The PBS show Antiques Roadshow plucks the strings of a number of its viewers’ emotions not unlike any reality show. The show is, after all, essentially a highbrow version of American Idol where that inherited crushed velvet chaise lounge in your basement that Sally said was tacky that one time is the star. You haul in the old chinaware you bought at a garage sale, and if all goes well, it gets appraised and you’re a thousandaire! With a history lesson thrown in for free. That’s pretty much what happened when Alvin Barr brought the “Grotesque Face Jug” he had bought at an Oregon estate sale to get appraised at a taping of the show that aired in January.
Barr had paid $300 for the bizarre juggy potlike piece. Here’s what appraiser Stephen Fletcher had to say about the find:
Fletcher: There are grotesque face jugs out there.. .. When we turn this around, there’s a whole variety of, well, characters, and this particular person looks like he had an eye injury. They’ve stitched his eye closed. They all have very distinctive characters or personalities. This person speaks with a forked tongue, it would seem. There’s a little damage here and there. For example, this particular face looks like his tongue was stuck out at us. So we’ve been spared that. When we look at the base clay, it’s red ware, and the potter has used an impressive array of techniques to come up with this extraordinary texture. This, in its own way, is really over the top. It’s bizarre and wonderful. You even see a little bit of, like, Pablo Picasso going on here. It’s a little difficult to identify precisely when this was made, but I think it’s probably late 19th or early 20th century… Probably its origin, it’s coast of the United States, maybe Middle Atlantic states headed southward. Estimating its value is a little difficult. I think in a retail setting, somebody might well ask in the area of between $30,000 and $50,000 for this.
Fletcher: It’s … I think it’s just. … It’s amazing, just an amazing thing.
Fletcher: Well, that’s my opinion. Did you say what you paid for it?
Barr: I thought I over … excuse me. (laughing) Excuse me, I thought I overpaid. I paid $300 for it.
Fletcher: Yes, it would appear in our opinion that you didn’t overpay. (laughing)
Barr: You said $30,000 retail?
Fletcher: Or more—$30,000 to $50,000 or more. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, ever.
And there you have it, another episode of highbrow public television programming. The only problem? The jug wasn’t an ancient artifact; it was a ceramics class project by a high school student in the 1970s. When the show aired in January the artist Betsy Soule got a call from an old friend that her high school art creation was on TV. Soule, who gave up art in college and now trains horses, notified the show and they downgraded their appraisal to $3,000 to $5,000. Which is still amazing!
The show also issued this pretty gracious correction from Fletcher:
As far as its age is concerned, I was fooled, as were some of my colleagues. Alas, among the millions of people who watch Antiques Roadshow faithfully was a woman who identified herself as being a friend of the maker, a lady named Betsy Soule! She created this in [1973 or ’74], while in high school! The techniques of making pottery, in many ways, haven’t changed for centuries. Obviously, I was mistaken as to its age by 60 to 80 years. I feel the value at auction, based on its quality and artistic merit, is in the $3,000-$5,000 range. Still not bad for a high schooler in Oregon.”
Not bad indeed. Start posting your kids’ crummy art on Ebay!