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.