When Grayson Perry won the Turner prize last year, he provided the requisite shock factor on which the event has come to rely, not just for the backbone of Britain but this time for the doyens of the contemporary art world as well. For the cognoscenti, the shock was not in Perry being a transvestite or in the fact that Jake and Dino Chapman didn't win. It was because ceramics, the poor cousin of the art world for the last 20 years, had taken centre stage in the highest-profile contemporary art award of the year.
Arguably, Perry's success put contemporary ceramics on the map for a wider audience. And certainly the medium does appear to be seeing the beginnings of a resurgence in kudos in fine art circles. But for a select group of investors, it has never lost its shine.
These days ceramics is a vast field with people making anything from cups to huge, one-tonne sculptures. As Ahmed Sidki, owner of furniture and design shop bowwow, puts it: "Ceramics straddles the line between sculpture and functionality."
Some collections have proved to be lucrative investments for their owners. In a recent auction at Christie's in London, for example, Poole pottery from the 1960s that was expected to raise £300 to £600 drew bids as high as £6,000. Even headier gains have been realised by the two British ceramics artists - Lucie Rie and Hans Coper - who are credited with creating the foundation for today's rising market in contemporary ceramics. Last year, Bonham's, the auction house that dominates the secondary market for contemporary ceramics sales, sold a Coper piece, which went for £72 in 1976, for £15,000. Add 20 per cent on to that for buyer's premium and you get a feel for the value modern ceramics can accrue. The gains can be much higher, according to Anita Besson, at Galerie Besson. Coper pieces dating back to the 1950s have grown in value from £100 then, to around £1,000 in the 1970s to as much as £100,000 now.
Even relatively unknown but up-and-coming artists are seeing decent increases in the value of their work. Australian-born ceramicist Gwyn Hansen Pigott sold work for £1,500 to £2,000 in 1992. This year one of her pieces - albeit a very large one - raised close to £8,000. Similarly, Claudi Casanovas, a Catalan artist, was selling work for £500 to £1,000 in 1989. Now most of his work sells for £7,000 to £9,500 and he recently sold a one-tonne sculptural piece to a US collector for around £20,000.
However, it tends to be only the very good examples of any ceramicist's work that make a lot of money, according to Ben Williams, contemporary ceramics expert at Bonham's. Coper and Rie are the 24-carat-gold names to reckon with in this niche market. But there is a whole new generation of artists for prospective collectors to look out for, some of which are expected to become the big collectibles of the future.
It was when Sotheby's in Belgravia began putting their work into its sales that the secondary market in contemporary ceramics was born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sotheby's and Christie's still sell some modern ceramics, but Bonham's leads the market of some 700 lots that come through each year.
"It is a pretty exciting time to be buying ceramics because of the way things are being made," said Ben Williams, contemporary ceramics expert at Bonham's. "There's been a shift in the way people are working and their work has shown a gradual increase in price."
A new group of potters has sprung up in the last 15 years, which is reacting against the previous generation of artists by making hand-constructed, sculptural pieces that tend to be exhibited on a plinth. The work is usually made in very small quantities, so prices are higher. Elite members of the group include Elizabeth Fritsch, Alison Brittan, Martin Smith, Ewen Henderson, Gordon Baldwin and Richard Slee.
The group grew out of Coper's break with his generation's tradition of throwing pots by hand-building them instead. He used a wheel to create non-traditional forms.
"This distinct group is reacting against the previous generation and they are recognised now as being a significant part of the British studio potters' movement," said Mr Williams. "They are going to be part of the museum collections of the future and there will be a scramble in 10 years' time among collectors picking the very best pieces being made now." The key thing about the group is that they are not using a potter's wheel to throw symmetrical pots. They are using it to make non-traditional objects, many of which are then pieced together with others.
Edmund de Waal is another recognised talent, who makes minimal porcelain pieces with an oriental influence. His work is bought by collectors around the world and his recent show at Contemporary Applied Arts, a registered charity which exhibits and sells work, was a complete sell-out, a rarity in this field. Items sold varied in price between £800 and £3,800.
Apart from the shift in style, there are other good reasons for investing in ceramics. While the contemporary art market generally has suffered badly since 9/11, ceramics have remained fairly buoyant, according to Matthew Hall, manager at Galerie Besson. The American market makes less of a distinction between ceramics as art or craft and, as in fine art, remains the biggest market for contemporary ceramics.
