Birdland: Martin Brothers’ pricey avians

On March 8, 2014, Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania held a sale featuring these two Martin Brothers birds, dated 1907 and 1908, respectively. They sold for $26,400 (left) and $27,600. Morphy Auctions image

NEW YORK – It isn’t often that the words “grotesque” and “highly collectible” are used to describe decorative objects, but such is the case with Martin Brothers birds. The wildly eccentric stoneware avians were the offbeat creations of British siblings who operated from several locations between 1873 and 1923, although little was produced during or after World War I. “Grotesques” was the common (and affectionate) term often used to describe their offbeat flock.

The Martin Brothers produced decorative pottery in many forms, including fanciful jugs and vases, but it was their bird humidors with removable heads that captured the public’s imagination then, as they still do today. They were nicknamed “Wally Birds” and were pricey objets d’art even when first offered at retail. That’s because the brothers took a less-than commercial approach to production. A single, high-temperature kiln was fired just one time per year, without protective swaggers. That meant every single object came into direct contact with the flames, and the results could be unpredictable. The successes, though, were Victorian pottery at its best.

The Martin Brothers, in a photo taken around 1900, operated salt-glazed stoneware pottery studios in England from 1873 until World War I and for a short time afterward, closing for good in 1923. Wikipedia image

There were four Martin Brothers, each tasked with a specific duty. Eldest brother Robert, who trained as a sculptor, actually started the business and was the self-appointed figurehead of the factory, responsible for the modeling (the face jugs and grotesques were largely his work). Edwin, who, along with Robert, had early apprenticeships at the Doulton Lambeth factories and at the Palace of Westminster, was the chief decorator. Walter fired the kiln, mixed the glazes and threw the pots. And Charles ran the business side of the operation – very badly, by most accounts.

An industry observer once wrote of Martinware, “Collectors are attracted by a combination of humor with menace and dreams with nightmares that cannot be separated from the extraordinary circumstances in which the pottery was created.” The category can be pretty much split into a number of niche markets. Some collectors prefer to focus on the less iconic but equally evocative grotesques (like face jugs, musical imps and spoon warmers), or any one of innumerable gourds and miniatures or thrown and incised vessels. These sorts of pieces are affordable in today’s market.

This puffy fellow looks as though nothing gets past his beady little eyes. Standing 10 5/8 inches high and dated 1898, it commanded $57,000 at Morphy’s March 20, 2016 auction. Morphy Auctions image

Not so for the birds, however. Demand and auction prices for this specialty line have been on a steady uptick for decades. “Martin birds have proven themselves to be solid investments, as there always seem to be more buyers than sellers,” said Matt Cottone, whose company, Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, New York, sold an 1887 Martin Brothers bird tobacco jar for $53,000 at an auction held in September 2014. And that was a bargain for the 11-inch stoneware charmer. Prices for the birds routinely fetch in the six figures today. Cottone noted, “I love Martin Brothers birds. They’re unique and all have their own personality. They are true works of art.”

This Martin Brothers glazed stoneware bird tobacco jar, made in 1887 and 11 inches tall, sold for $53,000 at an auction held Sept. 27, 2014 by Cottone Auctions in Geneseo, New York. Cottone Auctions image

David Rago, whose company Rago Arts in Lambertville, New Jersey, specializes in fine ceramics, knows all about six-figure Martin Brothers birds. The firm auctioned a large (16¾ inches tall) bird tobacco jar just last month for $112,500. But in the same sale, another Martin Brothers bird, 10 inches tall and made three years earlier, brought $26,250; while an 1888 salt-glaze creature tobacco jar (not a Wally Bird) went for $16,250. A lot, of course, depends on size, bird species, date, coloring, condition and especially character. These are key when determining value.

Rago observed, “I’ve been handling Martin Brothers birds for almost 40 years and I just think they’re truly grand. They’re top-notch sculptures by high-end artists and their expressions are simply wonderful. The prices you’re seeing today are supported on both sides of the Atlantic, although, ironically, in their home country of England, I think Brexit and other issues have caused a drop in the British pound, rearranging prices downward and creating uncertainty.”

