SALISBURY, England — In this sedate cathedral town in the west of England, an old teapot with a missing lid and a repaired handle sold at auction Tuesday for 575,000 pounds with fees, or about $806,000. The winning bid was made in the room by Roderick Jellicoe, a London dealer, on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after a tense eight-minute duel with an American private collector bidding by telephone. The presale estimate had been £10,000 to £20,000.
Clearly, this was no ordinary teapot.
The auctioneers Woolley & Wallis had recently attributed the piece to John Bartlam, an enterprising potter who produced blue-and-white-decorated soft-paste porcelain at the Cain Hoy factory in South Carolina in the late 1760s. The Staffordshire-trained Bartlam left England for South Carolina, drawn by its plentiful supplies of local kaolin clay and its wealthy consumers, according to the salesroom catalog.
In the past 10 years or so, following archaeological excavations at the site of his factory, scholars have recognized that Bartlam’s porcelain was the first to be produced in America, predating the better-known Bonnin and Morris wares made in Philadelphia from 1770 to 1772. This Salisbury auction house was therefore offering what is thought to be the oldest known American porcelain teapot.
“It’s extraordinarily important for many, many reasons,” said Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts in the American Wing of the Met. The teapot’s use of local clays “represents the entrepreneurial spirit of 18th-century America,” Ms. Frelinghuysen said.
“It proclaims Bartlam’s success in mastering the medium,” she added. “Porcelain was the holy grail of ceramics.”
The manufacture of porcelain, prized for its hardness and translucence, was perfected in China by the 10th century. The technique was only mastered in Europe in about 1710, when Johann Friedrich Böttger made the first true porcelain at the Meissen factory in Saxony. The first major English porcelain factory was established in the Chelsea area of London in the 1740s.
“You don’t expect something that good to stroll in on the back of a general sale,” said Clare Durham, the head of Woolley & Wallis’s English and European ceramics department. Ms. Durham was referring to how the $806,000 teapot had been entered by a longstanding private client who had acquired it in 2016 with a speculative online bid of about £15, or $20, at an antiques auction in Lincolnshire, England. “If it hadn’t been for that internet bid, it probably would have ended up in a bin,” Ms. Durham added.
Subsequent research by Ms. Durham revealed that the teapot’s Chinese-style “man on the bridge” decoration exactly matched that of two saucers in a six-piece tea service sold at a regional auction in England in 2002. Then cataloged to be by the Isleworth factory in England, they were later identified as being by Bartlam, based on comparison with porcelain fragments excavated in South Carolina. At least five of those pieces have now been acquired by American public and private collections. One of them was a tea bowl, which resold at Christie’s in New York in 2013 for $146,500.
Bartlam gave the printed decoration of the teapot a distinctively American slant by including two sandhill cranes beneath a Sabal palmetto tree, both of which are indigenous to South Carolina. It remains a mystery, however, as to why the only surviving items of Bartlam porcelain discovered so far have been found in England. Ms. Frelinghuysen, the Met curator, and others have suggested that a Bartlam tea service might have been sent to England for promotional purposes.
“In America they would have thrown away old porcelain, but in England it would have had novelty value,” said Mr. Jellicoe, the successful bidder. “Maybe that’s why someone hung onto it.”
The rest of this 342-lot Salisbury ceramics auction was truer to the form of the mainstream Western porcelain market, in which huge quantities of antique pieces sell for relatively modest sums, if at all. Five lots before the Bartlam teapot sold, a blue and white teapot of about the same date, retaining its lid, but made in Worcester, England, rather than in America, sold for £500, or about $700. A dozen lots of 18th-century Bow porcelain figures, with estimates ranging from £400 to £1,500, failed to sell.
“The market has changed,” said Michele Beiny, a specialist dealer in rare European porcelain who is based in New York. “Ceramics were more widely collected 50 years ago, and prices were higher.”
Perceptions that old ceramics were “granny’s taste,” a minimalist abhorrence of clutter and a decline in formal dining at home have all contributed to porcelain’s falling out of fashion among collectors.
But specialists are hoping that the Met’s $800,000 acquisition of the Bartlam teapot, and Christie’s coming auctions in the spring of the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, will reinvigorate the market. Estimated to raise at least $500 million for Rockefeller charities, the sale will include more than 350 lots of opulent European porcelain.
Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller had a taste for porcelain services, particularly those decorated with flora and fauna. These were bought mainly in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s from dealers such as the Antique Porcelain Company, founded by Ms. Beiny’s grandfather Hanns Weinberg and J. Rochelle-Thomas. They were used for dinners at the Rockefeller houses in New York City and Pontacino Hills, N.Y. according to Peter Johnson, the Rockefeller family historian.
“When it came to porcelain, David had a lot of trouble controlling himself,” Mr. Johnson said. “When he bought paintings, he was more judicious.” The porcelain was purchased “to be part of their daily lives,” Mr. Johnson added, recalling that Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran were among the luminaries who ate off the Rockefellers’ plates from prestigious factories such as Sèvres, Meissen, Spode and Chelsea.
More than 60 services will be offered by Christie’s. Estimates reflect current market values, rather than the prestige of the former owners, said Jody Wilkie, Christie’s co-chairman of decorative arts. “We want the porcelain to raise money for Rockefeller charities,” she said.
The most obviously desirable of these lots is a 28-piece Sèvres “Marly Rouge” service made for Napoleon I, circa 1807-1809. Painted with the butterfly and insect motifs much loved by David Rockefeller, this is officially estimated to sell for $150,000 to $250,000. Even this seems a relatively modest valuation, given the ever-enduring cult surrounding Napoleon. In November, a single plate from the emperor’s so-called Quartiers Généraux service sold for 40,000 euros, or about $49,000, at the French auction house Osenat at Fontainebleau, near Paris.
But elsewhere in the auction, Christie’s estimates are revealing about porcelain’s fall. Back in 1951, the Rockefellers paid $1,260 at J. Rochelle-Thomas for a 39-piece Derby gold-ground dessert service, dating from around 1815-20. In that same year, the New York gallerist Betty Parsons was selling Jackson Pollock paintings for less than $900. Christie’s has given the service a current valuation of $10,000-$15,000. That doesn’t buy much Pollock nowadays.
“Everything in our world comes in cycles,” Ms. Wilkie said. “The idea that you can have pretty things to entertain your friends is coming back round.”
In relative terms, there has probably never been a cheaper time to do this. But perhaps not with Bartlam blue and white. Or at a Rockefeller sale.
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