By Richard D. Mohr
From Issue 21
In the previous issue of American Bungalow, author Richard Mohr wrote with passion about starting a tile collection—how to choose a theme, the relative importance of signatures and “top” potteries, and how to weigh overall quality. We invite you to enjoy more of his whimsical treatise, gleaned from a dozen years of tile collecting—an experience he calls “a great joy and adventure.”
In my earlier installment, I explained that at one time or another I’ve made every possible tile collector’s mistake. Here are a few more suggestions on avoiding some of the pitfalls that make neophyte collectors grind their teeth at night.
Framed Tiles: Caveat Emptor
Don’t buy a framed tile unless you have first seen the tile out of the frame. A frame can easily hide a half-inch-wide chip, especially at a corner. Frames also make it hard to discern hairline cracks that would be obvious if the tile could be examined from the side. Some auction houses have become particularly bad along these lines, framing their tiles in ways that positively discourage inspection. Don’t be an exploited yuppie; either be pushy and insist on seeing the tile in the buff or pass on it. And I can assure you this: If your auctioneer’s concept of “mint” is as wide as the Mississippi when it comes to vases, it will be as wide as the Pacific when it comes to tiles.
You shouldn’t be paralyzed by actual damage or by worry that a piece might be damaged, but you deserve to know what you are buying—especially since the market has not yet properly calibrated price to damage and continues to treat tiles like vases, for which any damage automatically results in a discount of at least 50 percent.
If damage on a tile does draw your eye, have the tile repaired. The mend need not be a professional invisible repair of the sort favored for vases. Instead, consider simply having the tile touched up—repaired just to the point where the damage doesn’t “read.” Frequently this work can be done by having a chip or ding colored in without being filled in.
Consider alternatives to the current trend of having even damage-free tiles framed for display. Tiles look great on plate stands. Play around—try stands of different styles, sizes and materials (wood, metal, Plexiglas, plastic tubing). Plate stands are pretty much the only effective way to display round and hexagonal tiles.
With the exception of plaques by Low, Rookwood and Newcomb College, art tiles were not sold in frames— nor with framing in mind. Tiles are architectural chunks, not pretty pictures. To frame a tile is to diminish its “tileness,” to push it in the direction of being something it is not. A tile, when framed, loses its three dimensionality and its architectural bearings.
That said, sometimes tiles have to be framed in order to be displayed at all. I own a two-tile vertical section of a Newcomb College fireplace surround. There’s no way to display these tiles together on plate stands or indeed in any other way than by framing them. And they look great in their custom-built quartersawn oak frame. Folks with children careening through the house will also take comfort if their tiles are framed and hanging high on a wall.
It matters—a lot. In pricing, a tile is like a Persian carpet. Price rises exponentially with dimension. The larger the tile, the more expensive it is per square inch. A single eight-inch square tile is worth many times more than four four-inch tiles of the same quality, and is worth about two and a half to three times as much as a single tile of six inches—the standard size for art tiles. Ten- and 12-inch tiles carry even higher premiums and are so rare that there isn’t anything approaching a “book” price for them. This escalating price framework is not just a whim of the antiques market; as the size of a tile increases, it becomes harder and harder to make. Large tiles are unwieldy when wet and prone to warp, crack or explode in the kiln.
Prices: Too High
The most overpriced tiles now (As of Spring 1999) are Grueby. This may sound odd, for Grueby is probably the greatest American art tile company. But take an especially fine example of Grueby’s six-inch molded landscape tile called “The Pines”—the ultimate Arts and Crafts tile. For its going price—about $3,000—you could buy a nice one-of-a-kind, hand-carved Newcomb College vase. You decide.
The second most overpriced tiles in America are Catalina. They aren’t even that good—either in technique or design, especially when compared to Catalina’s chief competitor, Malibu. And they aren’t that rare, so I’m stumped. Perhaps it’s just the cachet of the name.
Prices: Very Nice
Currently underrated companies include Flint, Franklin, Malibu, American Encaustic, Mosaic and Pewabic, especially the cathedral-quality tiles. All these companies were quite varied in their production and offer great value for money.
Prices: Go For It
Consider tiles by unknown studio artists and by students (so-called “high school” pottery). From roughly 1905 to 1945, tiles were made by the gazillions in schools all over America. These tiles frequently have striking designs. And by the 1920s, art-supply companies like Prang in New York and the American Art Clay Company (AMACO) in Indianapolis were targeting the vast school market with high-quality, ready-mixed glazes. There was a lot of naive genius at work and play out there among the students. Tap into it. Current prices for high school and studio tiles are very reasonable. Use your eye; unleash your instincts. Brave something funky or weird. Here’s an area where your passions are not likely to get you badly burned.
