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COLLECTIBLES : To a Lover of Catalina, Pottery Is Siren Song

March 25, 1993|KATHIE BOZANICH | Kathie Bozanich is a member of The Times Orange County Edition staff.

Walter S. Sanford of Long Beach is enamored of that island 26 miles off Southern California.

"It's such a romantic place," Sanford says of Santa Catalina.

Although the real estate broker collects most every type of memorabilia having to do with the island, he has set out to accomplish a very specific goal: to put together the definitive collection of Catalina pottery.

"This is something that needs to be preserved," Sanford says. "I only buy things in perfect condition, with no chips or dents."

The Catalina pottery factory was founded in 1927 by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who owned the Santa Catalina Island Co. at the time. Sanford says Wrigley established the factory--which manufactured building materials, bricks, tiles, art and pottery--to employ island dwellers.

In the beginning, the wares were made of all "local materials," Sanford says. "Even the colors used came from plants on the island."

By 1930, the pottery pieces were being decorated and glazed. The wares manufactured from 1927 to 1932 were made of brown clay from the island. But because the brown clay proved to be weak and the wares broke easily, the factory switched to white clay imported from the mainland.

A competitor, the Gladding McBean Co., bought the Catalina molds and designs in 1937. The factory on the island was closed, but the company produced a Catalina line at its Glendale plant until 1947.

Sanford says he became interested in Catalina pottery about 10 years ago while staying on the island.

"I noticed some of the tiles there and began asking about it," he says, adding that his interest just skyrocketed from there.

"I have what you would call an obsessive personality," Sanford says, by way of explaining how he has collected about 5,000 to 7,000 pieces. The Catalina Museum in Avalon only has about 50 to 60 pieces on display, he says.

"I know of two or three other people doing this, but what I've gathered is about five to six times larger than what they have put together," Sanford says.

He says it is hard to know exactly how many pieces are out there, because manufacturing estimates from the factory included construction materials such as bricks and roof tiles, not just pottery pieces.

Also, Sanford says, many of the earlier pieces have been lost.

"You've got to remember that this was Depression-era pottery. People considered it junk," he says. "It was either thrown away, or (because) the clay used was so soft, it broke and chipped."

He says he buys pieces "almost daily" from people who contact him through his nationally placed ads requesting Catalina pottery pieces to buy.

Sanford says he has paid as little as $3 and as much as $3,000 for a pottery piece.

"That's based on condition, rarity and whether it fits into my collection," he says.

Interest in the pottery is growing, he says, adding that in a few years he could imagine the rare pieces selling for $5,000.

"There's a lot of people who consider (Santa Catalina) the most wonderful place on Earth, and many well-heeled people who own property over there are becoming interested in this pottery," he says. "It becomes an obsession."

Sanford is compiling a book on Catalina Island pottery, which he expects to finish in about a year.

He eventually wants to put his collection on display on the island. "We may even open a retail store where we can sell some of these pieces," he says.

Sanford says he is also looking for "any paper products, catalogues, brochures, menus (and) souvenirs" from the 1950s or before from Catalina Island.

People with Catalina memorabilia can contact Walter S. Sanford at (310) 434-7253.

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