Face jugs: pottery with personality

NEW YORK – With their bulging eyes, folky appearance and carved/incised teeth, stoneware face jugs are the most striking of Southern decorative arts forms. Although some were made in the North, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, they are mainly a Southern form.

“When a collector or historian thinks of broad term Southern pottery, face jugs always come to mind,” said Mark Zipp, a principal at Crocker Farm, a Sparks, Maryland, auction house specializing in stoneware and pottery. “Face jugs have largely sustained the handmade pottery industry in the Southeastern United States to this day, and a number of contemporary potters have gained notoriety producing them. This form, because of the modeling and sculpting involved, is easily considered among the most artistic and elaborate made in Southern ceramic production.”

A face harvest jug, Edgefield District, South Carolina, circa 1845-1855, sold for $85,000 at Crocker Farm in July 2017. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers

The exact origin of Southern face jugs can inspire spirited, sometimes heated, debate. Some experts believe this form was born out of ceramics produced in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern states in the first or second quarter of the 19th century. This form evolved into the Southern tradition by using the region’s distinctive alkaline glaze, featuring ground glass, wood ash, clay and water.

“While some 19th-century face vessels produced in the Mid-Atlantic or North depict the face with stylized Afrocentric features, a great number of them also portray the face as Caucasian,” Zipp said. “Nearly all of the faces seen on Southern face jugs, however, are sculpted to represent African Americans.”

An Edgefield face jug having an extended tongue – a rare feature – fetched $44,000 in January 2017 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

A popular theory purports that the form came to the Edgefield District of South Carolina in 1858. That was that year that slaves from the Congo arrived there, having been brought to America illegally by the slave ship Wanderer.

“A number of these slaves are documented as having worked in the Edgefield pottery industry. The similarity of Edgefield face vessels to figural carvings from Africa has led some scholars to suggest that the emergence of face-decorated pottery in the region was specifically brought by this group of Congolese slaves,” Zipp noted. “Oral histories relating the use of face jugs for spiritual or ritualistic purposes in Southern black communities is used as support for this theory. Today, it is accepted by many that the face jugs of Edgefield were produced by slaves of African descent, and this idea has certainly added to the aura and desirability of such objects.”

A face jug with kaolin eyes and teeth, Edgefield origin, circa 1860, earned $80,000 in July 2015 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers

The strong artistic appeal of face jugs has spurred many collectors to acquire face jugs, with museums starting to buy them in the early 20th century. “One major early collector was Helen Eve, the granddaughter of a 19th-century Edgefield District pottery owner, Colonel Thomas Davies. Eve acquired her collection from African-American communities in the Aiken, S.C., area during the second and third quarter of the 20th century,” he said. Several of Eve’s face jugs, all Edgefield in origin, sold in 1969 to John Gordon, a noted American folk art collector. His collection was auctioned in 1969 at Christie’s and helped drive an already established interest in Southern face vessels.

“It is important to note that Southern face vessel collecting largely began among folk art enthusiasts, and not stoneware or ceramics collectors. The portraiture of the faces, their wonderful personalities and expressive features drew in such an audience,” Zipp said.

In general, the most important and valuable Southern face jugs were made in Edgefield, circa 1845-1875. Modern face jugs area from all over the South are also highly collectible. Modern-era face jug production began on a larger scale in the late 1920s with members of the Georgia-trained Brown family of potters establishing a shop in Arden, North Carolina, whose brown-slip-glazed face jugs with broken pieces of china for teeth, are quite popular. The Cleveland, Georgia potter Cheever Meaders made some face jugs in the second and early third quarter of the 20th century. His son, Lanier, began producing them more frequently in the 1960s and gained acclaim as a folk artist, leading to an exhibit of his work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

This Brown Pottery (Arden, North Carolina) storefront-advertising devil face jug made $50,000 in July 2017 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers

“The best face jugs stand out from the rest in a number of ways,” Zipp said. “Criteria such as size, the quality of the face’s modeling, the form, and the origin all play a role in value. Other added details, such as incised inscriptions, increase value significantly.”

The general rule for face vessels is, the larger the better. Most known Edgefield examples are relatively small, measuring roughly 5 inches tall, making examples standing 7 inches or taller more valuable. Figural “preacher men” with hats, produced during the late 19th century in Alabama, are also admired for their size. In the work of late-20th-century potter Burlon B. Craig of Vale, North Carolina, an 11-inch face jug can sell for a few hundred dollars, but a large-size example, 20 inches or more, can bring several thousand.

A large Edgefield face jug, circa 1845-1865, brought $60,000 at Crocker Farm in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers

“Edgefield face vessels sell in the $30,000 to $45,000 range at auction, with better examples bringing prices nearing six figures,” Zipp said.

Face jugs are among the hottest American ceramic objects on the market today, and while the best examples command big bucks, there are affordable entry points for new collectors from circa-1930 Brown Pottery pieces to 1980s Lanier Meaders face jugs. Because these two types were made in great numbers, values remain reasonable.

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