- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

CINCINNATI — Art pottery that is acclaimed internationally for the quality of its decoration and glazes still draws collectors and fans almost 40 years after the company that created it closed. Now Rookwood Pottery Co., founded in 1880, is preparing for a rebirth.

A group of Cincinnati investors bought Rookwood’s assets, including more than 1,000 molds, thousands of glaze recipes and corporate notes, for an undisclosed sum. They plan to resume production of high-end ceramic tiles and other architectural products at a temporary facility and later add art pottery.

The company, known especially for its vases, bowls, pitchers and other decorative art pieces, won numerous awards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1900, it won the prestigious grand prize at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

“Rookwood was one of the biggest success stories early in the art-pottery movement, and it attracted a diverse group of very talented artists and decorators,” says David Barquist, curator of American decorative arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It also produced … a large volume and was excellent at marketing and getting national distribution of its wares.”

Vintage Rookwood ceramic art pottery is still highly sought by private collectors and is exhibited in hundreds of museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rookwood tiles used around fireplaces and other parts of buildings are still found in older homes and public facilities, including the New York subway system.

Christopher Rose, president and chief executive of the new Rookwood Pottery, says the company plans to emulate the early quality without imitating vintage pieces, even though it will use some of the original molds.

“My vision is to grow this company, reintroducing a brand already known worldwide and re-educating the public about Rookwood’s achievements,” he says.

The company plans to offer items that the average person can afford as well as high-end products.

The Cincinnati Museum of Art’s collection of more than 300 Rookwood pieces includes a black iris glazed vase decorated with flying cranes and lotus blossoms that sold for $350,750 in 2004 — setting a record price at auction for any piece of American art pottery.

“Rookwood was absolutely one of the best of the American art potteries operating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Barbara Perry, curator of decorative arts at the Mint Art Museum in Charlotte, N.C. “I think their decoration by artists trained in fine art was probably the best, and the colors were so rich and deep.”

Unique glazes — glass coverings over ceramics — also contributed greatly to Rookwood’s reputation, says Anita Ellis, the Cincinnati museum’s chief curator, who has written books on Rookwood. “Rookwood glazes had richness you don’t see in other pieces of the same time period.”

Owners of the new Rookwood plan to build a permanent facility within two years to draw visitors and spur surrounding economic growth. It will feature manufacturing tours, a retail store, a cafe and the history of the company, which was formed by a wealthy Cincinnati woman, Maria Longworth Nichols.

She began painting blank china as a hobby and then started experimenting with clays, glazes and decorating. She formed Rookwood Pottery in 1880, bringing in chemists to perfect glazes and fine artists to paint the decorations. In 1883, she hired William Watts Taylor as manager.

“She made Rookwood, but he made it great,” Ms. Ellis says while pointing out Rookwood’s many awards.

The difficulty of getting materials and making and selling luxury items amid two World Wars and the Great Depression, combined with changing tastes in pottery, left the company struggling to survive by the 1950s. The facility was shuttered in 1960, and new owners moved operations to Starkville, Miss., where the company finally closed in 1967.

Arthur Townley, a dentist and collector, bought Rookwood’s assets in 1982, producing just enough paperweights and other small items to meet trademark and copyright requirements.

“I always thought of myself as Rookwood’s caretaker until it could return to Cincinnati,” says Dr. Townley, 80. “To me, Rookwood is very personal. I didn’t want the rights sold to some overseas company that would mass-produce something cheap.”

Dr. Townley says he sold the assets when he was convinced that Mr. Rose’s group would maintain Rookwood standards.

David Rago, a frequent appraiser on the PBS TV series “Antiques Roadshow,” says that won’t be easy.

“They’ll have a tight line to walk to live up to the original standards and make their mark as a new company that can create commercially viable products,” Mr. Rago says. “Trying to do artist-decorated pieces at today’s costs could leave them bucking up against similarly priced period pieces.”

Mr. Rose says that’s one reason the company will start with architectural pieces that can be produced efficiently while maintaining Rookwood’s standards of quality.

“Rookwood eventually tried to do too much,” Mr. Rose says. “We’re taking it a step at a time.”

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