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Pottery on the Block

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the world’s finest collections of British art pottery has long been tucked away in a rambling Hollywood Hills Spanish-style house said to have once housed movie mogul Jack Warner. Reputed to rival the holdings of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the collection was assembled by two Americans, Allen Harriman and Edward Judd, who got the bug in the late 1970s--and got it bad--buying more than 3,000 objects in less than a decade, before Harriman’s death in 1985.

Now 800 pieces from their holdings, with an estimated value of $1.54 million to $2.26 million, are coming up for auction at Sotheby’s--500 at a live auction Monday in New York, and an additional 300 are being sold through https://www.sothebys.com through Feb. 7.

“They certainly put together the largest collection [of its kind],” says Barbara Deisroth, vice president of decorative work of art for Sotheby’s, by phone from New York, “but they were also astute buyers and managed to get the best.”

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Judd died in 1999, and his surviving partner, architect Cary Stevens, continues to live in the house. Despite what’s been removed, Stevens points out on a casual tour of the first floor, plenty of works remain--at Judd’s death, the collection included about 4,000 pieces.

Stoneware pots and vases and objets d'art greet the visitor at every turn, sprinkled throughout the living room, study, dining room, kitchen and the pantry. Some are on tabletops and counters, others are displayed in cases, cupboards and shelves.

The spillover is tucked into nooks and crannies, closets and even the many compartments of an old-fashioned ice chest.

Works similar to those in Sotheby’s auction can be seen here--from turn-of-the-20th-century Royal Doulton vases and Pilkington’s Royal Lancastrian plates and ginger jars to Della Robbia pottery, also from that era. There are also sleek, modernist pieces by mid-to-late-20th century craftsmen like Bernard Leach, Hans Coper and Dame Lucie Rie.

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However, many important works are gone, among them the History of England vase (circa 1892) by Doulton Lambeth, meticulously adorned with figurines of the British monarchs. One of the collection’s largest and most expensive items, it graced a corner of the living room and is now being offered at an estimated value of $80,000 to $120,000.

Asked if there is any particular order to the arrangement of objects, Stevens, who has lived in the house since 1987, laughs quietly. “There used to be many many more pots everywhere. My role has been in organizing and categorizing. Edward was a wonderful collector, but once an object was acquired there was no further thought given as to where to put it or how to display it, and that’s where I came in. Things are generally organized in groups that have something to do with each other, either being by the same manufacturer or complementary in shape or size.”

He points out that objects by the Martin Bros., active at the turn of the last century, are mostly displayed in the living room, ranging from exquisite little vases a few inches high to foot-high “Wally” birds--tobacco jars in the shape of grotesque birds with furrowed brows and pointy beaks. Were these among Judd’s favorite? “Yes,” he admits, and they are also the objects Stevens himself unexpectedly took to. “They’re very strange,” he says. “There’s a scary part and a humorous part in them.”

Harriman and Judd were both life partners and business partners--they founded the successful Coin Dealer’s Newsletter. They got into the market for British art pottery when prices were low and a lot of work was available.

“They were the most enthusiastic collectors,” Deisroth says, “so people knew about them, and they were often offered the best pieces.” And buy, buy, buy they did. Moving through their residence, one strongly feels that each object has a story--or stories. First, the story of each work’s manufacture and cultural history, but also that of its acquisition. In their fervor, the two men became so obsessed with quantity and quality that they made more than half a dozen trips to England a year, frequenting dealers and auctions, making friends with others in the field and developing a social life there.

Asked to provide an example of their hunting style, Stevens laughs and reaches behind him on the sofa to pull out a Doulton pitcher, about 10 inches high, with the head of a fish and the body of a man. Once, during a lecture at Sotheby’s London by ceramics expert Peter Rose, Harriman and Judd saw a photograph of the pitcher. Rose mentioned that the object was on sale at a local dealer. The two unceremoniously jumped up, raced to the dealer, bought the pitcher and returned in time to hear the end of the lecture.

After Harriman’s death, Judd continued to collect, but at a slower and more considered pace. When Stevens entered his life, they collected together, buying only a few hundred pieces more. Stevens is philosophical about letting the collection go--these are intended to be the first of a series of sales. “The time has come to let it go back out into the world,” he says, “and drift around and let others enjoy it.”

Stevens does plan to hold onto some favorite pieces. “I continue to be surprised by this collection,” he admits. “Even today I see an object, and I look at it in a different light or different angle and I see it in a way I didn’t before. So I’m learning to appreciate it more and more all the time.”


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