With its tactile glazes and sleek, often sensuous shapes, American art pottery has been captivating collectors for decades. Fans of PBS-TV’s “Antiques Roadshow” are acquainted with these ceramics and the prices the best of them can fetch. They also know Suzanne Perrault, an expert on art pottery who has been doing on-camera appraisals on the show since its first season 15 years ago.
Perrault, who heads cataloguing at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville and co-directs its department of 20th century design, is the guest speaker on Saturday, September 25, the opening day of the Historical Society of Princeton’s Fall Antiques and Fine Arts Show. The annual, weekend-long event is held at Princeton Airport. On Sunday, September 26, Rago Arts will hold an appraisal clinic at the show, with experts in silver, jewelry, 18th to 20th century decorative arts, coins, currency, fine art, and ethnographics, who will advise how much treasures might be worth.
Perrault’s talk, “A Roving Eye,” is an inside look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently acquired Robert A. Ellison American Art Pottery Collection. Donated to the Met by the collector last year, it is a blockbuster of a gift — 250 pieces created by some of the greatest late-19th and early-20th-century American potters. These pieces range in size from miniature vessels only a few inches tall to lamps, plaques, and large-scale vases more than two feet in height. Ellison’s collection, which is estimated to be worth $15 to $20 million, includes works by such masters as George E. Ohr, William H. Grueby, and the Rookwood, Marblehead, and Saturday Evening Girls potteries.
“There are some examples of very elusive pottery, very rare,” says Perrault. “If you’re not really into this, you may be taken by the aesthetics of it but you won’t be aware of how rare it is.”
Ellison is a painter who began casually collecting art pottery in the early 1960s. One of his first purchases was a white crackled-glaze plate decorated with blue rabbits, made in New England around the turn of the century. Prices were low at the time, and Ellison began to buy more pieces. By the time he decided to donate to the Met, he had amassed hundreds of examples of American and European ceramics. The market for them has skyrocketed since Ellison first began to collect. Last year, a Newcomb College Art Pottery vase made in 1904 sold for $169,200 at an auction in New Orleans.
“He is one of those unusual collectors who has a great eye, the means, the focus, and the time, and he could really build the best collection,” says Perrault. “My personal theory about that first piece he bought years ago is that it might have been something he had had in his past. It might have had some happy association for him, and that’s what attracted him.”
As a condition of his gift to the Met, Ellison wanted his collection to be shown on its own at first, and requested that the museum prepare a book about it. The pieces are displayed on a new glass-fronted mezzanine level of the Charles Engelhard Court, in the renovated American Wing.
It was the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 that introduced the American public to high quality ceramics from Europe and Asia. Until then, there was stoneware, folkware, and pieces that were derivative of British or German styles, says Perrault. “There were potteries all around the country. And we realized, at the Philadelphia Centennial, that we were at a point in our collective culture where we didn’t need to focus only on the utilitarian,” she says. “We were ripe enough as a nation to invest time and resources into things that were not as necessary.”
Working with her husband and partner, David Rago, at Rago Arts and Auction Center and on “Antiques Roadshow,” Perrault has appraised countless examples of decorative ceramics and porcelain from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. She is a frequent lecturer and an author. Her most recent book is “Miller’s American Art Pottery: Treasure or Not?,” written with Rago. She also contributed her expertise on tiles to his “American Art Pottery” and co-wrote the introductory chapter of “American Art Tile” by Norman Karlson.
A former fashion model, Perrault was raised in a suburb of Montreal and studied art history and literature at McGill University. Her parents were big museum-goers, and the house was full of art books.
Perrault’s father is an engineer, venture capitalist, and professor of economics. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom who volunteered for the mentally retarded. “(My parents) were not directly involved in art, but it was certainly important in our house,” says Perrault. “My father used to show me pictures in art books and talk to me about them all the time.”
Perrault became an independent antiques dealer after serving an apprenticeship with Barton Kaplan Antiques in New York. It was there that she met Rago, a Trenton native and well-known dealer in ceramics who ran important auctions at New York’s Puck Building. The two opened the Perrault-Rago Gallery in 1991; Rago Arts and Auction Center opened in Lambertville in 1995.
Perrault’s specialty is the art tile, an interest inspired by the tiles that line the walls of many of New York’s subway stations. She founded the New York Decorative Ceramics Society in 1994 and curated an all-tile exhibition and sale a year later for New York’s famous Triple Pier Antiques Show. In 1996 she curated an exhibition at Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms museum entitled “Women’s Work: The Role of Women in the Arts & Crafts Movement.”
It was in the same year as the Stickley show that Perrault accepted an offer to serve as an appraiser for a little-known PBS program called “Antiques Roadshow,” based on a series that was already a hit in Britain. For the now wildly popular show, Perrault and a cadre of dealers (including Rago) travel to locations across the country to assess the value of antiques that people bring in. While the occasional discovery of an exciting piece of ceramics is rewarding both for her and the hopeful owners who may have been storing it in their attic or basement, the joy of the show, for Perrault, is the relationships it has fostered with fellow dealers.
“Of course, it’s nice to find a lovely piece of Ohr,” she says. “But to me, it’s like selling things at auction: It comes and goes.
“I find that the personal aspect is much richer. There is this wonderful, behind-the-scenes camaraderie between the dealers. When we started it 15 seasons ago, all of the appraisers would stick to themselves. There was a lot of competition during the day of taping. But through the years, because we all need each other’s help and work together at long tables by specific specialties, we all got to know and rely on each other. It’s like ‘antiques camp.’ We’ve become friendly with so many people whom we wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise. That, plus seeing the public’s attitude change over the years, is what I love. Folks are happy we are there.”
Antiques and Art Show, Historical Society of Princeton, Princeton Airport, Route 206. Saturday, September 25, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday, September 26, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Antiques and fine arts to benefit educational programs, exhibitions, and collections care.
On Saturday, September 25, 2:30 p.m., in the show cafe, Suzanne Perrault of Antiques Roadshow presents “A Roving Eye,” an inside look at the Robert A. Ellison American Art Pottery Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On Sunday, September 26, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., appraisal clinic, courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville; first come, first served. 609-921-6748 or www.princetonhistory.org.