The teapot has an illustrious history of fine craftsmanship and elaborate artistry, and those created for the grandest tables have long been auction showstoppers. Consider the 18th-century neoclassical creations of the Boston silversmith Paul Revere, which can sell for up to six figures, or the intricately painted Chinese teapot from the Qianlong dynasty that fetched $3.5m last year at Sotheby’s in New York. But discerning collectors increasingly have their eyes on pieces from our more recent history – the late-19th and early-20th centuries, when the teapot became more than an item of fine decoration and, in the hands of a new generation of makers, was a vessel for radical design.
In the vanguard of this new current was Christopher Dresser, a prolific glassmaker, ceramicist, furniture designer, metalworker and leading exponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. “His pieces were the antithesis of prevalent Victorian designs, which were fussy, with long, florid spouts and often covered in engraving,” says Martin Levy, director of London’s turn-of-the-century design specialist H Blairman & Sons, who sold a highly coveted, futuristic Dresser teapot at the TEFAF art fair a few years ago (although he won’t disclose for how much). He currently has two others in stock: an angular 1878 design that’s part of a three-piece set (£9,500) and a rounded version (£9,500) from 1879 with a curved ebony handle.
Dresser’s pieces were stylishly simple silver affairs inspired by a trip to Japan in 1876. His iconic diamond-shaped design in the V&A, for example, looks, with its cubist shape, as if it had been made in 1925 rather than 1879, while a pared-back piece from the same year was sold at Christie’s in 2004 for just under £100,000. Prices remain high: they have increased some 100 per cent in 20 years, says Paris-based dealer and PAD London exhibitor Oscar Graf, who recently sold a cool silver design for over £50,000. What makes Dresser so collectable, says Graf, is the fact that his most radical designs were created during a short period of three to four years, making them exceptionally rare today. The rarest pieces are the prototypes that never made it into production; an important example would fetch upwards of £200,000, he adds.
Several of Dresser’s contemporaries also paid successful attention to teapots, including Arts and Crafts designer WAS Benson. “He worked in copper and brass, and his pieces are much less severe than Dresser’s – friendlier in a way,” says Michael Whiteway, co-founder of Haslam & Whiteway, a specialist in 19th-century British design. A delightful c1885 brass and copper cuboid design by Benson was sold by The Fine Art Society for under £10,000. Another Benson example, c1880, in a round shape with an accompanying warmer is currently available from Chicago dealer Connors Roth through 1stdibs for £2,015.
Another British Arts and Crafts name to note is Archibald Knox, who collaborated with Liberty, producing tea services in signature hammered or polished pewter. “Knox was a purist who worked within a stylised form known as honesty motif – his favourite being a leaf,” says Richard Wine, owner of Louis Wine Antiques in Toronto, who has a c1906 four-piece set and tray (£2,942) with its original wicker handle and Celtic relief work. Knox is also a favourite of collector Anthony Bernbaum, an investment banker who gave up working in the City in 2015 after 28 years. He has amassed The Peartree Collection – a selling gallery of more than 150 pieces of Arts and Crafts and art nouveau silver, including a 1909 Liberty teapot (£2,500) thought to be by Knox that has a heart motif circling the base. “But I don’t think Knox ever really did a ‘great’ teapot,” says Bernbaum. “One of my most prized pieces is a hand-hammered 1900 pot with a garnet-topped lid by Charles Robert Ashbee [another Arts and Crafts mover and shaker]. I bought it five years ago for just under £10,000.”
For the art dealer Richard Nagy, meanwhile, it is Dresser’s work that forms the backbone of his collection dating from 1850 to 1900. He has around 40 Dresser designs, including two tea sets with a teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl. “Many of his pieces are stamped but not all,” says Nagy. “There are contemporary imitations, the equivalent of 19th-century knock-offs, and there are fakes made recently to deceive the unwary.”
Careful research is also required with the art nouveau works created on the Continent, as the stakes are just as high. The silver teapots by Belgian designer Henry Van de Velde, for example, have fetched six figures at auction. Graf currently has a 1904 design that he will sell for between £50,000 and £100,000; it is neat and modern with an ivory handle.
The Austrian architect-designer Josef Hoffmann also created objects with the same striking modernity as Dresser and Van de Velde, yet the prices they command are usually double, says Brussels-based dealer Yves Macaux. “Ten years ago I sold an exceptional one-off Hoffmann tea set from c1904 for a seven-figure sum. Then an interested buyer offered to purchase it for over €10m, but the owner did not want to sell.”
For Hoffmann fans, taking a peek at similar pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art may have to suffice.