What you see: A tall bird tobacco jar, aka a “Wally Bird,” by the Martin Brothers, created in London circa 1900. The head is signed by R.W. (Robert Wallace) Martin, and the base is signed as the Martin Brothers. Rago Auctions estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.
Why do people love Wally Birds? What makes them great is they [the Martin Brothers] were world-class modelers, at the top of their game, with an idea no one else had. They’re really expressive creatures, and a lot of fun. It’s like they [the birds] are having a conversation with each other. Expression is so much of what these things are about. They’re pretty snarky. I don’t know of any that are benign.
Are those made between 1880 and 1900 the most desirable? I think so. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I’m hands on. I touch this stuff. What I know is not out of a book. The power alley [for Wally Birds] is from 1883 to 1893. I would peg this bird a little earlier than 1900. I’d say 1895. [After 1900 or so] you can see them start to lose their edge. Maybe after 25 years they [the Martin Brothers] wanted to move on to something else.
What details of this Wally Bird make you think it’s from 1895 and not 1900? I just think he’s a better bird. Better modeling, better detailing, better expression, better gradation of color. He’s tall, and he’s got a lot of character. I think he was made during the prime of their production.
Who was the best modeler among the brothers? I think Robert Wallace was a cut above.
Do Wally Birds with his signature sell for more? I always find it’s better to have “Robert Wallace” on a piece than not. But I’d rather have a great unsigned Wally Bird than a mediocre one with R.W.’s initials on it.
Does height matter with Wally Birds? Do collectors prefer the taller ones? It’s a factor in the price. Birds tend to be seven or eight inches tall. Over one foot, 15 inches, you’ve got a big bird. The vast majority are 10 inches or less.
Do the expressions on the faces of the birds matter? Yes, and being colorful helps. The important things are the expression, the size, and the condition, but it’s not hard to sell a Wally Bird with minor damage.
Were Wally Birds actively collected when they were new, or did that come later? I don’t know that people collected things in 1885. We were still dealing with the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
So it was more like people thought, ‘This is too nice to throw away’? [More like] “I saw a jar that looks like someone I know, I’ll buy it and keep it.”
The Wally Birds were designed to hold pipe tobacco. Were they used that way? I’ve literally handled 200 of these and I haven’t found tobacco in any of them. I think they were called tobacco jars to give them a functional purpose, maybe to appeal to men. Everybody smoked back then. You can’t use a bird, but you can use a tobacco jar. Who knows what the rationale was?
And the Martin Brothers made Wally Birds from 1880 up until 1914? I’ve had pieces dated that late. There’s a thought that some were finished later than that by a son of one of the brothers in the 1930s. The dating might not be clear on the later ones. They tend to be blue and white, and the expressions tend to be shallower.
Do we know how the birds were made? They were sculpted. You can look inside [a Wally Bird] and see the way the clay has been cut back. They gouged the clay out to make the interior. You can see the tooling of the construction.
Are Wally Birds based on real birds? To some extent, yes. But I think the birds they looked at was a departure point for their imaginations.
Do British collectors dominate the field of Wally Birds? Americans have been bringing Wally Birds here for 50 years. I even know Brits who buy them from Americans and sell them back to Americans. I would guess that 75 percent of known Martinware [a term that describes the Wally Birds and other ceramics by the Martin Brothers] is in the U.S.
How often do Wally Birds come up at auction? There’s been a generational change. People who bought in the 1980s are selling off now. I sold Lillian Hoffman’s collection four years ago. Wait ten years, and the people who bought in the Harriman Judd collection sale [at Sotheby’s in January 2001] will sell off.
So they come up every five or ten years or so? Yeah. Even if they [collectors] have to pare down, they don’t put up one Wally Bird. They put up two or three. They sell them in flocks.
What’s it like to hold this Wally Bird in your hand? For a ceramic, it’s hefty. There’s nothing eggshell about Wally Birds, nothing delicate.
What condition is it in? There’s a repair on one of the feathers, and at the very bottom of the clay base, there’s an unevenness to the edge. But it’s an 125-year-old piece of ceramic sculpture.
In your experience, how do collectors display Wally Birds in their homes? They’re displayed how you’d expect a $50,000 piece of clay to be displayed–usually on a shelf, with half a dozen birds side by side. They’re not left on desktops, where they’re too easily knocked over.
You’ve got several pieces of Martinware in this auction, including another Wally Bird in Lot 5 that’s estimated at $30,000 to $50,000. What’s the difference between this bird and that bird? Why is Lot 1 one worth more? Size is a significant factor. Lot 1 is a big bird. Lot 5 is interesting because it’s a friar bird. [Look closely at its head and you’ll see it has a tonsure–a monk’s hairstyle. You can also click on the 360-degree view button at the lower right and spin it to better see the back of its head.] But it’s the nature of the beast–it’s clumsier, it’s not as free-flowing a bird. Both are good birds, but one is one and a half times the size of the other one.
Wally Birds are 80 to 120 years old. Almost no one smokes a pipe anymore. What’s been keeping up the profile of Wally Birds? Was there a big, influential museum show? Is there a collectors’ society that’s active and media-savvy? Several things. Number one is the right number of them were made. With Martinware, there’s enough material out there but not too much–just enough to create and sustain a market. Number two, both sides of the pond are buying this stuff. If it’s supported by collectors in Europe and America, it’s healthy. Number three, they’re really good. World-class ceramics. They’re sculpted, best in the world at the time it was made, and I haven’t seen much to rival it. The quality has held up.
The world auction record for a Wally Bird belongs to an 1889 example that stands just over 14 inches tall and resembles the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. It sold in December 2015 in New York for $233,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. I realize Rago did not handle that bird, but can you tell me why it did so well? It was a fabulous bird. It was huge, and it was a historic figure from the land where they were made. It was the pinnacle. I don’t know if you get better than [the Wally Birds that resemble] Disraeli and [British prime minister William] Gladstone. Those are the best.
And Americans are just as interested in the Disraeli and Gladstone Wally Birds, even though they depict British political figures? Absolutely. I’m sure they’re in America. If you’re going to buy British pottery, you’re going to buy the best out there.
Why will this Wally Bird stick in your memory? The expression is really good. The quality is top-notch. The condition is excellent. That’s true of most birds I handle. And it’s just big. The production of the larger birds is quite limited. I’d say five percent are this size or bigger. If 250 [a possible rough count for surviving Wally Birds] is accurate, there are 10 to 15 in this range. In a September 2018 auction, I had one that big, and it sold for $112,500. It’s really, really rare to have another that size. I would dare say I have this bird because I sold the other one.
Alison Davey of AD Antiques in Gloucestershire, England, has devised a way to track Wally Birds without banding their ankles. In 2018, she began creating “passports” for the coveted works. The document, which resembles a British passport, contains a photo of the Wally Bird, its height, its condition, and its known provenance.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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