A smattering of classic Crown Lynn designs (Image: Tina Tiller)
A smattering of classic Crown Lynn designs (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyJuly 23, 2022

The Crown Lynn craze: What’s behind the skyrocketing price of vintage ceramics?

A smattering of classic Crown Lynn designs (Image: Tina Tiller)
A smattering of classic Crown Lynn designs (Image: Tina Tiller)

Once something you’d find at the back of your grandparents’ cupboard, the ubiquitous New Zealand homeware brand is now a valuable commodity. And as collectors tell Stewart Sowman-Lund, prices probably haven’t peaked yet.

It’s been out of production for 30 years, but Crown Lynn pottery is more beloved than ever.

The New Zealand-made homewares brand has gone from being distinctly unfashionable – replaced in households by cheaper imported products – to experiencing a renewed wave of popularity. Whether it’s the instantly recognisable swan vase, or a retro plate or mug, most older New Zealanders will have something Crown Lynn in their house. 

And increasingly, many young New Zealanders will too. 

Today, hundreds of Crown Lynn fans in Auckland will get the chance to peruse thousands of items at a dedicated market being held near the site of the former factory in New Lynn. It’s one of two Crown Lynn-only markets being held in Auckland this year, with an annual Hamilton event back in May as well. 

These markets are something out of a collector’s dream: dozens of stalls selling exclusively Crown Lynn items, advertising wares from the very common to the incredibly rare. If you’re after a particular item to complete your set, this is where you’ll find it. If you just want a nostalgia hit, you’ll get that too. 

A recent Hamilton Crown Lynn market (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Many enthusiasts, like Mon Grafton, who runs the Crown Lynn and More Store in Thames, simply make the most of being able to share their most exclusive finds or discuss the latest addition to their collection. “It’s about meeting up with other collectors and mates that I only see at the market,” Grafton says. “The first one was so exciting and I just walked around in a frenzy and went ‘I want that and I want that’. I’m a bit more controlled now.”

But with Crown Lynn’s renewed popularity comes a surge in prices too. Items in op shops, auction houses and on Trade Me regularly sell for hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars. For many collectors, the thrill is now less about buying a piece of Crown Lynn but simply searching through towering piles of op-shopped homewares in the hope of stumbling upon an unexpected – and underpriced – find.

The Crown Lynn story

Most New Zealanders will recognise a Crown Lynn design, even if they don’t realise it’s Crown Lynn. Founded in 1948, but most popular in the 1960s and 70s, the New Zealand pottery brand is interwoven into our history. Its cups and saucers could be found everywhere from Air New Zealand flights to the houses of parliament. The brand created countless memorable designs across a range of homewares, tableware and more – everything from dinner plates covered in bright flowers to tall, funereal white vases. Crown Lynn even produced door knobs, toilet roll holders and electric fence insulators. Perhaps most recognisable, the Crown Lynn swan: a range of vases, available in various colours and styles. “The swans are iconic, they’re up there with buzzy bees and Edmonds cookbooks now,” Grafton says. “They’re one of those Kiwi things that are genuinely ours.”

In the 1960s, Crown Lynn was producing around 10 million pieces a year, making it the largest pottery company in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.

Crown Lynn swans (Photo: Te Toi Uku)

But despite Crown Lynn’s persistent success through much of the 20th century, the New Lynn workshop – at one stage comprising a large amount of what is now the town’s centre – closed its doors in 1989. According to Rosemary Deane, curator of the Crown Lynn museum Te Toi Uku, the brand couldn’t keep up with demand for cheap, imported homewares. “You could go to Deka and get a dinner set from China for $30, and Crown Lynn tried really hard to make dinner sets for $30 but they couldn’t,” she says. “And the patterns in the 80s were a bit shit, apart from a few. Trying to compete, they just ended up a bit bland.”

Te Toi Uku stands on the site of the original Crown Lynn workshop. You can still see the kilns used when the factory shut. Now, the museum showcases Crown Lynn objects from across its century-long existence. When I first visit the museum on a rainy winter’s day, Deane’s excitedly talking to a Crown Lynn fan with a connection to the factory. “You’ll have to come back and give me an oral history on record,” she tells him. A lot of people visit Te Toi Uku because of a personal link with the factory, Deane says, or simply to see something they used to own as a child. 

