There's gold in them there bowls

Sophie Walker on Moorcroft, the pottery that collectors all want
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In the Eighties there was Clarice Cliff; in the Nineties there is Moorcroft. The lustrous decorative pottery, with its swirling raised patterns in lapis blue, ruby and burnt orange, is rapidly proving to be the ultimate Nineties collectable - a position which will be confirmed on Thursday next week with the sixth annual sale at Christie's.

Collectors are expected to outnumber dealers at the sale, such is the growing interest in the vases, bowls and other ceramic ware produced by the firm founded by William Moorcroft in 1897 at Burslem, Staffordshire.

Prices at the auction are expected to start with Art Nouveau vases at pounds 100. A miniature mustard pot is expected to raise pounds 250, a tankard commemorating King Edward VIII's coronation pounds 400 to pounds 600 and painted candlesticks pounds 1,000. A large vase painted with a trademark Black Landscape design could fetch pounds 3,000.

The Moorcroft Collectors' Club, set up nine years ago, has more than 5,000 members. "We used to hold one open day a year for collectors, but by May this year we had to hold three, with 750 visitors, and we still had to turn people away," said Gill Moorcroft, daughter-in-law of William.

Moorcroft is taking off in the same way that the brightly coloured Art Deco ware of Clarice Cliff did more than a decade ago. "Collectables tend to follow a pattern, as did the Clarice Cliff boom," said Richard Dennis, antiques dealer and author of an authoritative reference book on Moorcroft. "Moorcroft has good potential for collecting because it combines a number of important factors.

"The company has a 100-year history. The ceramics use colour schemes which make it easy to like and understand. Each piece is very well marked with the Moorcroft flash and each designer's signature, which means the item can be clearly dated and makes forgeries easy to spot.

"Moorcroft is plentiful, but there is not too much of it. The range includes common, cheap articles but extends to bigger and more expensive items. Often a person buys something recent because it is cheap, then discovers the company's past andis drawn into collecting.

"It has international standing because it was exported pre-war to Australia and the US. Put all these factors together and you have the perfect collectable."

Born in 1872, William Moorcroft studied at the National Art Training School (now the Royal College of Art) in London in the 1880s, but returned to his home town of Burslem in 1897 to set himself up as an original designer of ceramics.

Christie's sale catalogue immediately reveals his earliest influences as William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement: he combined floral and landscape motifs with a distinctive tube-lining technique which produced a raised outline and separated the colours used in the design. A profitable deal with Liberty's provided commissioned designs and a factory which enabled the business to flourish.

Next year Moorcroft celebrates its centenary with a collection produced by the method in use for 100 years. It involves turning each piece on a lathe and spongeing it smooth before the drawings are inked on freehand and the pot is tube-lined, a process likened to icing a cake. No two pieces are ever the same because every pot is painted using powder paints which are mixed by hand. Each ceramic is fired twice and checked for faults.

Despite refusing to surrender any of these processes to computer-aided design or modern technology, Moorcroft is gamely keeping up with the booming market for its produce. The company has increased its staff by 25 per cent and doubled its turnover in the past four years.

"One of the reasons we are so successful is that we continue to produce in the same way," said John Moorcroft, who is the company's managing director and second son of its founder. "It's the only way to create individuality." He says people now recognise that what was largely dismissed in the 1950s as worthless Victoriana was actually something interesting and original.

Gill Moorcroft says young people are drawn to Moorcroft, as well as older collectors who may have found an original in the attic. "It is an acquired taste," she says. "You either love it or you hate it. But those who do like it become addicts."