say "usually" because there is a trend of late, where private collectors have utilized tax benefits. Private can purposefully locate "fixer-upper" collections, refurbish or restore them in-house, and then break up and sell at a profit. It can be for personal profit, or the owner might roll it back in, to keep the museum going.

Private museums have less government and interior oversight. This doesn't mean they are immune to the whims of individual curators, who can influence whole Boards to their tastes. It does mean that the government standards for institutions' climate control, storage, restoration methods, and loan procedures are entirely optional to the private museum.

The flip side of that coin is, the private museum must educate itself in lighting, display, conservation, and media weaknesses. For instance, changes in humidity can affect earthenware ceramics. Climate control keeps the levels of humidity stable, delaying the onset or degree of glaze crackle and averting bisque degeneration. Therefore, a private museum must train itself, and staff, in the display needs of its media. 

What will happen to the vintage mixed-media customs, the bedrock of the model horse art movement, 
without proper conservation?
Custom by D. Buckles, c. 1989; my first custom purchase.

Will the oils or acids in the display unit literally eat up the models in them? Will models adhere to their packing, to each other, to the display itself, and suffer damage as a result? Can intrinsic materials decay be halted? Have the correct conservator-quality gloves, tools, storage media been sourced, budgeted, and kept pristine? Have the owner/staff been trained in how to use these tools? All but the most elite private museums will not have access to the same staff documents and training resources that the public museums have, and continue to build upon. I get a spontaneous full-body cringe when I see documentaries or television shows where artifacts are kept in beautiful conservation folders and boxes, and then the staff touch these with bare hands. Acid and oils, they spread. It's what they do.

The private museum must come up with funding for its own insurance and overhead. If the private museum allows the public to come view it on-site, liability insurance can be a million-dollar minimum for a modest, one-story building. That's just guest injury liability- then add fire insurance, flood insurance, and on and on! Maintaining a large building at ideal climate controls, year round, is more costly than you'd guess! Add to that, correct exhibition-grade lighting, bulbs, and electricity to power those lights and climate control... and the maintenance, parking, outdoor landscaping if the museum has gardens...

Photographic records are often overlooked by the private museum entrepreneur. 
It can be quite an investment in equipment and bulbs made for the purpose. 
It's equally important to record items on loan to the museum, for both condition on arrival, and insurance.

Then, there is the delicate dance with items on loan for temporary exhibits. Some private museums entirely forego loans and temporary exhibits. These are usually the ones that do not generate income by charging admission, so there is no incentive for them to have a fresh "draw" every couple months. Those that do accept loans of items for display must familiarize themselves with the legal and insurance requirements. Yes. More, separate insurance.

A private museum must set up its own training and internship program. No existing program is in place to feed them in, it must start from scratch.

Youth programming, including class trips, requires careful thought. A private art or collectibles museum would be wise to screen for groups that would have respect and interest in their exhibits, such as school art clubs, or art magnet schools. A private museum will have to increase its staff for days when class trips are scheduled. Public institutions are generally staffed to handle groups, or at least have seasonal hires to suit increased traffic.

As the private model horse museum grows, people will begin to ask about on-site competitions and other events. Even if space will not allow on-site events, some thought must be given to fundraising dinners and auctions, benefit shows...

What does our collecting hobby have going for it? Lots of things.

We have the benefit of experience. Model horse collectors have made strides, they have learned from errors, and they have led by example. There have been attempts to partner with existing institutions, and other private museum facilities; there have been purpose-built buildings that were true private museums. Each approached the problem with their own insight, their own resources, their own strength and ambition. As long as no central, universal model horse museum exists, there will always be individual collectors starting up their own museum efforts.

All private museums begin with someone saying, 
"This is worth preserving and displaying thoughtfully."

A handful of model horse collectors do not allow "the public" (meaning strangers) on-site, but instead maintain an online museum through their photographic web sites. The advantages of the web site as a public, free museum are low-cost, fairly low-risk (provided addresses are shielded and secure), and a curious draw for new and experienced collectors. The internet is open 24/7, unlike most museums. There will always be an interest in the web site as a public display of collections, as long as there is an internet. Even public institutions have seen the benefit of this alternative. I have assembled a small list of online model horse museums, see References, below.

I can't help but realize that the very building I own and work in would make an excellent private model horse museum. It is already a closed-to-the-public, invitation-only museum for my husband's and my collections. There are already dedicated offices, a showroom, clean room, main gallery, and handicap-accessible bathroom, in addition to other purpose-built rooms with industrial-grade utilities. Knowing myself, and how I prefer to spend my energy on ceramics, I would have a heavy lean to showcase ceramic model horses. Such a specialization lends itself to related ceramics workshops, education, and the power of hands-on learning. That also rules out the enormous storage and cabinets needed to have a huge representation of plastics and other model media. If one considers the longevity of ceramics over human history, it makes sense, to me, to specialize.

The carpentry, displays, organization, and restoration are things I am fine with. Finding people to intern, slog through boxes, wouldn't be impossible. Certainly, it is far more appealing to try than to sit idle, and watch the history be lost around us. 

If I build it, will you come?


The Smithsonian Institution. "Acquisition and Disposal of Collections."

Web museums:

The Black Horse Ranch Museum Tour. I visited the museum's physical site when it was located in California. The collection is now in dispersal, but this excellent online museum resource is still available.

The Hagen-Renaker On-Line Museum, curated by Ed and Sheri Alcorn.

The Model Horse Gallery, curated by Gail Berg.