Record-breaking Martin Brothers grinning crab barred from export

This Martin Brothers crab is the subject of a temporary export bar. It was sold at Phillips in New York for a record hammer price of $220,000 (£184,000) in December 2018.

A ‘colossal and extraordinary grotesque grinning crab’ by the Martin Brothers that sold at auction last year has been temporarily barred from export from the UK.

Extracted from Antiques Trade Gazette | Laura Chesters

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) is searching for a UK buyer to pay the asking price of £260,700 (the total price paid by the owner including VAT).

On a recommendation from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) the crab has been temporarily prevented from export due to its “outstanding aesthetic importance and its significant interest for the study of late Victorian art pottery, the work of the Martin Brothers and of Robert Wallace Martin in particular”.

DCMS describe the Martin Brothers as independent pottery manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th century who “produced a distinct type of ceramic sculpture and pottery inspired by gothic art and the natural world”.

The salt-glazed stoneware crab was made in 1880 and is regarded as a striking example of Robert Wallace Martin’s grotesque sculpture and is one of the earliest-known pieces of sculptural Martinware.

Colossal and extraordinary

The crab, described as a ‘colossal and extraordinary grotesque grinning crab’ when it was offered for sale at auction last year, was sold at Phillips in New York for a record hammer price of $220,000 (£184,000) in December 2018 to current owner.

At the time of the sale the auction house noted the object was subject to a temporary export licence issued by the UK government.

Sir Hayden Phillips, the chairman of the Reviewing Committee, said: “This idiosyncratic sculptural crab, large and grinning, by Robert Wallace Martin, was featured in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1890, ten years after its creation. The committee considered it was of outstanding importance for the study of late-Victorian art pottery and the work of the Martin brothers.

“A truly grotesque creature, it represents the pinnacle of their work, and we also concluded that it was of outstanding aesthetic importance reflecting the fact that this criterion does not necessarily imply that an object has to be beautiful to pass that test. This crab is of a quality and scale lacking in UK public collections and I hope one of them will come forward to give it a good home so it does not disappear again.”

Arts minister Rebecca Pow said: “The Martin Brothers are famous for creating unique and unusual works that are entertaining yet at the same time unsettling, which makes the crab with teeth such a whimsical and eclectic treasure. I hope that a buyer can be found so we can keep this work in this country to inspire future generations of potters.”

The crab’s provenance includes it being sold by Richard Dennis Gallery in 1985 to John Scott, whose collection was later sold by The Fine Art Society in 2014. It was later part of the 2015 Fantastique show at Mayfair dealership Sinai & Son.

The decision on the export licence for the crab will be deferred until September 16 and may be extended until December 16.