Antique dealers and collectors often refer to Art Nouveau Era art pottery produced in the kaolin-rich Turn-Teplitz region of Bohemia (today Teplice region, Czech Republic) collectively as Teplitz. Over the years, however, this area boasted many different potteries.
To add to the confusion, they opened, closed, changed owners, merged or shared common designers against a background of changing political borders.
Although all produced pottery, their techniques and products varied. Some ceramicists, like Josef Strnact and Julius Dressler, produced brightly glazed faience and majolica earthenware items. According to Elizabeth Dalton, Furniture and Decorative Arts Specialist at Michaan’s Auctions, a strong earthenware body, rather than delicate, brittle porcelain, allowed more unusual manipulation of the ceramic surface of their vases, flower pots and tobacco jars.
Alfred Stellmacher, who founded the Imperial and Royal Porcelain Factory in 1859, produced fanciful, sculptural creations noted for their fine design and quality. Many feature applied natural motifs, Mucha and Klimt-like portraits or simulated jewels.
A gilded, glossed, flowered Stellmacher ewer, for example, featuring a curvaceous mermaid-handle, is currently offered for $4,000 on a popular Internet site. A free-form, flowered Stellmacher pitcher featuring a ferocious, golden dragon-handle, commands nearly double.
“The most collectible Teplitz pieces of all, however,” notes Stuart Slavid, vice president and director of European Furniture, Decorative Arts and Fine Ceramics at Skinner Auctions, “are those manufactured by the Riessner, Stellmacher and Kessel Amphora Porcelain Works (RStK), which was founded in 1892.
Archeology and history buffs may recognize amphoras as ceramic vessels used for
storage and transport in the ancient world. Art collectors and dealers, however, know amphoras as RStK pieces that incorporate undulating, asymmetrical Art Nouveau interpretations of flora and fauna — both natural and fanciful — in their designs. Many RStK artists honed their skills at the Teplitz Imperial Technical School for Ceramics and Associated Applied Arts. Others drew on the fine ceramics manufacturing tradition of nearby Dresden.
Producing Amphora was time-consuming and prohibitively expensive. Each began with an artist’s drawing, which would typically include lifelike images of snakes, sea creatures, dragons, maidens, flora or fauna. Once approved, each drawing was assigned a style number, which would subsequently appear on the bottom of identically shaped pieces, along with the word “Amphora.”
Using these drawings as their guide, craftsmen carved and fired clay models, from which they created smooth plaster-of-Paris molds. These molds were then lined with thin layers of clay. Once the clay dried and the molds removed, the resulting Amphoras were fine-carved, hand-painted and glazed. Finally they were re-fired, sometimes as many as 10 times. Since each was decorated in a unique way, no two Amphoras were exactly alike. Since their manufacture was so complex, reproducing one is nearly impossible.
RStK’s innovative pieces earned international acclaim almost immediately. After winning prizes at both the Chicago and St. Louis World’s Fairs, exclusive establishments, including Tiffany & Co., marketed them in the U.S.
Although many Amphoras retail for under $1,000, some are quite costly. Russell Colletti, dealer and owner of Colletti Gallery in Chicago, is currently offering an 8-inch high, marked, gilded vase featuring an applied fern design, for $5,800.
Rare, larger pieces, ones probably commissioned or created expressly for exhibition, were
far more prone to breakage in production and display. So they command far more. For example, Colletti’s 29-inch high “remarkable Stellmacher greenish, metallic vase, featuring an applied, splay-footed Saurian (prehistoric lizard-like reptile) sidling up its delicate, furled lip – quite rare given its monumental size and excellent condition,” goes for $68,000. (Colletti pieces are also available at 1stdibs.com.)
In addition to lavish Amphoras, Riessner, Stellmacher and Kessel also produced highly detailed, intricately crafted female busts, both large and small. Beautiful virgins, nymphs and dancers, reflecting fashionable literary, religious and mythological motifs and themes of the day, were popular choices. Larger busts, because they were so complex and so rarely made, were expensive from the start. Today these 100-year-old beauties, especially those who escaped the ravages of time, are extremely desirable.
In 1894, leading Viennese porcelain retailer Ernst Wahliss purchased the RStK Amphora. Paul Dachsel, a company designer and Stellmacher’s son-in-law, soon left to open his own pottery. Dachsel was known for adorning fairly simple forms with unique, intricate, stylized Art Nouveau embellishments, as well as modern-looking applied handles and rims. These, along with his Secessionist works — those influenced by Austrian exploration of innovative artistic forms outside academic and historical traditions — are highly collectible today.
The Jason Jacques Gallery, located in New York City, currently offers an iridized metallic cobalt earthenware cachepot, part of Dachsel’s stylized “Elite Series,” which features plant, animal and insect components, for $4,850. It also offers one of Dachsel’s most startling and desirable designs, a “Grasshopper (or Praying Mantis) Vase,” which features “cyclamen buds, each adorned with insect legs poised to spring,” for $55,000.
After Wahliss’ death, the Amphora Porcelain Works — now known as the Alexandra Porcelain Works Ernst Wahliss — became known for Serapis-Wahliss, its fine white earthenware line that features intricate, colorful, stylized natural forms. The Jason Jacques Gallery markets a Serapis-Wahliss covered dish whose lid boasts “a luscious pink flower, its stylized, gilded petals spreading with geometric precision toward its rim,” for $20,000. (Jason Jacques pieces are also available at 1st.dibs.com.)
When Stellmacher establish his own company in 1905, the firm continued operating as the Riessner and Kessel Amphora Works. After Kessel left five years later, Amphora Werke
Riessner, as it became known, continued to produce Amphora pottery through the 1940s. In 1945, Amphora Werke Riessner was nationalized by the Czechoslovakian government.
Do Teplitz pieces make good investments? Though beginning collectors can find simpler pieces from $100 through $5,000 at auction, there has been a dip in the market since the downturn in the economy in 2008.
“Considering their rarity, quality, and decorative appeal, however,” explains Slavid, “There’s still plenty of room for growth, especially at the higher end of the market. I personally think that higher-end Amphoras are exceptional. History says you can’t go wrong buying the very best. There will always be collectors at that level.”
About our contributor: Melody Amsel-Arieli is an American-Israeli freelance writer whose articles appear in collecting, genealogical, and historical magazines across Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov” (Avotaynu 2002), as well as the book, “Jewish Lives: 1750-1950” (Pen & Sword, 2013).