Why are Martin Brothers’ birds such a flyaway success?

A Martinware grotesque bird

Alison Davey of AD Antiques
Martinware expert, Alison Davey of AD Antiques.

A rare Martinware grotesque bird is one of the highlights of the Canterbury Auction Galleries’ two-day sale on October 13-14th

In a style typical of Martinware, the detachable crow-like head (left) has a quizzical look, with the head and base incised ‘R.W. Martin & Bros London and Southall’ and dated 16.4.1905.

It stands 23cm (9¼in) high on a turned ebonised base and has an estimate of £3,000-4,000, despite some damage.

The world record for Martinware was set in 2014 when specialist Alison Davey, from AD Antiques paid £91,500 for a grotesque bird jar. So what makes the distinctive style so popular with collectors? Alison explains their idiosyncratic appeal.

Martin Brothers’ birds are, for most of us, aspirational items. Back at the time of their creation they were sought after by London’s chattering classes; modelled in a satirical ‘Punch-like’ manner on leading political and commercial figures and commissioned by aristocratic figures such as Lord Faringdon and Sir William Drake. In the 1890s, when demand for the works of the Martin Brothers was at its height, special works were kept out of the public’s gaze at their retail premises in Holborn where they were saved for the more discerning client.

Perhaps the appeal lay in the Victorian’s curiosity in the macabre, or maybe it reflected the social transitions of the day, or perhaps it was just keeping up with the Jones. The story behind the Brothers makes for compelling reading; work kept under floorboards, fires, insanity, and untimely deaths. Then, as now, the appeal of the Martin Brothers comes in part from their incredible story.

The world record Martinware bird
Alison Davey’s £91,500 Martinware bird jar.

In recent years the market for the Martin Brothers’ Birds has increased exponentially. Interest was kindled back in the 1970s with Richard Dennis’ selling exhibitions, where he put together superb collections of the brothers’ work. In those days, it was relatively easy to source work as the fashion was to discard fashions of the preceding decades in favour of the modern home. “

Flyaway success

“Dennis revived the aesthetic and commercial interest in the factory and following this came several other important international exhibitions. During this time the appeal of the birds moved beyond the domestic market and, anecdotally, I would suggest that 90 percent of the birds sold end up roosting in overseas collections. Birds have now pushed through the six-figure ceiling tripling in price in the last 15 years. This is a significant trend for British ceramics as historically they have been undervalued against works on paper, bronze or even Oriental ceramics.

For me the attraction lies in the fact that each one is totally unique having been hand crafted by one of the founding fathers of the British art pottery movement. Each piece is indeed a major contributor to the Arts and Crafts movement and each bird represents an important piece of British art history in clay.

As with many luxury goods, fakes have emerged over recent years and collectors are advised to exercise caution when looking to buy. Several years ago I saw a fake bird sell through a regional saleroom for £15,000 and I am offered fake pieces on a monthly basis. Furthermore the restoration of ceramics has become so skilled that, to all but the most trained and experienced eye, it is invisible. Restoration can reduce the value of a piece by more than 50 percent

For these reasons I would recommend buying from an expert in the field where collectors will have a guarantee of authenticity and condition. The work of the Martin Brothers is potentially an excellent investment even with the appreciation in the market and at prices ranging from several hundred for tiles or miniature gourd vases up to a hundred thousand pounds it is still a market accessible to most.

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One thought on “Why are Martin Brothers’ birds such a flyaway success?

  • July 23, 2016 at 4:45 pm
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    That’s the limil,some collectors have them in large numbers and have stopped buying.if you pay £9000.00 plus com you are going to make a loss.Steve

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