Editor’s note: With the arrival of the holidays, The Hot Bid shifts its focus to world auction records. Also, after choosing this Frederick Hurten Rhead piece and interviewing David Rago, the world auction record for any American work of ceramics was claimed by Peter Voulkos’s 1958 piece Rondena, which sold for $915,000 at Phillips on December 12, 2017. I expect to devote a post to Rondena in the future.
What you see: A unique, large four-tile panel depicting a peacock, made by Frederick Hurten Rhead in 1910 for a friend, Levi Burgess. Rago Auctions estimated the panel at $35,000 to $45,000 and sold it in October 2012 for $637,500–a then-record for any American work of ceramics at auction.
Who was Frederick Hurten Rhead? Born in England to an artistically talented family, Rhead came to America in 1902 to work in a series of factories that produced art pottery. High points included his tenure at University City, Missouri, where a wealthy patron assembled and bankrolled a dream team of ceramicists (sadly, the patron suffered money troubles in 1911 that killed the project). Rhead moved to California, where he directed a pottery program at a tuberculosis sanatorium and later ran his own pottery studio for a few years. His last major job was as an art director for the Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia, where he created the famous Fiesta line of dinnerware. He died in 1942 of cancer at the age of 61 or 62.
Why was Frederick Hurten Rhead an important artist? “I call him the Forrest Gump of American ceramicists,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “It was not so much about where he was and what he did, but how he influenced and mirrored the field. He was an influence on and reflective of American ceramics.”
Are the ceramics he made in America more valuable, generally, than those he made in England? “Yes, but if you look at his University City works, there are some English elements of design in those pieces,” he says. “Rhead would have grown as an artist if he had stayed in England. He just grew differently because he was here. I think the California desert blew his socks off, and Santa Barbara did the same. He was there before the highways, before the sprawl of civilization, in an artist’s colony, with like-minded souls. It had to be deeply influential.”
Why is Rhead’s material so rare at auction? “There just isn’t much of it,” Rago says. “Not until he got to University City and had already been here the better part of a decade did he have a chance to make great, one-of-a-kind pieces. One sold at Moran’s in California in April 2014–it was a masterpiece. But it’s pottery. It breaks. I don’t know how many broke over the years. And University City lasted a year, a year and a half. There were not many pieces to begin with. In Santa Barbara, Rhead was a crappy businessman. He could not have been making money. And he wasn’t whipping these out in a day. The best pieces took weeks to do, maybe more.”
When Rago sold a Frederick Hurten Rhead vase in May 2007 for $516,000, was that the first time the artist broke six figures at auction? “Yes, it was the first time something of his sold for six figures, privately or at auction,” he says.
The peacock tile panel was a gift from Rhead to a friend, Levi Burgess. Are any of the other Rhead pieces sold at auction as personal as the pieces that he made for Burgess? “I don’t know of any others,” he says, noting that Burgess installed the peacock panel and other Rhead ceramics in his Ohio home. A subsequent owner removed the tiles from the home before selling it 15 to 20 years ago. “A woman walked into the Rago auction gallery in New Jersey with the first set [this peacock panel]. She got one, and her husband got the other. We put them in the  auction for $40,000 to $60,000, and all hell broke loose. The [works Rhead gave to Burgess] were known and talked about. They’re the pinnacle of American prewar [ceramic] design. On a scale of one to ten, this is a ten. He gave Burgess a couple of masterpieces to put in his house–$1 million worth of pottery. He must have liked him.”
How did the tile panel’s connection to University City enhance its value? “The main reason it figures in is University City had the best kilns, the best material, and the best support staff,” he says. “It was state-of-the-art. Rhead didn’t have to worry about money. He didn’t have that at Santa Barbara, and he certainly didn’t have that at Arequipa [the tuberculosis sanatorium].”
Rudy Ciccarello, the collector behind the Two Red Roses Foundation in Palm Harbor, Florida, bought the Rhead vase from Rago in 2007. Did Ciccarello buy the peacock tile, too? And does it pose problems when one collector is so dominant in a particular auction market? Yes, Ciccarello did buy the peacock tile. “He bought a lot of the Rhead pieces that sold for big money at public auction,” he says. As for Ciccarello’s dominance being a problem, he says that auction categories being driven by one or two big bidders “…is true of all these markets. This is American pottery we’re talking about. There aren’t 50 people who will buy once the price is over $100,000. The high-end market is limited. Masterpieces are always in demand.”
What was your role in the sale? “I was the auctioneer,” Rago says. “It was very exciting. Once the bidding hit $100,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ When it hit $150,000, I thought, ‘Wow.’ But I couldn’t say it. I’ve got to be chill up there. Once it hit $510,00 hammer [the price before standard fees are added], that was it.”
Were you surprised that it sold for $637,500? “Yes, I was really quite surprised,” he says. “I knew it was going to bring good money. I’m known for ceramics, and it was the best of the best. We [he and the keenest bidders] knew what it was, and knew what condition it was in, and we knew where it ranked within the artist’s work, and it was the first time [one of the Burgess tiles] was offered for sale.”
Why will the Rhead peacock tile stick in your memory? “I’m a pottery guy. I love great pottery. Those [Burgess tiles] are legendary things–‘Will I get to see them turn up?’ I wouldn’t mind selling them,” he says. “This is my 46th year [in the auction world]. I’ve been chasing these things for a long time. To handle a masterpiece–a legendary masterpiece–it’s what you live for. To have it set the record for American pottery–that’s a singular moment.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
On January 20, 2018, on the second day of a three-day sale, Rago will offer a 1912 vase that Frederick Hurten Rhead made at Arequipa. It is estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.