Earlier this month, Tayler & Fletcher, a North Cotswolds estate agency that also runs a small saleroom, put up for auction a large, aqua-glazed bowl it described as Art Deco with an estimate of £20-£40.
Only the bowl wasn’t Art Deco, and it wasn’t worth £20-£40. A photo of the bottom revealed the insignia of the Omega Workshops, a design studio that produced murals, textiles and other homewares by Bloomsbury artists including Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell for six trying years between 1913 and 1919. It was founded by the artist and critic Roger Fry, and it is likely that he threw the aqua bowl himself sometime between the autumn of 1913 and 1914, when he was learning to pot.
Surviving examples of Omega pottery number in the low hundreds — if that — and tend to command between four and five figures at auction; remnants of textiles and furniture can go for many times that. A rare estate sale of seven ceramics last year fetched from £3,275 (including fees) for a broken and reglued plate to £26,855 for a small plate painted with red cranes. Other pieces are held by the V&A and the Courtauld Gallery in London.
I knew all this because I had seen — and written about — a nearly identical bowl for the FT last year. That version is owned by the collector David Herbert and is, he believes, one of those that Virginia Woolf had mentioned in her 1940 biography of Fry — “a bowl or two of that turquoise blue that the man from the British Museum so much admired”. This, I thought with a thrill, could be the other bowl. It had the same firing cracks along its twin handles and, like its sister, was rather amateurishly thrown — the shape was a bit wobbly and the bottom did not lie flat.
To find a “sleeper” — an item of significant value that a saleroom has passed over or misidentified — is every auction catalogue trawler’s dream. Coming across an Omega sleeper is not something I expected to happen in my lifetime.
And so, two Saturdays ago, I shook my groaning partner out of bed at 5am to drive up with our dog to Bourton-on-the-Water. We arrived at the saleroom about an hour before the auction started. We didn’t want to alert Tayler & Fletcher that it had a sleeper on its hands in case they would then pull the lot, so we made a show of looking around the entire showroom: sitting in discarded armchairs, looking through boxes of glassware, admiring a Victorian footstool with shredded upholstery.
We briefly examined the bowl to see if the insignia and weight were right. They were. No one else showed any interest; the auctioneers were busy examining a clock that had been bid up to £120 before the auction start to see if they’d missed something. Just you wait, I thought.
The first lots moved slowly, with the auctioneers doing their best to drum up £15 for a pair of porcelain Royal Doulton figures, and £30 for a Derby quatrefoil dish and two matching dessert plates.
“Now this lot has attracted a lot of interest,” one of the two auctioneers on the podium said as the blue bowl flashed up on screen, noting that it had already attracted pre-bids of £50. And then the counter started to fly: £1,000, £2,000, £3,000. There were gasps; the bowl was whisked into a cabinet. When the online bidding started to slow at around £3,600, I raised my paddle.
My partner and I had agreed not to bid past £4,200 — which would amount to £5,250 with the auction’s house fees and VAT — but we were so quickly overpowered that we kept raising our number. The auctioneers and the room cheered us on. At £5,800 — £7,250 with fees — we bowed out. The hammer dropped and the room broke into applause.
“We were amazed,” Martin Lambert, who has been working at the auction house for 26 years, said on the phone a few days later. “This doesn’t happen very often.”
He told me the seller had “no clue” the bowl was by Omega Workshops. The team at Tayler & Fletcher has since thoroughly combed the other lots the family had sent over — so far, no sign of another Omega.
As sleepers go, this was not a major one. In the past, UK auction houses have unwittingly sold off a Rembrandt and a Chinese vase estimated at just £100-£150 that hammered down at £200,000 in a small Suffolk saleroom. With the internet opening up country salerooms to global audiences, they are happening more often — or so it seems. It also means that when people like me spot one, they tend not to be the only one. In my case, three other people, including an art dealer, identified it; it went to a collector who did not respond to a request for an interview.
In the end, I’m not sure the bowl went for much less than it would have had the auctioneers identified it correctly. I probably wouldn’t have bid such a high number; a big part of the appeal, to me, was to be able to bore people with the story of “my sleeper” for the next five or so decades. And the bowl is, in a technical sense, not very good; I have a hard time imagining someone from the British Museum had admired its lumpy shape and eroded edges. When I posted it on Instagram, a ceramicist friend wrote back: “lol”.
Still, I keep wondering if I should have bid just a bit more.
Lauren Indvik is the FT’s fashion editor
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