Collecting: The pottery that's breaking records under the hammer

Enthusiasm for Clarice Cliff's distinctive art deco designs has proved more than a storm in a teacup
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The Independent Online

Raise an art deco teacup to members of the Clarice Cliff Collector's Club, who are holding their annual garden party today in the ceramics designer's former home, Chetwynd House in Stoke-on-Trent. The event will be the 21st garden party in the club's history, and its increasing popularity mirrors the explosion of interest in Cliff's output over the past few years.

Once, Cliff's cheerful jazz-age designs could be picked up at car boot sales and in charity shops. But since the mid-Eighties, prices for rarer examples have soared, thanks in part to the international revival of interest in art deco design.

"Clarice Cliff has been seriously collected since 1983, when the London salerooms picked it up," says Joy McCall, specialist head of British decorative art at Christie's. "But it really came into its own in 1996, when there was a great upsurge of interest."

Cliff's work came to prominence during the 1930s and now forms an important part of the history of 20th-century British ceramics. While her trademark subjects may have been traditional, with a focus on rural life, flowers and quaint cottages, the originality of her pottery lies in its unconventional geometric shapes. This striking and colourful combination of cubism and country kitchen makes her designs particularly attractive to creative people. The actress Dawn French is a collector, and the late comedian Leslie Crowther was often spotted bidding for her work at sales.

Art deco dealer Muir Hewitt, who has a shop in Halifax, has been a personal collector as well as a dealer of Cliff's work for 22 years. He has seen a marked increase in value in that time. "Twenty years ago I was at a flea market and picked up a Cliff vase in the Melon design, priced at £24. I asked the seller if she could do me a better price and she said no, so I put it down. The same vase now sells for around £1,200 to £1,500."

He continues, ruefully: "There's no such thing as a bargain now - the prices are massive and you just can't pick one up anywhere. They're so distinctive and clearly marked. Lots of people recognise them."

Last year, a large Cliff platter sold at Christie's for nearly £40,000, a world record for Cliff. The vendor's father had bought the 18in dish new in 1933 for 25 shillings. Its present-day value can be put down to it being the rarest piece in one of Cliff's rarest patterns. This is the highly sought-after May Avenue design of green and black trees in a street of red-roofed houses, which was briefly produced in 1932 and 1933.

Christie's has regular sales devoted to Cliff, and Ms McCall says that some designs always fetch the highest prices. "May Avenue is big, of course, as are highly abstract patterns such as Café, Carpet and London. Designs involving houses go down well, too. Vases and tea services are particularly popular, and the conical ranges are high in value."

The value of any Cliff piece is largely determined by the rarity of its design. If you are just starting to build up a collection, small objects or anything in the Crocus pattern are usually the most affordable. "It's possible to pick up something for around £10," says Ms McCall, "and you can certainly find pieces for under £100."

After rarity, condition is the most important factor determining value. When assessing a piece, check spouts and handles for signs of chipping and run a finger around rims and bases. The many Cliff reproductions and fakes can usually be distinguished by their inferior colour and design. The fakes currently doing the rounds in antique markets are 12in lotus-shaped jugs. They can be easily identified, as the handle has a blow hole at the bottom - a sign it is hollow cast - whereas Cliff's handles were all solid. All genuine Cliff was hand-painted and you should be able to see brush strokes in the coloured enamels.

As with most collectables, knowing your product is the key to buying well. Cliff's salesmen took miniature vases around the country as samples of her work, and those in the know can still pick these up at knockdown prices. The vases are meticulously hand-painted in Cliff's famous Bizarre and Fantasque patterns, and sell for anything between £600 and £1,000. However, canny collectors have been able to buy them for half that, from auctioneers without specialist knowledge.

Since original Cliffs are top dollar right now, you could do worse than start with Wedgwood's officially sanctioned reproductions. According to Mr Hewitt, such pieces are worth a small investment. "They have gone up slightly in value," he says, "and are certainly more affordable than the real thing."

He himself has less affordable, real Cliff items in his shop for those with more cash to flash, including a beautiful example of her Blue Autumn lotus jug, which stands 12 inches tall and is on sale for £5,000.

Mr Hewitt believes that the future value of Cliff ceramics is assured, partly because of the beauty and artistry of her designs and partly because of her relatively small output. "It was a short-lived production," he says. "In the Fifties it was considered old hat and sent to charity shops. Now there's interest, there's a finite number of pieces left and people are just juggling for the best pieces."

CLIFF FANS WON'T BE LEFT ON THE SHELF

Prices: from £10 to £40,000

More information: www.ageofjazz.com - a website for those interested in Cliff and designers of the same period, such as Susie Cooper; www.claricecliff.com - the website for all Cliff fans;

Muir Hewitt, Halifax Antiques Centre, Queens Road, Halifax, West Yorks (tel. 01422 347377; www.muirhewitt.com)

2004 events: the next Cliff auction at Christie's is on 20 October at the South Kensington saleroom (85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LD); see also www.christies.co.uk

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