"Ceramics is much more affordable," said Mr Hall. "If you want to buy an important 20th-century painting, it will cost £30,000 to £100,000. In ceramics, you can get one of the best things available today for that price." What's more, if you buy a painting you look at it on the wall. With a ceramics piece, picking up the pot and feeling is part of the experience.
So where should the uninitiated start? Ceramics dealers are thin on the ground. There are five key galleries in London, which sell contemporary work from the last 10 to 15 years and before: Contemporary Applied Arts; Galerie Besson; Barrett Marsden; Contemporary Ceramics; and the Hart Gallery.
Mary La Trobe-Bateman, director of Contemporary Applied Arts, advises those who want to invest in ceramics to see as much as they can and read up on ceramics. "If you want the jackpot, go for big names doing something cutting edge," said Ms La Trobe-Bateman.
But you can also start small. Ms La Trobe-Bateman started buying her daughter mugs made by different potters. "It's a very affordable way to start and she has a really interesting collection now," she said.
The buyers market has shifted in the last six months, according to Galerie Besson's Hall. "Middle Eastern and Russian buyers. And we've had two multi-billionaires, who've bought pieces in the same period. At the top end, there are a whole lot of collectors interested only in buying museum-quality pieces, while work at the bottom end remains quite affordable. "It's like collecting art, people become compulsive collectors," said Ms La Trobe-Bateman.
Mr Williams' top tip is to go for established names. "Provenance is going to become very important with pots because as values go up, people will fake them," he said. "Anything you can do to firm up the history of a pot is going to add to its value."
Ceramics is gaining in stature both as an art form and as a good alternative investment for collectors. "I think its poor-cousin status in the art world is changing," said Mr Hall.
* Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, London. www.caa.org.uk. 0207 436 2344.
* Galerie Besson; 15 Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London, W1S 4SP. www.galeriebesson.co.uk. 0207 491 1706
* Barrett Marsden, 17-18 Great Sutton Street, London, EC1V ODN. www.bmgallery.co.uk. 0207 336 6396
* Contemporary Ceramics, 7 Marshall Street, London, W1F 7EH. www.cpaceramics.com. 0207 437 7605
* The Hart Gallery, Upper Street, Islington, London. www.hartgallery.co.uk. 0207 704 1131
THREE OF THE BEST
Fritsch took up ceramics at the Royal College of Art between 1968 and 1971, working under Hans Coper. She makes carefully coil-built stoneware vessels, which are smoothed and refined into sharply profiled shapes. A lot of her pieces are handmade with geometric patterns that distort the shape of the vessel. A good vase can sell for £5,000 to £6,000, double its value five years ago.
EDMUND DE WAAL
De Waal is an academic who lives and works in the UK and is a very successful ceramicist. He makes minimal porcelain pieces, like the one below, with an oriental influence. His work sold in an exhibition at Contemporary Applied Arts last year for between £800 and £4,000. The show was a sell-out, which is rare in ceramics. He has pieces exhibited in the V&A and his work is collected internationally.
Baldwin is still working in his early 70s, producing his distinctive pieces, above right, which combine sculptural form with abstract painterly marks. He is influenced by Modernism generally - by poetry and music as much as painting and sculpture. He always produces vessels of some sort, although they are not necessarily recognisable as such. They are hand-built in earthenware and he fires them many times to get a surface he likes. Prices start at about £3,000 and can go up to as much as £7,000.
'I really only buy ones that I like'
Michael Evans is a serious ceramics collector. He downsized to a former council flat in London in order to buy some expensive ceramics two years ago and he has been collecting for 40 years. The 65-year-old former-Christian-turned-Buddhist, left, moved in with his 700 studio pots.
"They allow me to live with them", he said. "People think I live in a store room. It's actually quite a low-cost collection compared with many - but I've spent an enormous amount on ceramics over the last two years."
Mr Evans's interest started when he used to visit two maiden aunts after church and covet their Doulton Lambeth stoneware pots. "They said they'd give them to me as soon as I bought my own property," he said.
They kept their promise and Mr Evans's collection began. Now he counts some serious pieces made by some of today's best ceramics artists, including a £4,000 Gordon Baldwin sculptural form, stoneware from Walter Keeler and an extensive collection of porcelain pieces made by Edmund de Waal among his growing collection.
"I don't buy for investment - that doesn't even come into it for me," said Mr Evans. "I only buy what I like.
"I know people who regard their collection in financial terms - for the names on the bottom of their pots. For me, that's not collecting for the right reasons."