About 200 people lost their jobs when the factory shut. Two years later, Studio Ceramics opened its workshop in New Lynn and took onboard some of the same Crown Lynn patterns. It stayed in operation until 2017.

More than just ‘back in fashion’

In the years since Crown Lynn closed down, the millions of products it made slowly filtered out of homes and into second-hand stores. For a long time, Crown Lynn was a cheap op shop fixture. You could find anything from plates to vases on a budget. Avid op shopper Sarah says a decade ago sought after Crown Lynn items could easily be found for a dollar or two – and there was a lot to choose from. “It wasn’t valued, it was almost discarded as a bit old-fashioned and undesirable,” she says. 

In recent years, however, most op shops know when they’re sitting on a Crown Lynn goldmine, pricing items well above market value just in case an enthusiast pops by. Sarah says the prices can now be “prohibitive” – interesting, considering when Crown Lynn was being produced it would be found in practically every New Zealand household (and was generally considered inferior to British-made pottery). 

Lots of Crown Lynn mugs (Photo: Te Toi Uku, additional design Tina Tiller)

The Crown Lynn and More Store in Thames is nestled away at the end of the town’s main street, in close proximity to several well-stocked op shops. The store almost exclusively sells Crown Lynn products with piles of plates, wall-to-wall mugs, and everything in between. Grafton started collecting Crown Lynn more than 25 years ago. In recent years, she says prices have been steadily creeping up – something she blames largely on lockdown. “Everyone was sitting at home with nothing to do, with their wage subsidy money building up in the bank, and thought ‘oh, Trade Me!’”

Since then, items that used to sell for $50 will now easily fetch $300 or $400. “Before in auction houses you only ever got the really top-end stuff, none of the white vases people think are worth lots now,” Grafton says. “You never saw those in auction houses because they were literally a dime a dozen.” It means second-hand shops have become more cunning. Many now have dedicated Crown Lynn sections and are fully aware that the next item they put out might be worth something. Grafton says you usually need to be in the shop at the right time or risk missing out. 

And if you ever manage to spot a swan, it likely won’t last the day. They might not be the most valuable, but they’re probably the most sought after. “In 2019, all the baby swans sold for $90 and the mums went for between $180 and $200,” says Grafton. “Now I’d put a chipped or a cracked one out at 200 bucks.” 

The Crown Lynn price boom hasn’t just affected second-hand shops. Lockdown led to a shift online for many sellers. Ruby Topzand, a spokesperson for Trade Me, says Crown Lynn is “consistently” one of the most searched for homeware items on the site. “In June, we saw over 44,200 searches for Crown Lynn, up 1% when compared with the same month in 2021,” she says. 

With that surge in searches came a surge in prices. Just this week, a small swan nabbed over $500 on the website. In January, a black swan vase sold for $6,150, while a blue McAlpine jug sold for $4,800 and a “Three Faces of Eve” lamp fetched over $4,600. “In June, the average sale price in the Crown Lynn category was $78, up 54% year-on-year, and 126% when compared with the same month in 2020,” Topzand tells me. 

Black swan (Photo: Te Toi Uku) and a McAlpine jug (Photo: Te Papa CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Additional design: Tina Tiller.

Tracing the resurgence

One of New Zealand’s most reputable and knowledgeable Crown Lynn experts is Val Monk. She’s written a pair of books on the subject and through her in-depth research managed to build up quite a sizeable collection of Crown Lynn for herself – though she says most of this has been sold in recent years. Monk’s love affair with Crown Lynn started through her mum, who was an avid second-hand shopper and would often pass on bits and pieces. “I gradually realised just how much Crown Lynn made,” says Monk. When she sat down to write her first book, Monk’s knowledge of the subject was limited. She didn’t even know how pottery was made. But, Monk says she was acutely aware that “the Crown Lynn story was an important New Zealand story”. 

