Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Simply Elegant Find

QUESTION: Some time ago, I purchased two wall pockets decorated with a matte green glaze in an antique shop while on a routine antiquing foray. Each has the word “Teco” stamped on the bottom along with a number. I have these hanging in my kitchen, but know little about them. Can you tell me anything?

ANSWER: You’ve stumbled on a real find. What you have are good examples of what’s known as Teco Ware, a type of art pottery produced in the beginning of the 20th century. While pieces originally sold for $2 to $5, none sold for more than $30 because the maker’s goal was to produce something of beauty that the average person could afford.

The Teco Pottery began in 1879 when attorney William Day Gates started the Spring Valley Tile Works in Terra Cotta, Illinois, to make drain pipe. But his goal changed after visiting the World's Columbian Exposition in nearby Chicago where he viewed exhibits of new matte glazes, produced by French potters. After his factory was nearly destroyed in 1887, he decided to rebuild, naming it the American Terra Cotta and Ceramic Company. When it reopened, he began working on an art pottery line after conducting experiments using local clays. In 1895, Gates registered the Teco trademark, deriving the name from the first two letters of his company's name, the Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company. He introduced a line of art pottery in 1899.

He derived his pottery shapes from line and color rather than elaborate decoration. While he created most of the 500 shapes he offered by 1911, many of the remaining Teco designs came from several Chicago architects that practiced the Prairie School style, including Frank Lloyd Wright. They had rejected the revival styles of American architecture of the 19th century in favor of using wood, stone and clay in simplicity of design. Ornamentation merged gracefully with the form. By 1923, the number of shapes had increased to more than 10,000.

Gates’ son, Major Gates, a ceramic engineer, invented a pressing machine and tunnel kiln, and also a glaze spraying apparatus called a pulischrometer to make production more efficient. In 1918, they acquired Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company. And the following year, opened a branch in Minneapolis.

Teco started making their green architectural vases in 1901, well before other art potters in the country produced similar wares. That’s why Teco vases are so valuable today. Gates produced his pottery from clays in Illinois and Indiana, and forms ranged from organic to architectural to geometric.

Teco pottery comes in hundreds of shapes, all cast from molds. Even exotic shapes that look handformed aren’t unique. The type of shape directly affects the value, with scarcer taller shapes more valuable. Gates marked the bottom of each of his pieces with a large “T” followed by the letters “ECO” and incised or stamped the shape number below it.

Gates’ goal was that every American home should have at least one piece of Teco ware. He believed that good design was as critical as the quality of materials and workmanship. So while some of Teco's more interesting pieces had at least some hand finishing, all of the pieces started with modern production techniques, including molds and power glaze sprayers.

Although Gates commercially introduced his line of Teco art pottery to the public in 1902, mass marketing of his products didn't really take effect until 1904. The event was the St. Louis World's Fair, where he exhibited vases, planters and other wares.

Gates exhibited art pottery with a green microcrystalline glaze which received many awards. It would also be the only glaze he used for several years. And although he introduced glazes in other colors–-including shades of yellow and gold, brown, cream, gray, orange, maroon, blue, gray, blue and purple—in 1909, none were as popular as those in various shades of green.

The most desirable pieces have been enhanced with a charcoal overglaze. Decorators used this secondary charcoal glaze to emphasize the negative space in embossed decoration or to highlight the detail found. in pieces with attached handles. Pieces with lowlights, or those that are mostly charcoal black are particularly striking.

Teco's organic pieces, an aesthetic blend of Art Nouveau and Prairie School featuring leaf and floral motifs, are more interesting, and as such, command higher prices than the geometric ones. The finest examples feature details such as swirling tendril and whiplash handles and/or embossed designs.

The typical Teco vase sold for $2-$5, while larger cost $7-$20. Today, that $2-$5 vase sells for a few hundred dollars, with fine examples commanding several thousand dollars. Major pieces that feature considerable hand finishing fetch anywhere from $20,000 to$100,000. But the majority of Teco vases and bowls sell for $500 to $2,000. However, there are plenty of rarer forms that can go for $10,000 or more. And even though the company produced pieces in other colors, collectors favor those in green.

Your modest wall pockets sell for about $1,500 a pair—a real find.

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