Rookwood pottery some of the finest

By Terry Maurer, What's it Worth March 25, 2012 

A few weeks ago, we were in a large Northwest city and went for a daylong outing. We saw deer, bear, bobcat, cougar, pheasants, quail, ducks, geese and a walrus. No, we weren't at a zoo. And, OK, the animals all were taxidermy specimens.

Our journey was to the Portland EXPO spring antiques show and the "Seen and Sold" section of today's What's It Worth? explores the background and value of a famous walrus on display there.

Come along and meet the unusual "Wally Walrus." But first, we'll answer a reader's question about her small vase, made 80 years ago by the art pottery company many feel was America's best ever.

Q. I purchased this almost 3-inch-high vase a year or so ago at an estate sale. The bottom is marked "Rookwood," and there also are marks that include numbers, a letter and a circle of "squiggly" figures. Sort of light pumpkin color with a shiny finish. What can you tell me about this pretty piece? -- Anita in Kennewick

A. Founded in 1880 by a Cincinnati woman, Marie Longworth Nichols, Rookwood Pottery's standards -- from the outset -- exceeded virtually every other American manufacturer.

They were very persnickety about quality, hired more than 120 of the best artists and designers and marked as "seconds" work with nearly unseeable factory flaws.

Rookwood was in business for a long time, with the glory years being about 1900 to the beginning of the Great Depression. In 1934, they booked a losing financial year for the first time, and by 1936 were only operating one week a month. In 1941, the company filed for bankruptcy.

This vase comes from the last years of great production and is dated 1932. The round "flame" mark was used starting in 1886; each flame representing one year. After the first 14 flames completed the circle in 1900, a Roman numeral was incised beneath the flame to date pieces. With the mark XXXII, we know this was made in 1932. The 6319F mark is the shape number.

Antiques Roadshow regular David Rago, an American art pottery expert, says "Rookwood achieved greatness not only because their product was superior but because they did a superior job of creating great art pottery with such remarkable consistency."

While some very fancy Rookwood pieces command thousands of dollars from collectors, this is a plain, small vase with simple decoration. In today's market, a fair retail price would be $100 to $150.

Earlier this month at the huge Portland antiques EXPO, we crossed paths with the folks from Hunter's Antiques and Object d'Art of Seattle.

They had the most unusual taxidermy specimen we ever had seen; a four-tusked walrus, harvested by native peoples in Siberia about 1915.

"Wally," as Hunter's nicknamed him, was on display for decades in the famous shop of Mack McKillop, a renowned Seattle dealer in ivory and all things Alaska. This is believed to be the only mounted example with four tusks. With his longest tusk at 19 inches, Wally may not have been the biggest walrus in the herd, but he certainly was the most unusual.

McKillop got involved in ivory in the early 1920s, while serving on a schooner near Point Barrow, Alaska. He quit the sea in 1933 and opened Mack's Totem Curio Shop, just up the hill from Seattle's waterfront on the Marion Street Viaduct walkway.

In the mid-1950s, a Seattle newspaper reported McKillop's walrus had come from a tavern in the north end of the city. The article included pictures of the taxidermy mount and a promotional postcard used by the shop.

Such documentation is important with ivory. The old newspaper clipping and photos are pretty strong evidence that Wally was harvested and displayed long before the U.S. entered into any international endangered species conventions. That evidence makes it possible to sell such items. Undocumented ivory can be illegal.

With much interest expressed by collectors, the dealer decided to sell him by closed bid auction, following the end of the show. The bidding started at a minimum of $10,000. At press time, we have not received word of the final price.

-- Terry Maurer, a Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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