Monday, April 11, 2016
QUESTION: In the last few years, I’ve begun to buy decorative tiles from the early 20th century. I buy what I like and not because a particular company made them. One I purchased recently supposedly came from the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Since I live in the Midwest, I haven’t had an opportunity to visit the Tile Works. What can you tell me about this tile?
ANSWER: Go to any Arts and Crafts auction and you're sure to find art tiles, ranging from $20 to several thousand dollars. But what makes one tile worth more than another? And what makes these late 19th/early 20th century tiles any different from the ones we see today at our local home renovation store?
Combine the rise of the Aesthetic Movement, the desire to get back to basics, and a variety of unique techniques, and tiles can represent some of the most interesting objects made during the heyday of the Arts & Crafts Movement." It’s these "art" tiles that are of real interest to collectors, and these are the tiles that command the highest prices. Commercial production tiles, while they're old, even when made by a well-collected maker, are usually only valued in the $20-$30 range.
Although a large number of American potteries made tiles, six are most popular with collectors and/or the most historically significant---American Encaustic, J.G.Low, Grueby, Rookwood, Batchelder, and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works.
Henry Chapman Mercer, an archeologist and antiquities collector, founded the Moravian Tile Works in 1898. His intent was to bring back the medieval craft of tile making and established the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works on his family's estate in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mercer chose the name Moravian to represent the German immigrants who brought tile making to Pennsylvania in the 18th century.
Although Mercer designed all the tiles, using patterns derived from European an Middle Eastern ones, as well as photographs of ones from Mexico, he trained a crew of men to produce them by pressing wet local clay into handcarved molds. Workers slow fired these molds in a wood burning kiln, painted the bisque ware with glaze, and fired them again.
Mercer gained a reputation as a serious proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Many of America's top tile makers, including Grueby and Batchelder, copied his tile designs. Mercer also produced several lines of four-inch molded tiles representing tall ships, zodiac signs, and farming. He also used them to build items like inkwells and bookends. For more elaborate installations, Mercer produced cookie-cutter-shaped paving tiles referred to as “brocades.”
Mercer remained active with the company until his death in 1930. The company remained in business until 1964, and in 1969, it opened as a museum.
The reproduction tiles made today come from Mercer's original molds, locally dug clay, and have properties similar to those of Mercer's slips and glazes that follow his final formulations, although some have been modified to reduce the lead and heavy metal content to less toxic levels. The manufacturer of reproduction tiles began in 1974, but there’s no danger of deceit. When the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Department of Parks and Recreation took over the Tile Works as a working museum, they insisted that all the tiles made at the museum bear the mark of a stylized "MOR," the words "Bucks County," and the year of manufacture.
Today, collectors can expect to pay from $30-100 for common tiles, $35-250 for brocades, $300-3,000 for “built items” made from tiles, and $1,000-5,000 for the more unique medieval-style tiles.
You can find some of the largest collections of Mercer tiles at John D. Rockefeller's New York estate, Grauman's Chinese Theater, and the Casino at Monte Carlo. Your tile represents "Virgo," a sign of the zodiac.