Much of the beauty of pottery lies in its fragility. A broad term that refers to vessels made from fired clays, pottery can include contemporary or ancient vessels, tiles, sculpture and dolls.
Naturally, pottery varies wildly in value. For instance, Red Wing Pottery (salt glaze vessels made by German immigrants to Minnesota in the mid 19th century) is highly collectible, with two rare early pieces selling for $40,000 each. A 10-gallon butter churn with its original lid will typically sell for up to $2,500. One of the most impressive pottery collections of American masters—the Robert A. Ellison Jr. collection now residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—is said to be worth as much as $20 million, and includes the matte-green Arts and Crafts pieces of William H. Grueby, and George E. Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi.”
As different as kiln-fired ceramic can look and feel, it also varies in durability, which is why the chief concern among most pottery owners is preserving their precious goods. Whether your piece is an ancient Native American vessel or a contemporary pottery art piece, these tips from Dr. Nancy Odegaard, head of the Preservation Division of the Arizona State Museum, hold true:
Forget its function
Low-fired pottery such as that traditionally made by American Indian artisans as utilitarian water jars and serving bowls is porous and absorbs water easily, making it sensitive to erosion and salt damage. Display them as decorative art.
Handle with care
Find a place for your pottery, and try not to move it. The main danger to decorative ceramics is poor handling. Weak joins between handles and body, thin rims … they’re all breaking dangers the more they’re moved. Use both hands, lift from the base and wear gloves to avoid fingerprints on the surface.
Especially for porous pottery, avoid cleaning. If you must, use a soft brush, but don’t agitate the surface, and definitely don’t use water. Pottery that is unevenly fired or simply baked may dissolve. The Association of Art & Antiques Dealers and others have tips on cleaning antique pottery on their websites.
Conservators are specially trained in repairing and restoring antique pottery. A bad DIY job can ruin the value of your piece, where a professional repair can preserve its integrity. The simple solution is this: If you’re unsure about your piece, leave it to a professional.