American Pickers All

On January 3rd, 2010 The American Pickers film crew came to Atlanta with a truck full of pottery for me to evaluate. I was then on TV for my 15 seconds of fame. It was fun. I ran across these pictures that someone took and I thought I would post some of them here.

All images © MudSweatAnd Tears

I remember it was really cold and windy and the crew from up north were surprised it got so cold in the South.

Anyway I bought all the pottery. There were only three or four decent pieces in all of the few dozen pieces. It took a considerable amount of time to clean up the stoneware for resale. The show’s producers call every now and and then looking for more.

The Picture

IMG_0258I have a picture of me holding a jar from a few years ago. I use this as a profile picture on this blog and a few other places. The significance of the picture is not me, it is the jar.  I “picked” this piece from a family in central Georgia. Picked is in quotes because I didn’t buy it from them as a picker might have done. I simply helped arrange for them to put it in an auction. I knew it was very valuable.

This family did not know what the jar was. They called it their “Davey Crocket” jar because it had “Dave” written on its side. Crocket? Crockery? Davey? Dave?

An elderly couple owned it. It was a son or grandson who contacted me. When that couple were children, the jar was given to their family by a man whom the family had taken in. The jar, not thought to be worth much, was all this homeless man had to pay them for their generosity. The jar became a curiosity.

I sometimes get calls or emails from people who think they may have something after watching an episode of Antique Roadshow or its like. Usually, it’s no, or it’s just junk, or it’s not nearly worth what you think it’s worth. When I was first contacted about the Davey Crocket jar I was my usual unimpressed. I just asked them to send me a picture. When I saw the picture that changed.
jug1 copyThis was a jar signed and dated by Dave. I haven’t talked about Dave here yet, but I will at some point. For now know that Dave was a slave potter in Edgefield, South Carolina. Anyway, there are only a few signed Dave’s known to exist.  These pieces, based on, aesthetics, condition, and signature variations, can bring as much or more than $40,000. But this Dave–This Dave was also decorated like a Collin Rhodes piece. At some point I’ll talk about decorations and Rhodes, et al. Just know for now that decorated stoneware is a distinct variety of valuable stoneware from Edgefield. The decoration is the slip motif or swags around the jar’s shoulders thought to have been applied by slave women.

It is the only one of its kind as far as I know, though I don’t know everything. The various decorated jars are the same time period as Dave, but not thought to made by Dave. A decorated AND signed and dated Dave? Wow. Historically it’s proof that Dave was involved in a different category of Southern pottery that no one was a ware of.

One of a kind items like this are hard to gauge the value of, because of their unique oneness. No other pieces like them that have been sold. This jar went to an auction and sold for a lot of money, but much lower than I anticipated.

The family asked me what I wanted for driving all the way down and telling them about their Dave. I said take a picture of me holding the jar. That was all I wanted. (In complete disclosure, I did get a percentage of the auctioneer’s normal fees later.) It makes me smile to think about this, because for almost 175 years that jar had probably been treated no better than a mop bucket. Now I wanted to hold their fragile lottery ticket for a picture. Were they a little afraid I might drop it?




Gallery: Catawba Valley NC Large Jug

Catawba Valley NC Large Pottery Jug

This is a Catawba Valley, NC jug. Late 19th–early 20th century. About 5 gallons in capacity and 16 inches tall. Excellent condition. See the bits of quartz in the clay body? A similar one at auction in 2017 sold for $275.Jugs are one of my favorite styles.

The Value of a Small Jar

This is a jar. Fill it with whatever and tie off a cloth over its top with a string around the neck. Some time later the ‘canning jar’ came into fashion. It looked similar to this jar, but with a ledge inside its mouth.

IMG_6693Filled to the ledge with boiled fruits and vegetables, the canning jar could then be sealed off with wax. Canning jars did not appear until mid to late 19th century. This jar is a bit earlier guessing by the rolled lip and lime-like coloring.  Sometimes there is no way to know for sure where a piece is from, as with this example. It is a simple form that is very common. There are no attached handles or spouts to help determine its origin. Just straight sides and a rolled lip. But, I do know where it is not from, and that list is fairly long, so it’s not a total mystery.

Well, what is it worth? Based on the process I go through, I’d say about $125 or a bit more. Though an attractive early example, it is unmarked, unattributable, and has a bit of damage.

The Pottery Recession

The pottery recession. It was real. It happened. What MudSweatAndTears was selling Southern pottery for in 2006 is now down to about 60% of that mark. Of course that ratio varies depending on how rare or sought after certain pottery may be.

