Van Briggle’s Lorelei Vase Still Lures Collectors

No single piece of art pottery has captured the hearts and imaginations of collectors like the Lorelei vase of Artus Van Briggle. And no single piece of art pottery has cause more consternation, debate and confusion among collectors today.

Artist, sculpture and potter, the life of Artus Van Briggle (1869-1904) was every bit as dramatic and as tragic as that of the English poet John Keats. Born to an artistic family in Ohio, Van Briggle was taken under wing by the owners and decorators of Rookwood Pottery, who sent the young man to Europe to further his studies. In France he met the love of his life, Anne Gregory, who followed him to Colorado, where they hoped the dry mountain air would prolong his death match with tuberculosis.

Carefully packed in his trunk was the first example of his masterpiece of sculpture and pottery, the ten-inch tall Lorelei vase. The sensual young woman whose arms, hair and flowing robes emerge from the clay to form the vase – of the clay, not on the clay, Frank Lloyd Wright might have said – took her name from a German legend wherein a beautiful young maiden, upon learning of her lover’s unfaithfulness, leap to her death from a cliff above the Rhine River. From that day forward her siren song lured unsuspecting sailors to their deaths on the jagged rocks below.

Production in their three-person pottery began in late 1900, but by the fall of 1903 the deadly disease had effectively ended his career. With Anne at his bedside, Artus Van Briggle died in their Colorado Springs home on July 4, 1904. He was just 35.

The Lorelei was among the first vases sculpted by Van Briggle which was carefully cast and fired in his Colorado kiln. Those few examples bearing a date prior to 1902 are the most sought-after, for these are the only ones which Artus is believed to have personally cast, glazed and fired. They can sell in the $50,000-$75,000 range, while those dated 1902-1904 might only drop back to $25,000-$35,000.

With each casting, the intricate details among the Lorelei’s robes and hair became less distinct, less crisp as the creases in the mold wore down and filled with clay residue. After a limited, yet undermined number of castings, the mold was discarded. Having lost their original designer, subsequent workers at the Van Briggle Pottery could only make new molds using previous castings, a practice in which even more original details were lost.

Despite these drawbacks, the Lorelei remained the most alluring example of Van Briggle art pottery. She survived the death of her creator, a sheriff’s auction in 1913, a fire in 1919, the devastating flood of 1935, numerous financial setbacks and a host of new owners and novelty items (including Van Briggle ceramic tombstones), remaining in production in Colorado Springs to this very day, where new examples currently sell for $225.

Determining the value of any of the thousands of Lorelei vases produced over the course of more than 110 years has sparked debate and controversy. Collectors will agree that condition, age, size, clarity and glaze are the guiding criteria, but will disagree over how much original detail has been lost or which glaze or combination of glazes is the most desirable in nearly any piece.

While a detailed study of identification marks, clays and glazes is beyond the scope of this article, the Lorelei vases can be grouped into five general categories. The earliest, those dated prior to Artus Van Briggle’s death in 1904, are by far the most valuable. Those dated between 1905 and 1912, before the range of colors was curtailed and quality began to suffer, typically sell in the $5000-$7500 range. Vases produced in the late teens, when dates were still incised, are more erratic and demand careful study before pricing ($2000-$4000). Although dates were no longer applied after 1920, a examination of the underside will determine in which decade a piece originated. Prices for those made in the 1920s sell in the $1000-$1500 range, but those made after 1930 generally remain below $750, with allowances for those with exceptional glazes. Vases made after World War II, when the pottery was temporarily closed, are but a ghost of the original spirit infused in the Lorelei maiden by Artus Van Briggle. (Thanks to David Rago for his insight into prices and for the photographs.)

While collectors agree that the Lorelei is by far the most popular vase ever designed and produced at the Van Briggle Pottery, it begs the question: is it the most famous piece of American art pottery ever produced?

If not, then what is?

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Watch for a new Collector’s Guide coming soon!