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Weller made its mark at St. Louis World’s Fair

A LiveAuctioneers bidder won this beautiful pair of 22-inch-high Weller Sicard pottery vases for $10,000 + buyer’s premium at Heritage Auctions in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – At the turn of the 20th century, Ohio was a hotbed for art pottery, particularly in Zanesville, where a combination of rich clay deposits and natural resources such as coal and gas aided ceramics production. Rookwood in Cincinnati was world famous but 150 miles away, potters in Zanesville not only sought to emulate Rookwood but make their own mark on the industry.

Among Zanesville potters, perhaps none is as well known as Weller Pottery, which began humbly in 1872. Founder Samuel A. Weller began his company in a small cabin with a single kiln in nearby Fultonham, 11 miles away, but soon moved to Zanesville. By the early 1900s, he had grown the company there to be the largest potter in the country, employing around 500 people. It made and hand-decorated mostly pedestrian pottery from flowerpots and crocks to dishes and vases as well as whimsical and beautiful garden ornaments from gnomes to swans. It is also recognized for a handful of exceptional and elegant pieces, some of which received acclaim internationally, such as at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

A rare Weller preening swan garden ornament from the 1910s went for $7,000 + buyer’s premium in October 2015 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. It measured 15in x 22in x 11in. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Among Weller’s renowned pottery lines were Sicard, Hudson, Hobart, Dickensware, Eosian (also spelled Eocean), Louwelsa and Aurelian. From heavy slip decoration, skilled artistry and craftsmanship to high gloss finishes and masterful color blending, the company was skilled at pottery. In its heyday, before switching to mass-produced and molded pieces in the 1930s, Weller employed several talented chemists and designers who developed some of these striking lines that were decorated by talented artists such as Ed Pickens and Eugene Roberts.

Pictured against a showcase of smaller Weller pieces, this 4-foot-tall Weller Aurelian vase may have been made for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The lifelike grape decoration was done by Weller artist Eugene Roberts. It sold in November 2016 for $5,250 + buyer’s premium. Photo courtesy of Humler & Nolan and LiveAuctioneer

The most famous of these include English native Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880–1942), a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement, and French chemist Jacques Sicard, who notably developed the Sicard line for Weller that has a lustrous metallic finish. Unlike others in his position at Weller, Sicard refused to share his formula with his employer. He closely guarded his formula secrets (reportedly only speaking a French-Swiss dialect to his assistant as they worked in a locked room in the factory). Sam Weller failed in his efforts to obtain Sicard’s secret formula and tried unsuccessfully to replicate it after Sicard left the company to return to France.

The largest known Weller Sicard vase, standing 30 inches tall, originally from Sam Weller’s home in Zanesville, brought $14,000 + buyer’s premium in January 2016. Photo courtesy of California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers

Riley Humler, auction director and art pottery expert at Humler & Nolan in Cincinnati, said while Weller made many standard items, every so often there are unusual items that just show up.

“Weller is an interesting company. They were in business for a long period of time and the things that we see that fascinate me are the number of unique things that Weller produced,” he said. “There is a regular line of stuff that you can kind of depend on with Weller and then there are lots of these oddball pieces that just kind of make you scratch your head like ‘How did that happen’ and ‘Why did Sam let that happen?’ I think maybe there was intent to mass-produce some of these items but it never happened. That’s one of the fun things about them – we enjoy those pieces that you just don’t expect to see and suddenly there they are.”

A 27½-inch-tall Weller Hudson scenic vase painted by Hester Pillsbury made $17,000 + buyer’s premium in June 2019 at a Humler & Nolan art pottery auction. Photo courtesy of Humler & Nolan and LiveAuctioneers

Probably one of the best lines of Weller was its Sicard line, Humler noted. Sicard was one of a handful of pottery chemists in France doing what was called reflective metal pieces with high luster glazes. “Weller brought Sicard over to make a similar line at Weller, which he did for a number of years,” he said. “Sicard produced pieces under the Weller heading and when they are good, they are really spectacular. They were so good that Sicard pieces were actually sold at Tiffany’s in New York, so they are very popular,” he said.

Humler retains a fondness for the Dickensware line and calls it an interesting variation, even though he said it has now fallen on hard times. “People don’t seem to like it as much but some of the portraits that were done at Weller in the Dickensware line are really quite nice and deserve more attention than they particularly get,” he said.

An 11-inch-tall Second Line Dickensware vase bears a portrait of Chief Hollow Horn Bear that was incised by Gordon Mull and painted by Charles Upjohn in 1901. It sold for $1,000 + buyer’s premium in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Humler & Nolan and LiveAuctioneers

Among the best-selling Weller pieces are ones made for the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), where the company had a major presence. Some of its exhibition pieces made for the fair were massive, standing over 4 feet tall. “The World’s Fair was a big extravaganza for Weller and I think they were the only company to exhibit there that actually made things at the fair, not just bringing things but actually had people there throwing pots,” Humler said.

While Weller was more influenced by others, particularly Rookwood, than being an influencer, it did create some innovative pieces, cementing its legacy in the history of American art pottery. By the time the Depression began, the company was struggling and as World War II ended, so did Weller, closing its doors in 1948.

Weller pottery is still highly collectible today, though. “I think Weller deserves a lot of credit for some of the interesting and innovative things they have done over the years,” Humler said. “Again, a lot of the oddball pieces that come out of Weller that you don’t expect to see are the ones that make it interesting for me. They are just some of the most fun things that I see in terms of pottery, not always the most saleable but some of the stuff they did is just fantastic.”