Lower end collectors were hit harder by the economic downturn, so the lower end stuff took a bigger hit. However, the higher end collectors pulled back, too.

Luther Seth Ritchie Catawba Valley, NC
Luther Seth Ritchie Catawba Valley, NC Late 19th or early 20th century attributed to Luther Seth Ritchie–Catawba Valley, North Carolina

The good news is the recession is over, and I expect the value of stoneware to noticeable increase in the near term. In fact it is has already begun. I think that the value of things like this naturally lag behind other economic indicators.

Collecting never stopped being a good investment. Just like gold or any other commodity, it goes up and done in value, but art and history like this never loses its intrinsic value.

Bottom line: If you are thinking about getting back into collecting stoneware, or collecting anything for that matter, you should snap up what you can at current prices. Five years from now you might be able to sell what low end stuff you buy now, and get that rare piece that you’ve always considered prohibitively expensive.

Note: A similar piece to the pictured example recently sold at auction for ~$200. In a few years the same piece could be worth two or three times that value.

How to Know What Pottery is Worth

collection of Southern PotterySomething is only worth what someone has paid for it. Offering a item at a price is not the same as selling an item at a price. Someone must pay $X for ‘Y’ pottery in order to know a similar piece of ‘Y’ pottery is worth $X. To know what is similar and what is not similar is not easy.

Ebay, and other online auctions are for the most part shams, not because of the platforms, but because of the sellers. Avoid online auctions at all costs. Antiques Roadshow and other similar shows are about ratings, and ratings are driven by convincing viewers of the likelihood of having similar items in their attics. Things are valuable when they are rare. Rare means rare.

Condition is key. You can’t see condition in pictures. Often the condition as described in catalogs is somewhere between wrong to completely dishonest. You also need to know how to ascertain its condition and/or repairs. Condition and how rare it is affects value. Repairs, even good ones, usually hurt value. Seeing bad repairs makes it unattractive, and seeing good repairs makes buyers suspicious of what they may not be seeing.

Marks or lack of marks and other readily verifiable attributes on pottery pieces also affect value. The more certain you are of who and where a piece is from the better. Again, not easily done.

Values vary by collector. Value depends on what they know, or don’t know, and what type pottery they want and value.

All these factors are usually in play simultaneously.

Find a dealer or collector you trust and then trust them. Don’t try to get something of value for free. Free advice is worth every bit of its cost.

What is Glaze?

What is glaze? Glaze is what keeps the dirt waterproof. It melts at a slightly lower temperature than the clay and seals the vessel so it doesn’t leak. There are all kinds of glazes, but Southern pottery is primarily and almost exclusively the only alkaline-glazed pottery from the 19th and 20th centuries. This made Southern pottery very distinctive from the rest of the country and much of the world. Not only did the South give us jazz, blues, slow accents, and great literature. It gave us green pots. You may or may not have thought about Southern pottery as being an art form, but it is. Quite so.

So why alkaline glaze?

In the early 19th century there was a chronic need for pottery for utilitarian use in the plantations. The plantations in the South were centers of local commerce. They were usually based around agriculture, but they also delved into non-agrarian activities like light manufacturing. Many people lived and worked in the plantations, and of course they all needed to be fed and housed. Before the days of refrigeration, stoneware jugs and jars were used for food storage.  Salted meats. Grains. Molasses. (No, white-lightening was not the reason for Southern jugs.)

Cheever Meaders
Alkaline glaze, North Georgia Churn, late 19th early 20th century

Buying pottery and shipping it in from the North or from Europe was prohibitively expensive. Since salt was also rare and expensive in the South, making their own salt-glazed pottery was out of the question, too. (I’ll do a later post on the topic of the different types of glazes.)

Enter a well-educated man and plantation owner in the Edgefield district of South Carolina.  His name was Dr. Abner Landrum. He knew about the Chinese making alkaline-glazed pottery a few centuries before and had thought why not here?

The South had all the ingredients. Lots or porcelain-quality clay and kaolin from the nearby fall-line that ran through the middle of the state, and there was plenty of wood to burn for ash, which was the basic ingredient for the ash or alkaline glaze.

Landum began experimenting in the production of alkaline-glazed pottery in the early 1800’s. Because of his success, by the mid 19th century it had spread throughout much of the rest of the South. The settlers who migrated from South Carolina took the distinctively glazed pottery making art with them to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and as far West as Texas.

Each new region developed their own distinctive styles for alkaline-glazed pottery. This is why people collect Southern pottery. Because, it is holding local history in your hands.