Going, Going, Gone
Why did the Witte pass up a landmark pottery collection? Blame the recession.
When Georgeanna Greer died suddenly last February 20, at the age of 69, forty years of pottery collecting came to an abrupt end. The San Antonio pediatrician—renowned in private life as the authority on Texas and early American stoneware—had amassed a treasury of utilitarian pottery widely accepted as the finest in the country. After Greer’s death, her husband and children decided to sell the pottery. “Georgeanna’s collection was super,” says Cecilia Steinfeldt, the senior curator for history and Texana at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. “She always said she wanted us to have those pots.” But instead of going to the Witte, which had shown Greer’s ceramics in the past, the collection now sits in a Manhattan auction house, awaiting sale this fall.
The Witte seemed the logical destination for Greer’s collection, considering that in 1971 the natural- and local-history museum had first shown an important part of her holdings—the handiwork of the Meyer family, who founded a local pottery that Greer had rediscovered and documented. Then-director Jack McGregor, who had a keen interest in Texas’ cultural artifacts, called the show “a milestone in the understanding of Texas decorative arts.” The rush of regional enthusiasm that occurred under McGregor’s direction, laments Steinfeldt, who has been with the Witte for fifty years, has diminished under later museum directors.
It was partly happenstance that a collection as comprehensive as Greer’s came to be in the Alamo City anyway. Greer had always been interested in pottery, but a stroke of luck landed her and her husband, Sam, a thoracic surgeon, in San Antonio in 1951. Bexar County sits at the southern tip of the Wilcox Formation, a bountiful deposit of excellent potting clay that stretches from San Antonio to the Coastal Plain, runs up to Texarkana, and then sweeps on through Arkansas and eastward into the Carolinas. Along that swath, most of the major potteries of the United States once operated.
Greer took as her mission locating those lost and abandoned kilns. She roamed the reaches of the Wilcox Formation, especially in rural Texas, and pieced together the shards of a forgotten history. In Texas her discovery of the Wilson pottery (a pre–Civil War enterprise in Seguin run by a family of slaves) and her research into the Meyer, Star, and Saenger potteries captured the flavor of nineteenth-century home life with all its essential utensils—from jugs to chamber pots.
The rich clay deposits around Bexar County also meant that an active group of potters practiced their craft in San Antonio. The Witte Museum’s pottery classes started in 1932 in a streetcar parked out back. The teacher was Harding Black, who became famous for reproducing ancient Chinese glazes on his own ceramics. In the fifties Greer studied with Black, who shared her interest in rediscovering abandoned kilns. In 1971 they co-wrote The Meyer Family: Master Potters of Texas, but according to Black, it was Greer’s second book, American Stonewares (1981), that raised public consciousness about pottery and gave collectors a standard of reference. Still hale and hearty at eighty, Black recalls, “When she published that book, it really set the antique dealers off—prices jumped from two dollars for a pot to two hundred dollars.”
Georgeanna Greer’s word was as good as gospel for a reason: Weeks of research and travel had gone into discovering each pot in her collection. According to Black, her hunt would start with old census records, which detailed the names and professions of area residents. When she found a potter, she would travel to the county seat in the area, search through deed records, and then track down the landowners of sites where she expected to find an abandoned kiln. She and Black would spend backbreaking hours at the site, gathering shards—sometimes enough to piece together complete bowls. Then they would comb through local antique and junk shops, hoping to find similar examples intact.
What Greer ended up with was nearly two thousand vessels in a wealth of shapes, sizes, and colors—testament to many generations of cooking, preserving, eating, drinking, sipping, spitting, and excreting. She and her husband built a capacious outbuilding next to their North Side home to store the vast assemblage. The ten rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves in the 18- by 61-foot room still seem disconcertingly full. Sam Greer says, “You’d think this is the collection, but this is what’s left of it.” In fact, 1,400 pieces are now in New York—it took four men seven days to pack the moving van.
Even though New York’s Harmer Rooke auction house wasn’t interested in the pieces that remain in San Antonio, they do have their charm. Four gold mugs from the early twentieth century suggest farmhouse élan; floral vases with giddy swirls of pink, green, and blue, and little ceramic baskets with bluebonnets painted on them are bright souvenirs of the thirties. Solemn earth-tone cemetery vases, churns, jugs, chicken waterers, ant traps, pitchers, and spittoons offer clues to everyday life in bygone days. Snaky handles, liplike handles, jaunty handles, and dainty ear-shaped handles gave a lift to the simple pottery. Clearly these pots don’t have the flashy sumptuousness of Chinese Ming vases; their value comes from their steadfastness, not the virtuosity of their craftsmanship. “People tend to collect exotic things,” Sam Greer says. “You get a collection of old utilitarian pots, and it can look pretty dull.”
But the Greer stoneware looks anything but dull to Chuck Moore, a partner in Harmer Rooke Galleries, which specializes in antiquities and Americana. Says Moore: “Greer’s collection is probably the best in the world.” Moore, who plans to sell the jugs, bowls, vases, urns, and decorative items piece by piece, expects the grand total to soar well past the $250,000 that the Greer family anticipated—to $1 million. “There are many things in this collection—pottery by Texas slaves and two pieces by a South Carolina potter known as Dave the Slave—that are once-in-a-lifetime buys,” says Moore.
The pieces are indeed once-in-a-lifetime buys—for those who can afford them. Moore is confident that stoneware is recession-proof. “When a rare piece comes on the market and there are only two in the world like it, collectors couldn’t care less if the economy is bad,” he says.
But woe to museums that might want to get in on the act. “We were hoping a donor would step forward,” says Witte director Mark Lane, “but the big Texas donors have disappeared.” Cecilia Steinfeldt agrees. “Who could write a check for a quarter of a million dollars?” she asks. “Now the pots will go into a private collection or on somebody’s bookcases.” Harding Black is crushed. “Georgeanna had the best collection of local historical pottery that will ever be put together,” he says. “Now it is going down the drain. Lord knows what will happen to it.”
Steinfeldt is frustrated. “Dammit,” she says, “it ought to at least stay in Texas.” She did her best to keep the pots in the state, calling Charles Venable, the curator of decorative arts at the Dallas Museum of Art, and Michael Brown, the curator at the Bayou Bend Collection of American Decorative Arts in Houston, when it became apparent that the Witte wouldn’t make an offer. Everyone agreed the stoneware belonged in the state—the problem was where. Why didn’t Dallas take the collection? Charles Venable says, “Greer’s stuff was important for the state of Texas. I was hoping that her collection would go to the Witte.” But the Witte’s Lane says, “I’m surprised the Dallas Museum of Art didn’t purchase it.”
Although the Witte’s regional interests have flagged as the museum has turned its emphasis to the sciences, Lane promises that galleries for Texana will be opened within the next ten years. Until then, collections such as Greer’s may languish in acquisition purgatory.
Sam Greer is philosophical about breaking up the collection: “We’ve enjoyed looking at them, but I’m a collector myself and I like to see our things distributed.” And he refuses to blame the Witte. “They didn’t turn us down,” he insists. “They just didn’t buy it.”