We asked collector, speaker and author Richard D. Mohr, a regular contributor to the “Journal of the American Art Pottery Association,” for some guidelines we could follow:
- Pick a theme. There are gobs of tiles out there and it is currently a buyer’s market. To get a handle on the welter of possibilities, begin by focusing on a company (many more companies than Grueby are worthy of your attention), a look (I like murky, weird, and cute tiles), or a subject (ships, landscapes, animals). But avoid series (signs of the zodiac, Evangelists, seasons); these will end up boxing you in, rather than opening you to new adventures.
- Don’t get hung up on signatures and marks. Some of the best companies, like Pewabic and Malibu, signed almost none of their tiles. Only a few companies, like Rookwood, Batchelder, and California Faience, religiously signed their tiles. Buy quality and the identity of the tile will eventually come to light. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Rarely does a tile carry any marking other than a signature or (sometimes) a design number. If you require of a tile that it has all the markings that you would expect on, say, a 1901 Newcomb vase (company, artist, potter, clay body, date), you need to collect vases, not tiles.
- Don’t let damage be a deal-breaker, but do know what you are buying. Think of tiles like furniture and carpets. These are things that are used and do exhibit wear. If you insist on buying only mint tiles, you will end up either frustrated or buying a lot of misrepresented invisibly-repaired pieces. What you want to worry about is whether the damage draws the eye to it. Many flakes, dings, scratches, even hairlines don’t. Those that do can frequently be touched up in a way that avoids drawing the eye, but does not make the damage invisible.
- Beware the frame. Plunking nice tiles in cheap frames is the number one way that flea markets, general-line antique dealers, and auction houses disguise chips and hairline cracks to tiles. If the auction house won’t let you examine the tile out of the frame, you have to force yourself to bid only what you would if you knew for certain that the tile was damaged. A frame can hide a half-inch chip. Consider using plate stands as a flexible way to display tiles.
- To Learn More: 1.) Buy Norm Karlson’s American Art Tile: 1876–1941 (Rizzoli, 1998). Karlson went on to publish a four-volume tile compendium with Schiffer, but its color reproduction is terrible and it contains no more information than can be found in the Rizzoli tome. 2.) Get a knowledgeable person to explain to you the various tile-making techniques. Oddly: there is no good printed source for this. Despite what auction catalogues would lead you to believe, almost all Arts & Crafts tiles were machine made, with only the glazing being hand-done. 3.) Check out the Tile Heritage Foundation’s website: www.tileheritage.org. The Foundation sells useful facsimile catalogues for many of the Arts & Crafts tile companies, though some companies, like Pewabic and Van Briggle, never published catalogues.
– Richard D. Mohr
Top – A “Daffodil” tile by American Encaustic; bottom, a Grueby tile.