Anna Pottery snake jugs: whimsy meets satire

NEW YORK – When it came to making stoneware, the Kirkpatrick brothers did not shy away from mixing politics with their art. Cornwall and Wallace Kirkpatrick, who founded and ran Anna Pottery, in Anna, Illinois, 1859-1896, reportedly likened politicians to a “den of vipers” and often espoused their political beliefs on the snake jugs they made. Wallace Kirkpatrick was said to have been long fascinated with snakes and had quite a few of his own. It’s also been speculated that the snake imagery here is biblically inspired and symbolizes evil and mankind’s falling from grace.

This rare centennial snake jug sold for $76,000 in October 2014 at Crocker Farm. It is dated Jan. 1, 1876, and inscribed “nice young man Just going in.” Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

A striking form among American stoneware, Anna Pottery’s snake jugs are highly desirable today. In general, the more ornate the jug, the more valuable. Pinched forms are also highly sought after. Some jugs have one or two snakes while the best examples will have multiple intertwined snakes. Occasionally, figures and other animals also appear. These sinuous jugs have huge crossover appeal, especially among stoneware collectors and folk art collectors.

“Among 19th century potters, Wallace and Cornwall Kirkpatrick took the utilitarian stoneware medium to its upper limit of artistic expression and their snake jugs represent their most imaginative and visually appealing creations,” said Luke Zipp of Crocker Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “Collectors and museums, far beyond typical stoneware enthusiasts, have recently become captivated by the form, which is reflected in the rising prices at our auctions.”

Taking the traditional glazing and firing techniques they mastered in making stoneware to the next level by adding a sophistical level of artistry – adding both whimsical and macabre elements, the Kirkpatricks transcended the utilitarian nature of stoneware.

An Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug from 1877, marked “8 to 7,” attained $120,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Setting a world auction record in November 2018 that still stands as of this writing nearly two years later, Crocker Farm sold an important Anna Pottery stoneware snake jug for $120,000 + the buyer’s premium that was one of three jugs inscribed “8 to 7,” an obscure reference to the presidential election of 1876, that the company made in 1877. Profusely decorated in Albany slip decoration, the ovoid jug had a handle in the form of a coiled snake with another 12 snakes (modeled and applied by hand) on the body.

“A pattern emerges when the jug is studied closely, as the potter has applied five snakes emerging around the midsection of the jug, each with a loop-shaped form, and then applied a second group of snakes that entwine their bodies through the first group of snakes,” according to the catalog description for this jug. Early Anna Pottery jugs often had thin snakes that almost seemed harmless but by the 1870s, the snakes were more well-formed and menacing.

Decorated elaborately with Civil War, slavery and American motifs, this snake jug earned $60,000 in March 2014 at Crocker Farm. Photo courtesy of Crocker Farm and LiveAuctioneers.

Both private and museum collectors seek these jugs out. The Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Ill. has an Anna snake jug in its collection, one of only about two dozen examples known. Its example features 12 well-defined intertwined timber rattlesnakes and three men. Understanding of the Kirkpatricks’ designs has changed a bit over the years, according to the museum. “In the 20th century, scholars saw the Kirkpatrick snake jugs as temperance warnings against the evils of drink. More recent interpreters, however, draw attention to the jugs’ grotesque, macabre, sexual and scatological aspects, their humor and their self-consciously extravagant style, and argue that they are an ironic debunking of Victorian values.”

Zipp echoed this assessment: “Judging by their large body of work, the Kirkpatricks were keenly aware of the current political climate and very willing to engage in political dialogue through their clay creations. There is no evidence that they supported the temperance movement. In fact, most of their best works, for instance their pig flasks, were made to hold alcohol. Most scholars agree that the Kirkpatrick snake jugs poke fun at temperance ideology.”

This temperance jug with snakes and a figure from 1881 brought $4,000 in January 2020 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Another fine jug in a museum collection is this circa 1865 example at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that depicts a Civil War vignette of Union soldiers trying to catch Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, who escapes them clothed as a woman. “The dark spots on the snakes’ heads identify them as copperheads – a moniker for Northerners sympathetic to the Confederate cause,” according to the museum website. The likely inspiration for this scene was probably in cartoons found in period newspapers that were ideologically in support of the North.

Besides political themes seen in only a few jugs, alcohol is a dominant motif. Several pieces have applied figures of men (often partial torsos) with pained facial expressions. Often there are inscriptions on the side of the jugs referencing the men “going in.” This can be presumed to mean the men are going into the (whiskey) jug to be trapped under the spell of alcohol.

The essence of the appeal of these pieces lies in their exuberant decoration and the layered symbolism and messaging. Along with crosshatching and witty written inscriptions, the snakes –be they copperheads or rattlers – and figures are well molded in exacting detail. Several figures on this jug are molded in fine detail from a Union soldier to an African-American face to what appears to be Abraham Lincoln. A slavery motif present on that jug is a set of stoneware chain links.

