Photograph © Miller’s, www.millersonline.com
Buying Marcello Fantoni ceramics: a view from the auction house salerooms from BBC 20th Century Expert Mark Hill
What defines the Modernist ceramics of Marcello Fantoni?
The overriding principle in Fantoni’s varied body of work was that his ceramics should have “…the simplicity of a beautiful colour on a well studied form”. But, in reality Marcello Fantoni ceramics represent much more than this. Marcello Fantoni’s ceramics embody a dichotomy where the timeless appeal of ancient or traditional Italian pottery was combined with archly Modernist and progressive movements.
Who and what would you say were Marcello Fantoni’s inspirations?
Marcello Fantoni’s work fused painting, Primitivism, tradition, Modern art, the revival of craft, and the base material of clay itself. Some aspects of Marcello Fantoni’s ceramics – their spikey and angular shapes, with their forms reduced to multiple flat planes of colour bordered by inscribed sgraffito lines – suggest inspiration from Cubist painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
Marcello Fantoni produced unique, often experimental, ‘studio’ works himself, and also designed numerous ‘ranges’ that translated the essentials of his experiments into pieces that could be put into serial production. Nevertheless, every ceramic is unique in its own right as it was decorated by hand.
How much would you expect to pay for Marcello Fantoni ceramics?
Typically executed by Marcello Fantoni alone, unsurprisingly it is his unique ‘studio’ works that fetch the highest sums today. He often enlisted the help of assistants and students on some larger or more complex pieces – very much in the manner of a Renaissance painter. Values range from the high hundreds to over £10,000 for the very best and largest pieces that represent desirable facets of his hallmark styles. Serially produced Marcello Fantoni ceramics can be found from £100-£800, and rarely top £1,500.
Studio pieces usually fetch anything from £2,000 upwards. The highest prices for Marcello Fantoni’s ceramics are achieved in the US followed by Germany, where auction houses such as Christie’s, Wright, LA Modern, and David Rago in the former, and Quittenbaum in the latter, dominate the market.
What determines the value of Marcello Fantoni’s ceramics?
The wide variation in price is perhaps down to identification. Although nearly all Fantoni ceramics are marked with his surname, marks give no indication as to whether a piece was a one-off made by him or from a serial range produced in his studio. Or, indeed, how large that serial range was. The only way to tell the difference is by considering the quality and workmanship, comparing it to other examples, and seeking out documentary evidence, such as sales receipts or exhibition photographs, to form a provenance.
What shapes should a buyer of Marcello Fantoni ceramics look out for?
In terms of shape, most are simple and unembellished, and act purely as a ‘canvas’ for the design. Some were clearly inspired by Ancient forms, and some channel the vogue for the asymmetric forms that dominated much of mid century Modern design. Others were more abstracted, representing movements in modern sculpture. These are usually highly sought-after – in 2009, Christie’s sold a multicoloured glazed abstract piece dated to 1968 for £3,500 against an estimate of £1,000-1,500.
Do the surface effects used by Marcello Fantoni alter value?
It was perhaps in glazes that Fantoni really excelled, and pieces that display complex bubbled, thick glassy, or rock-like glazes tend to attract large sums. It is complexity and uniqueness that matter, and combinations of plainer, single-colour glazes that have simply been brushed on tend to fetch less.
If present, the surface design is also important. Although most of Marcello Fantoni’s pieces rely on the colour, texture and application of glazes, he did apply patterns and designs. These range from abstract symbols that hint at some ancient or foreign language, to geometric shapes, and stylised animals and people. It is perhaps for the latter that he is best known.
How do Marcello Fantoni sculptures compare to his ceramics?
During the mid-1950s, Marcello Fantoni began producing a series of stylised figural sculptures known as the ‘Satiro Innamorato’ (satyrs in love). Found in different sizes, Fantoni’s sculptures, the arlecchino (harlequin), the nimble acrobat associated with the Italian commedia dell’arte, gossiping ladies, warrior, and musicians. These scarce sculptures are popular and can fetch anything from £2,000 for an 8in (20.5cm) high pair, to over £10,000 for much larger examples (some are the size of a large child!). In June 2012 Chicago-based auction house Wright sold a pair of 8in high musicians, signed and (unusually) dated 1953, for $12,813 (around £8,100).
Is it possible to find an original Marcello Fantoni piece on a budget?
Two-dimensional renderings offer more scope price-wise. Although large, complex and unique studio pieces once again fetch the highest prices, serially produced designs can be found for anything from £150-1,000. In a similar vein are the vases hand-painted all-round with friezes of geometric figures, predominately in tones of grey highlighted with pink, yellow or green.
What pitfalls should buyers of Marcello Fantoni ceramics look out for?
As the commercial success of Fantoni’s ceramics grew in the 1960s, so did interest in his work from the thousands of potteries that had sprung up during the postwar Italian boom. If his unique ‘studio’ works could not easily be copied, then his increasingly famous sgraffito figurative designs could be. As many as 40 potteries (whose names are now lost) mass-produced ceramics inspired by Marcello Fantoni. These are characterised by lightweight slip-moulded white clay bodies, and backgrounds that are either simply mottled (usually in red), or bear crayon-like stripes. Some are also covered in brown leather. Sold from the 1960s-80s as inexpensive, fashionable souvenirs, and exported across the world, only the very best match Marcello Fantoni’s serially produced modern ceramic ranges in terms of quality. Easy to find today, values range from around £10 for a small dish to over £200 for the largest pieces.
Many are unwittingly bought and sold as authentic Marcello Fantoni ceramics, even though they do not bear his name. Be aware and familiarise yourself with the look and feel of these ‘inspired by’ pieces, as some dishonest dealers add Marcello Fantoni’s name to bases in felt pen or paint to cash in on his growing popularity amongst mid century Modern ceramics collectors across the world.
Useful information and links
Alla Moda: Italian Ceramics of the 1950s-70s by Mark Hill (ISBN: 978-0-9552865-7-5) www.markhill.net
Check out Mark Hill’s article on Marcello Fantoni’s ceramics in MidCentury issue 04