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Betty Lou Fever : Late Fullerton Artist’s Ceramic Head Vases Fire Up Renewed Interest

Yep, that was a vintage Betty Lou vase, all right, stuffed under a table at a flea market in Michigan.

The collector braced herself. How much?

She happily paid the $1 asking price and then promptly sold it--for $850.

Nationwide, antique dealers are snapping up the head-shaped vases that were popularized in the late 1940s by Fullerton artist Betty Lou Nichols before the craze waned about 20 years later.

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Nichols died in August at the age of 72, just as the popularity of the quaint ceramic vases--which she began making with clay and a rolling pin on her parents’ kitchen table--began resurging.

“She would have gotten a big kick out of it,” said her husband, John Nichols, 74, who still lives in the Fullerton house they bought in 1946.

These days, head vases show up in hip movies such as “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” At the annual Head Hunters Convention in Florida, hundreds of collectors shop for vases shaped like the heads of chickens, Elvises, Virgin Marys and others--some with their 59-cent price tag still attached from the dime store.

Last year, a Marilyn Monroe head vase sold for a record $2,800.

In postmodern retro head hunting, there are two prized finds: celebrity heads and Betty Lous.

Betty Lous are not the heads of famous people.

They tend to be women in Gay ‘90s-style with big hats and big curls, perfect cheekbones and perfect skin. They are painted in soft hues such as periwinkle, plum and mint. The trademark Betty Lou look: to-die-for eyelashes lowered in perpetual coquetry.

She produced thousands of heads, creating the basic shapes from a mold, as other makers did. But she was the only maker who added handmade details such as ruffles, lace and bows made of clay from Kentucky and Tennessee. That’s why, collectors say, every Betty Lou looks different.

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Betty Lou collectors know her vases without checking for the signature on the bottom.

“I fell in love with them,” said New York collector Maddy Gordon, editor of the international Head Hunters newsletter and organizer of the annual convention.

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“To me, hers are the most outstanding of all. . . . It’s a shame she didn’t get all the recognition she deserved while she was around to appreciate it.”

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Betty Lou Nichols, who grew up in Fullerton, always wanted to be an artist, her husband said. She studied art at Fullerton Junior College, where she got into ceramics.

During World War II, while her husband was stationed overseas, she started to play around with ceramics in the kitchen of her parents’ house in La Habra. In 1947, when John Nichols was discharged from the Army, she came up with the idea of making head vases. John Nichols isn’t sure how.

In Europe, head vases date back to late 19th century France, said Kathleen Cole, the Memphis author of The Encyclopedia of Head Vases.

But experts credit Betty Lou Nichols with fueling the head vase craze in the United States. Her work apparently filled a void left in the ceramics trade when the import business from Germany and Japan dried up because of the war, said Cole, whose friend made the Betty Lou find at the Michigan flea market.

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Betty Lou Nichols’ business immediately took off, said her husband, a retired contracts manager. In 1949, she opened a studio in La Habra with 30 workers. But she soon became a victim of her own success.

In the late 1950s, copycats followed, flooding the market. Eventually, florists stopped ordering the head vases because they were too small to fit big bouquets, and collectors tired of them.

In 1962, at the age of 40, Betty Lou Nichols quit the head vase business. She turned to painting and raising her two children.

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For a while, people tucked their head vases away in attics.

And then in 1989, Cole wrote her first book on head vases after a friend got her hooked. Other books followed, and then came the Head Hunters newsletter and convention.

A couple years ago, just as the vases started to get hot again, one headhunting conventioneer visited Betty Lou Nichols, who had suffered two strokes.

“Where were you when I needed you?” she reportedly asked him.

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Now, antique dealers such as Jan Fontes hit trade shows across the country in search of Betty Lous.

“Find me some,” joked Fontes, co-owner of the Antique Gallery in Fullerton, who gets calls from dealers making the same request.

John Nichols gets hit up too. But don’t bother asking.

“What I have,” he said, “I’m not going to sell.”

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