Dodie Thayer lettuce ware: the pick of the crop

A September 1972 Dodie Thayer lettuce ware tureen with lid and underplate realized $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

A September 1972 Dodie Thayer lettuce ware tureen with lid and underplate realized $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Quinn’s Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – In most of the United States, Thanksgiving means gathering with friends and family, but in Palm Beach, Florida, it marks the arrival of high season. Well-heeled and well-connected members of the East Coast elite descend on the island to escape the ravages of winter through shopping, golfing, yachting, lounging, and appearing at gala charity balls. The approach of late November also prompts Palm Beach hostesses to dust off their Dodie Thayer lettuce ware services in anticipation of months of dinner parties and other intimate gatherings.

Thayer’s bright green ceramics command your attention and hold it. Unfurled leaves serve as plates; upright pieces with tightly arranged leaves, seemingly just starting to bud, make for salt and pepper shakers; and claiming the center of the table, as it should, is a tureen in the shape of a head of lettuce, with leaves peeling away from its heart. It is almost aggressively three-dimensional, and it is gorgeous.

The odds are good that the Dodie Thayer lettuce ware pieces a Palm Beach hostess places before a parade of sophisticated contemporary guests are 50 to 60 years old. Thayer’s striking ceramics were a mid-century sensation. The so-called “ladies who lunch” lunched off of plates she sculpted, painted, and fired.

“Dodie Thayer lettuce ware could grace your grandmother’s table in 1965 and it’s still relevant today. It’s just as cool, and maybe cooler,” said Matthew Quinn, senior vice president at Quinn Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Virginia, who observed that the backdrop against which Thayer rose definitely mattered. “If Dodie Thayer started in Omaha, lettuce ware would not have taken off,” he said. “No offense to Omaha, I love the city. But it’s not Palm Beach.”

A group of 10 Dodie Thayer lettuce ware standing salt and pepper shakers realized $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

A group of 10 Dodie Thayer lettuce ware standing salt and pepper shakers realized $1,600 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

When Jackie Kennedy, Brooke Astor, C.Z. Guest and their fellow socialites clamored for Thayer’s work, they upheld values that 21st-century consumers cherish: they were supporting a local, independent artisan. “Dodie was a true American artist and entrepreneur, and her story is remarkable,” said Tory Burch, executive chairman and chief creative officer of an eponymous design and fashion brand. Burch has long loved Thayer’s lettuce ware, and she worked with the artist on a lettuce ware line that bore the names of both women.

“She was completely self-taught, inspired by Napoli ware. When I visited her in 2013, she told me that learning to mold lettuce and cabbage leaves was a long series of trial-and-error before she achieved exactly what she wanted — leaf shape, veins and color and of course function,” Burch said. “Every piece took Dodie two weeks to hand-make from start to finish. She even hand-delivered them herself. She had a wonderful process, or ritual. She would glaze a set on Thursday night. They would be dry by Friday morning, and she drove them into Palm Beach to the boutique Au Bon Gout, which sold her collection. Before returning home, she met friends for lunch at Ta-Boo.”

A 104-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware service that included a spoon rest, candlesticks, and a serving bowl, achieved $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

A 104-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware service that included a spoon rest, candlesticks, and a serving bowl, achieved $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Those who own Dodie Thayer lettuce ware don’t relinquish it willingly. Auctioneers generally agree the pieces emerge infrequently at auction, but there has been a spate of head-turning results recently. Chief among them is Sotheby’s January 2020 sale of the collection of the late interior designer Mario Buatta, during which a 107-piece service, estimated at $10,000-$15,000, achieved $60,000.

Spring and summer of 2021 proved fruitful for LiveAuctioneers participants who featured vintage Thayer ceramics. In April, Hindman sold a 104-piece service for $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium. In the same month, Hill Auction Gallery of Sunrise, Florida sold a 26-piece service and a platter tray for hammer prices of $3,500 and $1,100, respectively. Also in April, Brunk Auctions of Asheville, North Carolina offered a 35-piece service that realized $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium. And in June, Quinn’s saw a tureen with a September 1972 date sell for $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium.

Six pieces of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware that originally belonged to Palm Beach resident Marjorie S. Fisher sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Six pieces of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware that originally belonged to Palm Beach resident Marjorie S. Fisher sold for $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2017. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Provenance can, and does, affect auctions of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware. It clearly influenced the price witnessed at Sotheby’s, even though the sole famous name attached to the service was Buatta’s. Libby Davis, a decorative arts specialist at Brunk, cites a May 2017 outcome at her company for six pieces that originally belonged to Palm Beach doyenne Marjorie S. Fisher. “The lot had an estimate of $800-$1,200 and sold for $4,250. The estimate was conservative, but provenance also played a big role in its success,” Davis said.

