Simon de Pury on How Technological Innovations Have Led to the Art World’s New Craze for Ceramics

The veteran auctioneer weighs in on how technologies from photography to blockchain have broadened collecting appetites.

Vanessa Beecroft among her work for "de PURY Presents Vanessa Beecroft: Ceramics and Paintings 2016-2021." Courtesy de PURY Presents.

Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

We live in a time in which artists have a nearly unlimited choice of ways of expressing themselves. New technologies have brought about a generation of disrupters with their own sense of aesthetics. Blockchain can create scarcity through limited editions or even unicity that has opened wide new areas for collectors. This has happened far more quickly than it did for photography. I remember the general skepticism that met the decision of Sotheby’s to open a department devoted to photography in the early 1970s, some 150 years after the first photograph ever was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The word NFT has largely disappeared from the general conversation, and has been replaced by digital sculpture or digital art. It is constantly gaining new practitioners and building a vast audience. The huge, popular success of the recent MoMA exhibition by Refik Anadol attests this.

Versatility in an artist is being fully accepted today. Long gone are the days when the fabulous drawings of French writer Victor Hugo were not taken seriously. How could a towering figure in the world of literature at the same time be a great visual artist? I also vividly remember conversations I had with highly respected figures in the art world in the early 1980s when I would profess my enthusiasm for the work of Gerhard Richter. He surely couldn’t be a serious artist if at the same time he would do figurative as well as abstract paintings? Luckily the approach of only accepting someone to be talented in one specific medium or genre has made way for the acceptance of all-round talents. Figures like Julian Schnabel or Pharrell Williams who can excel in the worlds of art or music as well as cinema, design, or fashion would have had a much harder time to be recognized in more than one category at a time.

When you look at the contemporary art auction catalogues of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips you see little of the above described widening of media and techniques in which artists can express themselves today. The vast majority of the works on offer are in timeless techniques of oil on canvas or sculptures in bronze or stone. Installation art, video, photography, and digital art are pushed to the fringe for the simple reason that there is too little demand for these works to make it commercially viable.

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso decorates one of his ceramic dishes, Paris, 1948. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images.

Spanish artist Pablo Picasso decorates one of his ceramic dishes, Paris, 1948. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images.

It is probably no coincidence that ceramics, another timeless technique that has been around forever, is experiencing a renaissance and is blossoming precisely now as a reaction to all this technology. The many new windows that keep opening for artists thanks to the fast developing technological advances have at the same time caused a “back to basics” movement which entirely revived the artistic practice of working with clay, ceramics, porcelain, glass and textiles. Major contemporary artists such as Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Ai Weiwei, Simone Leigh or Sterling Ruby, and many more, are devoting part of their practice to making works in ceramics. Then you have artists such as Takuro Kuwata, Magdalene Odundo, Ritsue Mishima or Edmund de Waal who focus entirely on ceramics, glass or porcelain and have pushed these disciplines to new heights. Succeeding in these areas requires besides creativity, innovation, and originality, a high degree of craftsmanship and experience. The possibility of having extra-large kilns allows some artists to do ceramic works on a scale that was hitherto difficult to achieve.

Pablo Picasso is of course the towering 20th century artist who has previously injected life into the worlds of ceramics. In 1946 he met the owners of the Madoura ceramics studio while visiting the annual pottery exhibition in Vallauris in the South of France. He passionately took on this new medium until he totally dominated it as he did with engraving, lithography or linocuts.

A still life of pottery by Jean Besnard and Clementine Keith-Roach, Memento Mori skull and Madonna and Child, courtesy of Simon de Pury.

A still life of pottery by Jean Besnard and Clementine Keith-Roach, Memento Mori skull and Madonna and Child, courtesy of Simon de Pury.

George Jouve, Jacques and Dani Ruelland and Jean Besnard are some of my absolute favorite French mid 20th century potters. Some 20 years ago, after having taken a late-night cup with my then girlfriend at the Palette, my favorite Café on the Rive Gauche in Paris, we started strolling down the Rue de Seine. We looked at the vitrine of Vallois the gallery belonging to Bob and Cheska Vallois, who are some of the very best dealers in 20th century decorative arts not only in Paris but in the world. There lightning struck instantly when I first laid my eyes on a pair of vases by Jean Besnard. I couldn’t wait until the next morning to call them to enquire about the price and to try to acquire them. They gave me a price that seemed steep but told me they were on reserve and therefore couldn’t sell to me until knowing if the person who had put a reserve on them was going to buy them.

I didn’t hear anything more from the gallery and on another late night stroll some three weeks later I still saw the same vases in the vitrine, and I still loved them as much. Next morning, I called them again wanting at long last to get my hands on the vases. I was told that they were still on reserve. This time I got a bit annoyed and said that it was not acceptable to have artworks on reserve for such a long time. The same day they called me back to say they had now sold them to the person who had put a reserve. I was extremely disappointed knowing full well that you regret forever the objects that escape you.

Hardly three months had passed when I received a Sotheby’s auction catalog highlighting objects from the Karl Lagerfeld collection. The genius fashion designer was periodically selling at auction parts of his collection. I had myself conducted the one of his collection of Memphis furniture in 1991 at Sotheby’s in Monaco. Leafing through all the pages of works of art carefully chosen by his brilliant eye I was stunned to see the two vases by Jean Besnard that I had been coveting. Sometimes in life some chances present themselves twice, so I arranged to be on the phone on the day of the auction. Bidding was fierce and the price kept going up and up. We had since long overtaken the asking price of Vallois but I was simply unable to stop bidding. When the hammer finally came down, I was relieved to at long last get ‘my’ vases but in a state of shock having gone way above what they reasonably could be worth.

Karl Lagerfeld in Monte Carlo in October 1991 on the occasion of the auction of his Collection of Memphis Furniture which I had the privilege to conduct. Courtesy Simon de Pury.

Karl Lagerfeld in Monte Carlo in October 1991 on the occasion of the auction of his Collection of Memphis Furniture which I had the privilege to conduct. Courtesy Simon de Pury.

I saw in an interview that Karl Lagerfeld gave to a German news outlet that he was thrilled with the outcome of the sale and the results of the Besnard ceramics in particular. I still found it hard to imagine that there should have been another person as crazy as I was to go on bidding for so long. My curiosity was killing me and so I called a former colleague and friend at Sotheby’s. He first made me swear I wouldn’t ever betray his indiscretion and then told me that the underbidder was none other than the girlfriend with whom I had originally spotted the vases late at night at Vallois. At the time of the auction, we were no longer together so I never knew if she really wanted them or if it was a revenge act to make me pay as much as possible.

This lengthy anecdote demonstrates my passion for ceramics. I therefore relish the current wave of great ceramic art being done around the world. For that reason, I am currently organizing a primary market online auction at entitled FIRE – Contemporary Glass & Ceramics that is scheduled to take place during the second part of June.


Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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