A Hans Coper vase has sold at auction in Devon for a record £381,000, the highest price ever paid for a piece of modern and contemporary studio pottery. The sale caught not just the seller – a pensioner whose husband had paid £250 for the item in the 1970s – but the entire market unawares.
The owner took the vase to an open valuation day at her local auction house, Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter. Less fond than her late husband of its uncompromising aesthetics, she had kept the vase in a cupboard after his death. Auctioneer Nic Saintey told the Guardian that he knew immediately that it was a Hans Coper, but thought the seller, who had brought it in a shoebox, might not.
In fact, the seller was aware, though did not expect the value to be the £5,000-6,000 Saintey first estimated it to be.
“It’s a shame you haven’t got any Lucie Rie,” Saintey told her, referring to the Austrian master potter who made the most expensive studio pottery piece sold, a minimalist white bowl with concentric biro-blue lines, which sold in late 2016 for $212,500 (£173,000).
Saintey suggested she put the vase back in the box – several enthusiastic buyers were within earshot – and arranged for a home visit.
Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood proceeded to put both the Coper and the Rie on sale, upping Saintey’s estimate for the former to £20,000, but still anticipating the latter would take the lead. That a Coper should go for twice as much as the previous Rie record was unexpected.
“It was a perfect storm of a sale,” says Saintey. “It was unprecedented: two very big buyers, who, from about the £50k-60k mark, were just slugging it out. Quite often you’ll get two people who are very keen for the same item, but that keen? It went for 20 times the estimate.”
Until this sale, the record for a Coper work was £181,250 – a mural made up of several circular stoneware elements, the largest measuring 60cm in diameter. By contrast, the piece sold in Devon is a slender arrowhead-shaped vase, standing about two hands high.
It is from Coper’s 1970s Cycladic series, which draws on the highly stylised geometric forms typical of early bronze age Aegean figures. Melding the ancient with the modern, abstract yet functional (it is a vase that can house a single flower stem), the vessel exemplifies why his work is so sought after.
Coper and Rie came to Britain in the late 1930s, fleeing the Nazi regimes in their native Germany and Austria respectively. While Rie was a trained potter who went on to teach at the Royal College of Art and died in 1995 with an OBE, CBE and a DBE to her name, Coper arrived with no training. It was as Rie’s assistant that he found his way into pottery.
Jason Wood, a ceramics specialist at Adam Partridge auctioneers in Leeds, says that Cooper and Rie have particular artistic cachet in the UK due to their roots in middle Europe and ties to the Bauhaus movement.
“From the start, their work appealed to a more contemporary audience in the 1950s and 1960s, and they were consequently given more recognition. Records were set pretty early on, and their modernist appeal still resonates today.”
Wood valued a previous record-breaking sale of Coper and Rie pieces, the Alan and Pat Firth collection, which sold in 2015 for almost £1m (£990,679); accumulated over 40 years, it had cost the Firths £27,000 in total. When the family decided to sell that hoard, it was simply to clear out the property – at the time, Wood spoke of their emotion at realising the collection was worth 10 times more than the house itself.
Coper has always had a small but established and somewhat exclusive collector base. Wood puts the high prices his work is fetching down to his upcoming centenary two years away. He suspects a number of collectors are vying to acquire the best collection with which to impress a global audience.
Coper died in 1981, aged 61; the scarcity of his output has also driven up prices.
Quite who Coper’s collectors are remains shrouded in mystery. The pieces at Adam Partridge auctions have been to sold not to the buyers themselves, but their agents. It is an international market, with Coper pieces in major collections both private and public, including the Met and the V&A. All that is known of the Devon buyer is that they are UK-based.
Since the Devon auction, Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood has had more than a few inquiries from hopeful Coper owners. Whether this sale confirms a rising trend or simply a remarkable spike, remains to be seen.
For buyers priced out of the Lucy Rie and Hans Coper market, Wood suggests collectors look out for Emmanuel Cooper, the British-Yemeni potter Abdo Nagi and Coper’s student, John Ward.