Majolica magic

Monday, April 30, 2001 at 1:00am

How does your vegetable garden grow? If the answer is "slowly," then consider jump-starting your crop with majolica.

Even if you never knew what it was called, you've seen this vividly glazed pottery before: Think corn-shaped vases, cauliflower sugar bowls and lettuce-leaf plates. Of course, animal shapes like monkeys, parrots, cats and fish are also part of the mix. And collectors can't seem to get enough of it.

A few years back, my magazine paid a visit to the home of the late Pat Collier, an Atlanta antiques dealer who was a majolica collector par excellence. Pat searched abroad to build her trove, bringing home platters and pitchers by such top-of-the-line English makers as Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, George Jones and Herbert Minton. As we learned from Pat, Herbert Minton started the majolica craze in 1851, introducing brightly colored pottery with heavy relief.

It didn't take long for makers all over England, the Continent and America to start churning out similar whimsical wares, often painted by unskilled labor, and production continued into the 1920s. Which means there's still enough to go around today - and it doesn't all have to command Wedgwood prices.

For example, in just four years collector Debbie Lamm of Washington state amassed 400 individual examples of majolica - and all on a budget. Still, she observes, prices have gone up, and the selection isn't what it used to be.

"My only explanation for the sudden interest is that people seem to be taking an interest in adding colors to their rooms, and majolica does that instantly," Debbie said.

Debbie has become such a majolica maven that she has started a Web site dubbed "Majolica Madness" and is forming a Pacific Northwest collectors club (learn the details by visiting her Web site, hometown.aol.com/danes90, or simply type the search words "majolica madness").

"I started with the pitchers, which are so eye-catching and fun, and just went from there," Debbie explained. "I had to do a lot of reading, since so much of majolica is unmarked, especially American pottery. You often have to identify pieces by studying color schemes and patterns. Plus, there are reproductions posing as older pieces. Look for a mottled glaze on the bottom of the pottery, which is a good indication of true age."

Debbie is partial to the products of the 19th-century Bohemian firm of Wilhelm, Schiller & Sons, which marked its products "WS&S." "They tended to use a lot of brown tones in their glazes," she pointed out. She also collects the American makers Griffen, Smith and Hill, which often marked its pieces "Etruscan Majolica" or with the abbreviation "GSH."

Since majolica seems to be escalating in value, take a tip from Debbie and handle it with care. Though she displays her pieces on open shelves, she anchors them in place with putty. So even with the recent earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, her collection came out unscathed.

"Majolica is just so cheerful and playful," Debbie said. "It's impossible to resist."

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