An exceptional large vase with ear handles and a serrated rim by George Ohr, dating to 1897 to 1900.

What you see: An exceptional large vase with ear handles and a serrated rim by George Ohr, the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” dating to 1897 to 1900. Rago estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.

The expert: David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions.

How prolific was George Ohr? He made about 10,000 pots during his career, from about 1885 to about 1909. Because the work was virtually unsaleable, most of it survived. Because the work was often paper-thin, much of it has minor damage. The entire body of work was stored away in Biloxi, some in the private homes of relatives, and the rest held by his surviving son. That, in and of itself, is a great story.

What makes this an “exceptional large vase” by Ohr, per the lot notes? What’s a more typical size for him? And specifically, what makes it “exceptional”? Ohr tended to work in “hand-sized” pots, as I like to call them. Four inches by four inches is typical. It seemed he could manipulate a pot uniformly, in integrated gestures, to complete something original and in the moment. He was very much an artist who worked with the flow the material–spinning clay, of a very elastic variety–and his own creative impulse. There is an immediacy to his best work, which is why it has captured the attention of collectors, artists, gallerists, and museums since 1970, when it was first put out on the open market. The vase in question is much larger than most and has two complicated handles. These tall, handled pots are a subset of his work that have remained among the more highly regarded this last half-century.

How often did Ohr create vases? Was that a favorite form of his? Is it a form that Ohr collectors prefer? One man, one pot. He dug the clay from a local river, wheelbarrowed to his Pot-Ohr-E, which he build with his own hands from the ground up, including the kiln. He threw on a wheel, endeavored to make “no two pots alike”, like human souls, and devoted his life to making truly unique work that no one wanted to buy.

Is ‘Pot-Ohr-E’ his term, or a whimsical term of your invention? His. “Mary had a little lamb.  George had a Pot-Ohr-E.”

The George Ohr vase is described as having ‘ear handles’. What are ear handles, and how often do they appear in his work? A small percentage of Ohr’s work had paired handles–unlike pitchers, say, which had one handle for pouring. Of the 10,000 pieces he produced, less than one percent received this treatment. I say this based on what I’ve actually seen [which is] about half his body of work, since 1973 when I handled my first piece, and period photos of him and his wares.

The George Ohr vase is described as having a ‘serrated rim’. How often does that feature appear in his work? Far less than one percent of the time. It’s not a decorative technique I think particularly interesting. The handles are the main point here. The pot itself is fairly straightforward, and the brown/green glaze is typical of much of his work.

How do all these elements–vase form, ear handles, serrated rim, ochre and gunmetal-speckled in color, large size–affect its appeal to collectors? Is it rare to have all these things in one Ohr piece? Any pot by Ohr this size with large double handles is quite rare and elevates it in the minds of collectors, both in stature and price, to the top ten percent of his production.

Is this vase unique? With rare exceptions, all of his work is unique. That was his fundamental approach, that art should occur in the moment, through an artist’s connection with his or her spirit, manifest in the craft. I don’t know that he actually worded it this way, but he spoke of souls and God, and it’s clear he was trying to capture something larger than to just make a pottery vase.

Did Ohr intend his vases to be functional, or purely sculptural? Are they meant to be used? He gave them functions, but I think that was just a starting point. For example, he made a double coffee/teapot where you poured coffee from the right and tea from the left. The lids were fused to it in the firing, so it didn’t actually function. I can’t speak for the man, but I’m sure he did not intend for these to actually be used to hold flowers or potables.

Would Ohr have created this vase entirely on his own, or would he have relied on assistants for certain parts of the production? Very few pieces of Ohr were done in any capacity by anyone but Ohr. He did have an assistant for a brief time, a Mr. Portman, whose initials have appeared on some pieces. He also worked with the famed potter Susan Frackelton, whose name [or] initials also appear on such pots. But 99 percent of the time, you buy a piece of Ohr, you’re buying Ohr’s hand.

How do we know this is an Ohr? Are fakes a problem with Ohr ceramics? There are a lot of fakes. His work has been augmented and copied by various people since the mid-1970s. The way to know a fake is to know Ohr’s work. If you’re buying this stuff online, on eBay, or from someone who is not a known expert in Ohr, it can be a rough ride. 

What sorts of Ohr fakes have been identified? The earliest fakes were in fact Ohr pieces, but ones he only bisque-fired and never glazed. Early sellers, thinking this work incomplete, and knowing it was hard to sell back in the 1970s, augmented them with glazing of their own. The next run of fakes were made from the ground up, with pieces usually of red clay and jet black glazing, rolled out and turned into hollowware vessels. These bore entirely the block stamp mark, which the fakers recreated using printer’s type, as Ohr did originally. Then came the absurd fakes, about mid- to late 1980s, which were dreadful pieces having nothing to do with Ohr’s work. Imagine, if you would, a piece of pottery that looks like a tree branch. Whatever mark was on the bottom of it was covered with plaster and “Ohr” crudely etched into it. As though that wasn’t stupid enough, that particular faker then spray-painted part of the work in day-glo colors.

George Ohr made this vase between 1897 and 1900. Was that a strong period for him? This is arguably his best period. He was still glazing pots at this time. He later switched to bisque fire only–“God put no color in souls, and I’ll put no color on my pots”–but was also at his creative peak in manipulation and overall concept of what he pieces could be. That is definitely his power alley period.

How have you seen the Ohr market change over time, in general? Mostly up, though with peaks and valleys.  We are not at a high point, but close to that level, in today’s market.

The 2011 description says the vase has “ribbon handles” and a “ripped rim”. Why might the language that describes these details changed between then and now? Just a different cataloguer at this point in time.  They are both correct in their way.

How does this Ohr vase compare to other Ohr vases you’ve had? I don’t want to damn it with faint praise. If this were a truly exceptional two-handled piece, the glaze would be red with orange and blue spots, the vase would have an in-body twist at its center, and it would be worth maybe seven to ten times the price.

What’s the world auction record for a piece by George Ohr? Sotheby’s sold a pot for 130,000 at auction in 2006. I sold a piece privately for about 150k about the same time.

What is it like to hold this vase in your hands? What is it like in person?Most are much lighter than you would expect, the fragility being an extension of the ephemeral nature of being human, I would surmise. If you were to handle a later bisque piece, it would be as though you were handling a large potato chip. The thinness of the work results from the local clay he developed and his unparalleled prowess at the potter’s wheel.

Rago sold this vase in June 2011 for $6,820 against an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. What does it say about the Ohr market that it’s up again eight years later with an estimate of $10,000 to $15,000? Ohr is one of the few potters from the art pottery period whose work has retained value and even, in some cases, gone up.  That is because of an international market for the material, and the crossover to fine art buyers who recognize his importance as an artist.

How to bid: The George Ohr vase is lot 116 in the Early 20th Century Design auction at Rago on September 21, 2019.


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Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art (OOMA) in Biloxi, Mississippi is devoted to Ohr and his work. (O’Keefe is the name of the family who made a major donation to the museum.) It has posted an online exhibit of Ohr pottery.

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