What you see: A flaring footed bowl made by Lucie Rie around 1978. It sold at Phillips New York in December 2016 for $212,500 against an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000–a record for the artist.
Who was Lucie Rie? She was an Austrian-born Jewish artist who moved to England in 1938 to escape the approach of the Nazis. There, she gained a reputation as a ceramicist, though she insisted on modestly calling herself a potter. She died in 1995 at the age of 93, a few years after she retired.
How early does this shape show up in her work? “It appears much earlier, but we associate this bowl form with the late 70s and early 80s,” says Cordelia Lembo, a design specialist at Phillips. “There was no particular exhibit or moment in 1978. The late 70s and early 80s were an important time for her. When you think about it, it’s still so impressive she developed her career in this way at that age.”
How does this bowl show off Rie’s strengths as an artist? “What sets Rie apart from her contemporaries is her ability to create pottery that speaks to larger themes,” she says. “It’s a truly incredible work. You can see it in the photo, but with this bowl in particular, you’re able to understand it when you hold it in your hand.”
How does it feel to hold it in your hands? “It’s a soft matte. Not like sandpaper,” Lembo says. “It’s extraordinarily lightweight and extremely delicate. You can feel its fragility. You understand the level of skill she would have needed to create such a delicate vessel.”
The blue-on-white motif brings to mind Asian ceramics and European ones, too. “The bowl is certainly in dialogue with the tradition of blue and white ceramics in the U.K., Japan, and China,” she says. “This is a worldwide ceramic type that she speaks to in a refined and simplified manner.”
Did Rie intend the bowl to be a functional object, or is it purely aesthetic? “It has a matte glaze, but you want to be careful what you put in it,” Lembo says. “She was able to distinguish between functional works and very special, often unique pieces. You could use them in a tea ceremony, but it wasn’t necessarily the intention.”
Were you surprised when this piece set a new auction record for Rie? “We were very curious to see how it would perform,” she says. “Because it was early in the auction–it was the fourth lot–it was a great way to begin the sale.”
The auction record for Rie has broken four times in the last two years, with three of the records taking place at Phillips. A unique piece in the December 2016 sale fell $13,000 short of breaking the record a second time in the same auction. To what do you attribute the rising interest in Rie’s work? “Ceramics are a subject of great interest at the moment. The secondary market and gallery shows are broadening interest in ceramic artists,” she says. “We were lucky to offer real masterpieces by Lucie Rie. There are a group of educated buyers who are able to pursue them when they arise.”
Given how volatile the Rie auction record has been, how long do you think this one will stand? “The flaring footed bowl was an exceptional example of the artist’s output, so I think it will hold the title for a bit. However, it is always exciting to see what consignments appear on the horizon for upcoming seasons and to see what lots appeal most to collectors,” Lembo says. “We are delighted to have seen such a strong market for Lucie Rie’s work and are optimistic that the demand for her highest quality pieces will continue to rise.”
What else makes this piece stand out? “I personally love Lucie Rie. I’ve been an admirer of her work for so long. This piece is just extraordinary. It’s striking in person. Its minimalist quality really speaks to Lucie Rie’s ability.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.