An advanced but intentionally low-key collector, the late William D. “Bill” Ansley amassed a select private collection of contemporary art glass over a 40-year period, and in so doing, created a panoramic three-dimensional history of Murano production. To the amazement of his fellow collectors, Ansley accomplished this feat almost entirely from his home base of Topeka, Kansas, said Dan Ripley, whose Antique Helper Galleries will auction the collection in its entirety in a single-consignor sale on Dec. 19, 2009.
“In cataloging the collection, I got the feeling that Mr. Ansley probably bought most of the glass in the Midwest,” said Ripley. “There are pieces in his collection that we’ve identified in catalogs from early-1990s auctions in St. Louis…Dealers knew what he was looking for, and he would have been the first phone call when a special piece of glass became available.”
More than 500 glass designs will be offered in 300+ lots on auction day, with an extensive bonus selection of art glass reference books, many of them quite rare. An additional uncataloged selection of glass will be available to onsite bidders only.
In the historical portion of the sale there are several examples of 19th-century and circa-1920 glass, but the vast majority of the collection’s inventory consists of mid-century Murano with a progression into the American studio glass movement from the 1970s onward. Among the earliest Murano pieces in the collection is a 10-inch footed vase by Salviati, executed in primary colors with a light dusting of gold leaf. “Salviati’s works are relatively unknown in the market, and there’s very little documentation of it. They’re very Victorian yet simple in their technique,” said Ripley. “This period was not Mr. Ansley’s main focus, but he wanted an example from it in his collection. This reflects a trend we’ve noted lately in which experienced 20th-century glass buyers are moving toward antique glass rather than buying more-recently-produced glass.”
The collection includes a few Fratelli Toso 6-inch cabinet vases, which are popular with collectors at the moment, and more-modern interpretations such as the 6-inch Fontana Arte green glass vase that represents the original concept for fazzoletto vases. Made of “slumped” glass, which is not blown, but rather, dropped into a mold to create free forms, the rare Fontana Arte vase is the precursor to Fulvio Bianconi’s Venini designs and even retains its paper label.
A great discovery within the collection is the extremely rare Vittorio Zecchin amethyst and amber glass sculpture produced at the MVM Cappellin glassworks. A modernist plant form known as pianta grassa, it is “not unlike what Tiffany was doing earlier,” according to Ripley. “It had been mislabeled in the collection as ‘Scandinavian glass 1970,’ but I was able to identify it with a direct attribution to Cappellin in the book Murano ’900 by Franco Deboni.”
There was little production of Murano art glass during World War II, so the Ansley collection’s timeframe takes a skip forward from the 1930s – with its Barovier clamshell vases and Pasta Vitrea Rossa elephant sculpture, among many other designs – into the optimistic 1950s. Highlights from that decade include Bianconi fazzoletti, a Bianconi for Venini pezzato (patchwork) vase, and Barovier and Toso patchwork vases.
Another star lot in the sale is the Alfredo Barbini iridescent amethyst Aquarium Aragosta with three suspended lobsters. “It is the only one I’ve ever seen,” said Ripley. “There are others known that feature a jellyfish, crab, seahorse or mermaid, but this one with a lobster is possibly unique.”
Other 1950s Murano pieces to be auctioned include all five of the Pulcini sculptural-bird series by Alessandro Pianon for Vistosi; several works by Archimede Seguso, including a Losanghe vase; and designs by Gino Cenedese, Giulio Radi and Giorgio Ferro.
Ansley’s collection is a virtual showcase of interesting and unusual Murano creations from all styles and periods. “Mr. Ansley continued to buy pieces that displayed complex artistic techniques well into the 1990s,” Ripley said. “What I find so interesting is that he was able to find so much of it locally. Murano was exported to the United States and sold in department stores. Yet he didn’t seem to buy in multiples – there was a studied variety to his collection. It was probably through his self-education in buying and reading about Murano that he progressed into the American studio market.”
The Ansley collection features early designs by Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, founders of the American studio glass movement; as well as Richard Marquis, Stephen Powell and Steve Tobin. The auction will also present pieces by Dale Chihuly, Lino Tagliapietra, and Art Nouveau-inspired glass treasures by David Lotton, Orient & Flume and Lundberg Studios. Worthy of special note are a vase from John Lewis’ Moon series and a book-example Yoichi Ohira Pasta Vitrea vase [provenance Barry Friedman Ltd. exhibition] depicted in the reference Yoichi Ohira: A Phenomenon in Glass.
Without question, the premier lot within the American studio section of the sale is the 39-inch-tall Occhi vase made in 1999 by Dante Marioni. Composed of occhi murrine [colored-glass “eyes”] encased in orange and yellow layers, the design revisits a technique originally employed by Tobia Scarpa for Venini. “We have a book showing the process that went into making these vases in 1999,” said Ripley. “There could not have been many of them produced. The one in our auction might even be the one shown in the book in the process of being manufactured.”
The Saturday, Dec. 19 auction is being geared toward a wide range of buyers, Ripley stressed, “with reasonable estimates that demonstrate the collection is legitimately for sale.” The live auction will commence at 10 a.m. Eastern Time at Dan Ripley’s Antique Helper auction gallery, 2764 E. 55th Place, Indianapolis, IN 46220. The printed color catalog will be available one week prior to the auction for $15 + postage; the electronic version of the catalog may be viewed in its entirety online at www.antiquehelper.com . Bidding will also be available by phone, absentee or live via the Internet.
A respected and beloved member of his community in Topeka, Kan., William Dawson “Bill” Ansley was a Christian Science practitioner and teacher until his death on May 1, 2009. A modest man with a legion of friends in the antiques sector, Ansley left an indelible mark on his hometown not only through his profession but also his dedicated work on behalf of the Mulvane Art Museum.
Ansley, who served as president of the Board of Friends of the Mulvane in 2006 and 2007, launched an antique show in 2000 to benefit the museum. Over the next seven years, the annual event was organized by the Mulvane Women’s Board, a subsidiary of the Board of Friends of the Mulvane. This year’s edition of the show, which took place on June 12-14, reflected its new name: the 2009 Topeka Antique Show & Sale.
Vicki Cunningham, who knew Bill Ansley for 40 years, serves as executrix of his Estate. Like many others in Bill’s vast circle of friends, she admired his studious approach to collecting and remembers him as “a scholar who felt each piece had its own merit.” Cunningham lived only three doors away from Bill and his wife Jean [who died in 2004], and said each new acquisition invariably resulted in an enthusiastic phone call and an invitation to “come down and see what I bought.”
The Ansley home was plentifully adorned with art glass. “The upstairs and entire living quarters were all about his collection,” Cunningham said. He also maintained an extensive reference library of more than 200 books about glass. “Some of them would be quite valuable to glass collectors,” Cunningham said. “Some of the titles have been out of print for many years.” All of the books will be offered at the Dec. 19 auction.
Image: Harvey Littleton early loop, circa 1971, estimate $1,500-$2,500. Photo: Dan Ripley