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A Rhead Santa Barbara pottery masterpiece, an 11 1/4-inch vase with mirror black glaze and stylized trees, auctioned at a Rago Craftsman Auction in New Jersey for the astounding record price of $516,000 on March 10.

Price is one way to tell when a craft has become an art. American art pottery jumped into the big leagues this century. The Jazz bowl, a piece of Cowan pottery made by Viktor Schreckengost, sold for $121,000 in 2000, then another sold for $254,400 in 2006. A Rookwood black iris vase by Shirayamadani brought $350,750 in 2004.

The vase was made by Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942), a member of a famous family of English potters. His family moved to the United States in 1902 and Rhead worked at the Weller, Roseville, Jervis and Arequipa potteries before he moved to California in 1914 and opened his own Rhead Pottery. He made decorative vases, tiles, lighting fixtures and dinnerware. Most, like the record-setting vase, had incised decoration. His pottery closed in 1917 and he later worked with American Encaustic Tiling Company in Ohio and Homer Laughlin China Company in West Virginia. Best-known design there-Fiesta dinnerware.

Why did the Rhead vase sell for a world record price for American Art pottery? The company only worked three years, so Rhead pottery pieces are very rare. The vase was designed and handmade by Rhead, so the collector knows it was touched by Rhead's own hands. It is, as the auction house said, "an iconic Arts and Crafts piece." So in spite of a few hairlines, the vase created enough interest to result in an auction battle that sent bidding well over the estimated $40,000 to $50,000.

The buyer, Rudy Ciccarello, said, "It is one of Rhead's very best pieces. The likelihood of my finding a comparable piece in my lifetime is small." Ciccarello purchased the vase on behalf of his Two Red Roses Foundation in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The foundation will lend the vase to museums, beginning with the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida.

You can own a piece designed by Frederick Rhead for much less money. You might find a Fiesta plate, or a Donatello pattern Roseville vase at your next antiquing spot.


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