Reproductions and Fakes
It’s a jungle out there. Some of the reproductions and fakes that have been flooding the antique market in the last couple of years are laughably bad; others trip up even the most knowledgeable experts. Companies that are being faked include Grueby, Catalina, Malibu and even Mosaic.
Since 1993, Van Briggle Pottery has been bringing out reproductions of its own circa-1908 tiles, and because these repros are not dated, they have been popping up in the antique world at antique-world prices. The Pewabic and Moravian tile works have had no problems since they date their new reproductions and reissues.
Keep track of tiles at high-end contemporary tile showrooms; they occasionally carry repros—at repro prices. Unscrupulous people sometimes rough up these tiles a bit and then recycle them into the antique world as though they were old.
Trust dealers who have had a lot of experience with tiles. As with all antiques, beware the deal that looks too good to be true. The tile that seems out of place—the only tile in the mall, a California tile table with a show dealer who otherwise carries only British dishes—is doubtless a planted “find.”
The Care and Feeding of Tiles
In general, less is more. Don’t be afraid of a little grime or a bit of grout clinging to your tile. Still, don’t needlessly besmirch your tiles by letting dealers wrap them in newsprint. Ink and graphite are hell—or impossible—to get out of matte surfaces.
You can safely clean most tiles with plain soap and water (though some Muresque tiles have glazes so delicate that they will dissolve in water). To loosen grout and cement, first try soaking your tile in vinegar. It is safe, but frequently not very effective. Beyond this treatment, enter at your own risk. Long baths in a one-third solution of muriatic acid will gradually remove cement, but muriatic acid will also discolor some glazes. If possible, test a broken tile first. Avoid using paint removers. Along with the paint, they will remove the glaze from many California tiles (Batchelder, California Art Tile, Claycraft, Muresque).
Resist the temptation to whack away at cement and grout with metal instruments—hammers, chisels, table knives. On at least one swing, you will miss the cement and kill the tile. Large encrustations of cement can be hewn off the backs of tiles with the right sort of diamond-blade circular saw. And very fine motorized orbital sanders can be used for detail work. Practice on shards first. If you need to scrape grout or gunk off the surface of your tile, use wooden, not metal, instruments. Use chopsticks, popsicle sticks or tongue depressors, not knives, screwdrivers and files. For consultation and restoration work, contact the Tile Restoration Center in Seattle.
In general, tiles are sturdier than vases. Still, special precautions are required for storage and transport. Stack tiles vertically, not horizontally. Compression can trigger hairlines or worse. The main thing, though, is to keep tiles from clanging against each other. Let houseguests handle only one tile at a time. If a guest gets a tile in each hand, he’ll start flipping them about fan fashion to examine their various facets, and before you know it—wham-mo—you’ve got two tiles with damage that could easily have been avoided. “One tile at a time” is probably a good rule for you, the owner, to follow as well when rearranging, photographing or preparing to pack your tiles. Avoid the temptation to stack two or three tiles between the fingers of one hand as though they were dishes and you were emptying the dishwasher quickly.
When transporting or shipping tiles, many experienced tile dealers simply interleaf a square of corrugated cardboard between tiles, a treatment that is sufficient if the tiles fit snugly in their container and can’t shift about and elude the cardboard buffers. This method is considerably easier than wrapping tiles individually and also gives much quicker access to particular tiles, since once a couple are removed from the box, you can finger through the rest as though they were index cards in a library’s card catalog.
You’ll appreciate your tiles more if you know something about their history and about how they were made. The newsletter and magazine of the Tile Heritage Foundation—Flash Point and Tile Heritage—are’ good places to start. The Tile Heritage Foundation has also produced inexpensive facsimiles of catalogs from approximately 40 turn-of-the-century tile companies. These catalogs are invaluable for identifying unmarked tiles. Know, though, that several major tile companies never produced any catalogs (notably Pewabic, Van Briggle and Marblehead). Michael Padwee’s A Guide to the Patterns and Markings on the
Backs of United States Ceramic Tiles, 1870s—193Os (Tile Heritage Foundation, 1997) is an additional useful tool for identifying tile makers, and serves nicely as a checklist of American tile companies in general.
A good general history of tiles is Hans van Lemmen’s Tiles: 1000 Years of Architectural Decoration (New York: Abrams, 1993). It contains an excellent chapter on American tiles by Susan Tunick, who is the president of Friends of Terra Cotta. A good way to learn about how tiles are made is to make some yourself. For an excellent introduction to tile making, read Frank Giorgini’s Handmade Tiles (Asheville, N.C.: Lark Books, 1994, also available as a video).
A final pitch: Don’t be scared. Jump in. Buy a tile. It’ll change your life.