This large Martin Brothers bird tobacco jar, 16¾ inches tall, made in 1894 from salt-glazed stoneware on a painted wood stand, sold for $112,500 at Rago Auctions on Sept. 22, 2018. Rago Auctions image

He added, “There is a small ripple effect because perhaps 25 percent of the buyers are affected, and these markets are made of dozens, not hundreds, of prospective buyers. At least, in the case of Martinware, there are more than a few bidders. I have some sub-markets for work by other makers where there are fewer than five buyers competing for pieces. The birds aren’t getting any less rare; the buyers are relatively young and can afford to collect them, and I anticipate the market remaining fairly buoyant. All markets show ups and downs, but after following this one for nearly four decades, the prices have continuously nudged upward over a period of time.”

Remarkably, Martin Brothers birds were off the collective radar of most Americans until the 1970s. “And I don’t understand that at all, because they’re so captivating,” said Terry Kovel, the venerable publisher of the Kovels on Antiques and Collectibles newsletter and popular Kovels’ Antiques and Collectibles Price Guide. Along with her late husband, Ralph, Terry founded a multimedia antiques publishing empire that she still runs today, after more than 50 years at the helm. She said, “I saw my first bird at a show, maybe in the late ’70s. I was there looking at Haviland pottery, which we collected, but when I saw that Martin bird, I was in a trance. But it was expensive, even back then, and I’m tight by nature, so I didn’t buy it. In fact, I’ve had to pass a few times on birds because of price.”

Kovel said she and Ralph were always drawn to “crazy things,” and that was the attraction with the Martin birds. “Let’s put it this way,” she said, “I don’t collect angels.” And while the Martin bird that’s considered within her means still hasn’t flown into her life, she has purchased a few examples of Martinware over the years. These include a sea animals vase, a “critters” spoon warmer and a vase showing a large fly. “When I look at those objects, I sometimes compare then to the Anna Pottery pigs and say to myself, ‘Why would anyone buy such a thing? They’re so ugly!’” Kovel said. She also noted that she has seen garden gnomes at Home Depot that she’s certain were inspired by Martin.

Made in 1898 and standing 14¼ inches high, this Martin Brothers stoneware Wally Bird soared past its high estimate to settle at $60,000 in Morphy’s March 20, 2016 auction. Morphy Auctions image

To show how much both interest and prices have shot up just in the last few years, on March 8, 2014, Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, held a sale featuring two Martin Brothers birds. One was dated 1907, the other 1908. The one that stood 9¼ inches tall was estimated at $25,000-$35,000. The one that was 12½ inches tall, posed with the head cocked to one side, carried an estimate of $20,000-$30,000. Both were in excellent condition. They sold within estimate, for $26400 and $27,600, respectively. A pair of wise investments, indeed, especially considering the $60,000 price achieved at Morphy’s a mere two years later for a 14-¼ inch Wally Bird.

“Martin Brothers birds have an avid following among ceramics and tobacciana collectors, both here and in the United Kingdom,” said company president Dan Morphy just prior to the auction. “To have one of these rare birds in our sale would be exciting enough, but to have two of them to offer to bidders is a very nice bonus.” Morphy said there will be four Martin Brothers birds in his December 2018 sale, all from the same American collection.

This rare Martin Brothers bird stoneware humidor with a long neck and removable head, signed and made in 1899, comes from the 40-year Byron Fink decorative art collection. It will be offered with a $15,000-$25,000 estimate at Palm Beach Modern’s Nov. 24 in West Palm Beach, Florida. Palm Beach Modern Auctions image

Wade Terwilliger, co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions (PBMA) in West Palm Beach, Florida, had this to say about the birds in the run-up to the company’s Thanksgiving weekend sale next month: “They’re quirky and charming…in my 35 years of collecting and dealing in turn-of-the-century pottery, I’ve been waiting for the day, like the twitcher (birdwatcher) who spotted a belted kingfisher in the UK, to actually present a Martin Brothers bird in one of our sales. Rarity, craftsmanship, and the all-knowing, smirking expression of the bird form that collectors affectionately call a ‘grotesque’ make this the number one pottery want-to-have. Although the UK and US have been good friends for centuries, we are expecting a no-holds-barred transatlantic competition at our November 24th auction, which contains a very rare Martin Brothers bird that was part of the Byron Fink collection for a good forty years.” Fink, a retired magazine art director from Philadelphia, developed an interest in 20th-century British ceramics at a time when rare pieces were far easier to acquire than they are now, Terwilliger added. “He always bought but never sold.”

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