Recently a Christchurch vendor Lesley Towart had a great success story with Webb’s. The story began in 1986 with a visit to a local garage sale, whilst her father perused the goods stretched out in the lawn, Lesley wandered into a glasshouse where she spied some interesting cactus plants; and there on a ledge, she saw a “spectacular green ceramic cat”, filled with soil being used as a jardiniere. She notes “I was immediately drawn to its colourful geometric shape and although didn’t have any idea of its origins. I promptly bought it for the pricely sum of $1!”
Lesley then took the cat home, emptied out the soil and put it on her shelf, some months later a knowledgeable friend stunned at the sight of the cat, told her about the maker artist, Louis Wain (1860-1939). Born in London to a French mother he began work as a freelance artist creating livestock drawings, at 23 he married Emily Richardson, sadly the marriage lasted just three years as Emily contracted cancer and passed away. However, during the time of her illness Wain would teach her pet cat Peter to do tricks such as wearing human glasses and pretend to read a book. This kept Emily amused during her illness and kept Wain busy as he would sketch the cat’s antics. After her death Wain continued to draw cats and in 1896 his first cat drawing was published in the Christmas issue of the Illustrated London News and as a result projected him into the public eye, receiving huge recognition, he would go on to produce hundreds of drawings of humourous cats a year, but was never financially successful as an artist.
In 2019 after enjoying the cat for over thirty years Lesley took a photo of it and sent it through to our Decorative Arts department, Head of Decorative Arts Caolan McAleer identified it as a very rare and early Louis Wain ceramic cat from 1914. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, noting “the larger cats like Lesleys were a huge rarity to the market, commanding international attention” and he conservatively estimated the cat at $3,000-$6,000.
Wain took the idea for his ceramic cats from the new Cubist movement which had been embraced by painters of the time such as Pablo Picasso. Initially, he designed sets of small and large cats, which were shown at an exhibition in 1914. However, the ceramic cats were not well received in the UK, but a retailer in America was interested and placed an order. Sadly, the ship carrying the cats to the States was hit by a torpedo from a WWI German U-boat and Wain’s entire investment was lost, thus making the surviving cats even rarer.
Lesley said “I sent emails with descriptions and photos to four or five auction houses I found on the internet. Webb’s replied immediately and then followed up with a detailed estimate, suggested reserve, and explanation of the rate of commission.” She then had the piece couriered to Webb’s and they set about organising minor restorative work to the piece to ensure it was presented to the market in the best possible manner. The cat was then catalogued and photographed, getting a full-page illustration in Webb’s printed catalogue. The cat generated lots of interest, with condition reports requested from across the globe and many collectors recognising the rarity and scale of the piece, especially in the New Zealand market. The cat was finally offered in Webb’s March Decorative Arts auction with many paddles raised in the room, along with a flurry of online bids and two eager telephones. The gavel finally fell at $9,250 ($10,868.75 including buyer’s premium) to a local collector, ecstatic to add another cat to his eclectic collection.
On working with Webb’s Lesley said “This has been an Antiques Roadshow like experience for me! I would like to thank Caolan and his team for the fantastic service Webb’s has given me. From the beginning the communication has been first rate and I’ve been grateful that they kept me informed every step of the way. It has been an easy process from beginning to end. Thank you! I’m so pleased with the results you’ve achieved and will happily recommend you to others.”