SALEM, Mass. - The first teapot Sonny and Gloria Kamm got together was a wedding gift, and as far as they can remember it was a typical "brown betty" - the traditional glazed pot.
Today, they have more than 7,500 teapots and related items, filling shelves and closets and even a condominium they bought for storage and affectionally call "Teapot Central."
Gloria Kamm, a docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, describes the collection as sculptures masquerading as teapots.
"It's a familiar item," adds Sonny Kamm, "so even people who wouldn't necessarily be interested in art would find something fun and accessible about these pieces."
They have a ceramic teapot shaped like Mr. Potato Head. Another looks like a pipe. Recycled tin forms an armadillo-shaped teapot.
Function isn't necessarily a requirement for the teapots - most wouldn't be capable of steeping the more than 3,000 varieties of teas out there. But they do need to have the basic components of a traditional pot: handle, spout and lid.
"A teapot can be a plain brown betty or it can be so much more," Gloria Kamm says.
About 250 teapots in the couple's collection are part of a nine-city traveling exhibit that is currently showing at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The display runs through March, and the Kamms checked out the show this week.
"After water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world. And where there is tea, there are teapots," Sonny Kamm says.
The couple started collecting teapots in 1985, shortly after they moved into a new home and were looking through their art collection for something to fill the built-in shelves behind the bar.
"We aren't big drinkers, and some of our vases and other objects didn't fit on the narrow shelves" explains Kamm, a lawyer for a securities firm.
But the couple noticed they had a number of teapots. "It made sense, in a clever, funny way, for us teetotalers to put teapots behind the bar," he says with a laugh.
The Peabody show displays a broad range of teapots, including designs by Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and architect Michael Graves, whose whimsical pots are big sellers at Target stores.
The exhibit is organized in themes highlighting form, materials and decoration. A metal pot designed with doll parts called "I'm a Little Teapot" looks like it could be in a horror film. Other pots have spouts that double as noses and handles that form ears.
Many of the teapots in the Kamm collection were commissioned by the couple. Other pots were purchased through galleries, auction houses and flea markets. The Kamms have teapots that were bought for as little as 25 cents and as much as $50,000.
"I couldn't possibly have a favorite," says Gloria Kamm. "It's like making me pick between my children."
The exhibit has been shown in museums in California, Washington, North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois and Canada. After Salem, it will move to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tenn., in May. The Kamm collection will eventually have a permanent home in Sparta, N.C., where The Sparta Teapot Museum will be built.
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