Monk estimates that Crown Lynn’s popularity revival started a decade ago – and she doesn’t think it’s reached the peak just yet. “For about the past 10 years there’s been a resurgence in knowledge and interest,” she says. Facebook, says Monk, has contributed to this. There’s a fan club, a “skite site” and even a group solely devoted to pricing people’s Crown Lynn finds. Monk is a prominent figure in all three, often being asked questions from beginner collectors. Across the three groups there are about 8,000 members. 

Monk says she’s continually surprised at how much Crown Lynn items can fetch these days. “For a nice white swan you can get $400,” says Monk. “Then there are random things like little ginger jars. One of them sold for nearly $800 recently.”

A pair of ginger jars (Photo: Te Toi Uku, additional design Tina Tiller)

Beyond Facebook, there’s also an online Crown Lynn catalogue set up by Ev Williams. She’s considered one of the foremost Crown Lynn experts, though that’s a title she disapproves of. Formerly a studio potter, Williams now dedicates her time to running the New Zealand Pottery website and is involved with the largest Facebook groups too. About 1,500 people visit the pottery website every week to compare notes and help make the catalogue grow, she says. 

Williams has been an observer for some time of the Crown Lynn resurgence. “Every time Crown Lynn comes into the public eye, it just takes off,” she says. “People realise that grandma had some, and aunty had some – and I’d like some too.” As a result, Williams says she now struggles to afford new pieces she wants to catalogue. Trade Me is often out of her reach these days. “It’s just gone crazy. I had years of being able to go and get as much as I wanted, but I do regret that I can’t do that now.”

She doesn’t think we’ve reached the top of the mountain either. “People have been talking for over 10 years that it’s the peak, and it hasn’t stopped going up. ‘Swans will never go over $100 each’, they were saying. Well, I wonder what they’re saying now?”

I ask Williams whether she’s noticed other New Zealand pottery brands experiencing a similar resurgence to Crown Lynn. Temuka, for example, is another recognisable New Zealand brand that’s since become an op shop staple. It’s “rapidly growing in popularity”, says Williams, though it’s still a lot cheaper than Crown Lynn. Titian – a brand that eventually became a subsidiary of Crown Lynn – “nowhere near as much”. There’s a particular type of nostalgia associated exclusively with Crown Lynn, Williams believes.

‘You’re selling a memory’

Based on the growing success of the Crown Lynn markets, it’s easy to understand why many collectors don’t think the peak of the frenzy has been reached (though some told me they think prices have eased back slightly). Until last year, the Auckland market was held at Te Toi Uku itself – but attendance outgrew the museum’s space. It’s now held at a nearby community centre. The Hamilton market, too, has gone from being held in a church to the Claudelands Event Centre.

Deane thinks part of Crown Lynn’s new appeal is that many of its retro styles are considered “cool” again. “If you go to Briscoes you’re going to be buying stuff that’s in that sort of Scandinavian style,” she says. Many cafes are serving sandwiches and cakes on Crown Lynn crockery once again, like the popular (and definitively cool) Hare and the Turtle in Auckland’s New Windsor. 

For Grafton, who spends her days either looking at or selling Crown Lynn, it’s the nostalgia factor. Most people over 40 have a memory of Crown Lynn, she says. “People walk into my shop every day and say ‘aw that’s the one my nana had’, or ‘that’s the one I got for a wedding present’. I walked into an op shop one day and saw the plate that was mine at my nana’s place and it instantly made me think of all these great memories. You’re selling a memory to people.”

It’s unlikely anything like Crown Lynn will ever start up again in New Zealand. For a locally made brand to compete against the chain stores would be near impossible. The original Crown Lynn moulds were bought by a Malaysian company, and Deane says there’s no copyright on it here in New Zealand. “You couldn’t really start it up again. I guess that’s why everything is so collectable, because it’s never going to be repeated,” she says.

The area where much of the sprawling Crown Lynn factory used to be will soon become houses: Crown Lynn Yards is the name of the development. “Our name is the story of an artisanal past,” reads the brochure. “People made things here… the craftsmen of Crown Lynn made crockery that defined a generation of New Zealand design.”

The name lives on – and through the next generation of collectors, the brand does too.

Keep going!