A pair of kidney-shaped plates were among the 35 pieces in a Dodie Thayer lettuce ware set that sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A pair of kidney-shaped plates were among the 35 pieces in a Dodie Thayer lettuce ware set that sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

But famous names only go so far. The visual appeal and the fundamental quality of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware ensured that it endured past its time as the hot-must-have of the 1960s and 1970s and stopped it from falling out of fashion. “Curated table decor and tablescapes for entertaining are certainly making a comeback, but there are also collectors who value the pieces purely for their decorative quality – especially the tureens,” Davis said. “Dodie Thayer’s wares are whimsical and humorous, but from a practical standpoint, they are also well-made durable wares.”

A 26-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware dinner and tea service, which included a tall pitcher, achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A 26-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware dinner and tea service, which included a tall pitcher, achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Cliff Dunn, a licensed auctioneer at Hill Auction Gallery, concurs. “We have sold some of her pieces in connection with ‘named’ estate sales, but the power of Mrs. Thayer’s name seems to stand on its own as an engine that drives sales for her pottery,” he said, and added, “The popularity of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware has only increased over time. As my Uncle Sonny would say, ‘There’s cabbage in that lettuce.’”

A Dodie Thayer lettuce ware platter sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A Dodie Thayer lettuce ware platter sold for $1,100 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

But Dodie Thayer’s lettuce ware didn’t just survive its initial moment in the Palm Beach sun. Its popularity outlived Thayer, who died in 2018 at the age of 92, and it outlived the culture for which it was made. In mid-20th-century America, luncheons and dinner parties were routine aspects of the social calendar. We now live in an age of “Sure, come over and we’ll do whatever and order a pizza,” but individual Dodie Thayer lettuce ware tureens still win four-figure sums at auction, a feat that few ceramics of its era, or any era, can achieve.

Another image of the 26-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware dinner and tea service that achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Another image of the 26-piece Dodie Thayer lettuce ware dinner and tea service that achieved $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hill Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Some owners do indeed use their pieces. Corbin Horn, Hindman’s Director & Senior Specialist of European Furniture and Decorative Arts, said, “We have known clients who set an elaborate lunch with their lettuce ware, and we have known clients who bought lettuce ware to fill an extraordinary English lacquered bookcase.”

Quinn typically endorses honoring functional objects by enjoying them as intended, but he hesitates when he considers the notion of ladling bone broth or vichyssoisse out of the leafy ceramic folds of a Thayer tureen. “I encourage everybody to use [what they purchase at auction]. That said, if I owned a Dodie Thayer lettuce ware tureen, I’d put it in the center of a table and I wouldn’t put anything in it,” he said. “I don’t believe I would use one of these. It’s too glorious.”

While there are subtle variations between Thayer lettuce wares produced during different periods of her career, they matter little to connoisseurs.

“Collectors want authentic, handmade Thayer wares, and they seem satisfied to acquire a signed piece regardless of the age,” Horn said. “The earlier pieces can have a slightly paler green color, and less elaborate leaf details. This might appeal to some collectors, or it might not. It is a matter of preference.”

Detail shot of Dodie Thayer’s signature on a featured object from a massive 104-piece lettuce ware service that sold for $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Detail shot of Dodie Thayer’s signature on a featured object from a massive 104-piece lettuce ware service that sold for $32,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Of course, condition is paramount. “Thayer collectors, like glass collectors, demand perfection. No one wants chipped ceramics,” Horn said, noting, “Chips and small glue repairs are common. The edges of leaves, which are modeled as curling outward on the more valuable pieces, such as tureens, are particularly vulnerable.”

A 35-piece set of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A 35-piece set of Dodie Thayer lettuce ware sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The general consensus on the market for Dodie Thayer lettuce ware points to a bright future, and recent auction results reinforce that idea.

“The desire for lettuce ware is only going up, especially with design trends like ‘Southern maximalism’ and the ‘grand millennial’ on the rise,” Davis said. “Search for the hashtag #lettuceware on Instagram and you’ll see that it is in a league of its own.”

Long after the ladies who lunch vanish from cultural memory, Dodie Thayer lettuce ware will continue to turn heads and lift auction paddles, because it’s simply that good. “I think it gets back to having presence. I don’t care if you know you’re going to see it, but if you see it, you go ‘Wow.’ I teach my team to look for the wow factor,” Quinn said. “If you see a Dodie Thayer tureen, you know you’re going to see a beautiful piece, and you’re still impressed by it. That’s what we look for in art. It’s a wow piece. It has presence. There are plenty of tureens out there. This is a piece of art.”

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