Made in the “Little Brown Jug” style, this snake jug dates to 1876, The Kirkpatricks were prolific potters, making many utilitarian wares but still infused them with a high degree of artistry. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“The more elaborate they are, the more valuable they are,” said Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Whether one is looking at the larger jugs that might stand about 10 inches from base to the top of the stopper and having multiple snakes to smaller examples about 5 inches tall, with just one snake, all are desirable. “The market is very strong still for Anna.”

Pewabic Pottery: Detroit’s Arts & Crafts survivor

NEW YORK – Not everyone is familiar with Pewabic Pottery (pronounced Puh-WOB-ic), but for anyone from Detroit and the southeastern Michigan area it’s a revered and venerable institution.

In 1903, Mary Chase Perry Stratton, who went to art school in Cincinnati and New York where she worked in clay sculpture and china painting, joined her neighbor, Horace James Caulkins, to make pottery. Caulkins was in the dental supply business and had had developed a kiln for making dental enamel. Perry and Caulkins fired their first vases and tiles in that kiln. They worked out of a coach house at the back of a mansion located at John R. and Alfred streets in Detroit.

In 1907, they built a Tudor Revival structure at 10125 E. Jefferson Ave. to house their studio and laboratory, which is still there, still functioning and operational as a headquarters. The structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

Early Pewabic Pottery vase, 17¼in high, having a matte glaze boasting teal tones with a floral relief to the bodice, bearing two ‘Pewabic Detroit’ paper labels to the surface, est. $1,500-$2,000, sold for $30,000 + buyer’s premium at an auction held July 21, 2019 by DuMouchelles in Detroit. DuMouchelles and LiveAuctioneers image

Pewabic Pottery is notable for the iridescent glazes on the many handmade decorative objects it produces, such as lamps, vessels and especially architectural tiles, a staple in the firm’s history. The glaze of the tiles has been described as being “like an oil slick with an incredible translucent quality and a phantasmagoric depth of color.” Over the years they’ve been used in churches, concert halls, fountains, libraries, museums, schools and public buildings, mostly in Michigan.

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent blue vase, signed, in perfect condition, 10½in high, est. $2,500-$3,500, sold for $2,880 (inclusive of the buyer’s premium) at an auction held March 16, 2019 by California Historical Design in Alameda, Calif. California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers image

But the rest of the country has taken notice, too. Tiles grace such buildings as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Herald Square in New York City; and Herzstein Hall at Rice University in Houston. Michigan installations include Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers), Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Third Man Records in Detroit and stations for the Q-Line in Detroit.

Perry Stratton’s and Caulkins’ collaboration and business partnership produced a blend of art and technology that gave the pottery its distinctive qualities as Detroit’s contribution to the International Arts and Crafts movement, as exemplified by the American Craftsman style.

Mary Chase Perry Stratton (1867-1961) for Pewabic Pottery, ‘All by Myself I Have to Go’ tile
glazed ceramic, 11¾in square, original redwood frame: 15¾in wide x 15 5/8in high, est. $2,000-$3,000, sold for $7,000 + buyer’s premium. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

They chose the word “Pewabic” to call their company, as it’s derived from the Native American Ojibwe, or Chippewa, word “wabic” (meaning metal) or “bewabic” (which means iron or steel). Specifically, it refers to the old Pewabic copper mine near Hancock, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula where Perry Stratton was raised. Today, the Detroit facility operates as a nonprofit educational institution, and Pewabic tile continues to be in great demand throughout southeastern Michigan and the U.S.

“Pewabic pieces can be found all across the United States and are even represented within the collection of the Louvre in Paris, France,” said Lori Stefek at Stefek’s Auctions in Roseville, Michigan. “There is a growing appreciation for Pewabic Pottery within the auction industry. We have sold pieces to buyers in many states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois.”

Stefek added, “The distinctive glaze is … a signature feature of Pewabic Pottery. Being from Detroit, you know when you walk into a space that features Pewabic tiles; the glazes capture the eye immediately. As an auctioneer I see a lot of pottery, and you know right away when a true Pewabic piece comes through for its distinctive look and craftsmanship.”

Large Pewabic Pottery iridescent pottery vase, formerly mounted as a lamp, American, 20th century, with ‘Pewabic Detroit’ medallion paper label to underside, 18½in high, est. $6,000-$8,000, sold for $6,500 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Sept. 17, 2015 at Stefek’s in Roseville, Mich. Stefek’s Autioneers and LiveAuctioneers image

“In this age of disposable products, Pewabic pieces are still produced with the same care that Mary Chase Perry Stratton intended,” Stefek said. “The innovation and creative direction that Pewabic was founded on is still carried on today, and that attention to detail attracts a wide variety of collectors and new buyers alike who desire handcrafted goods over mass-produced generic pieces. No wonder it’s still one of the longest lasting pottery studios in the Midwest.”

“Pewabic Pottery has always been known for remarkable quality, and for that reason it received nationally acclaim,” said Rachel Szymusiak, cataloger and appraiser for Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Pewabic has supplied decorative and architectural tiles to many places, due to its remarkable quality and enduring consistency. The iridescent glaze is unmistakably Pewabic and the quintessential shapes and styles are timeless, both decoratively and practically.”

Pewabic Pottery vase having a short neck above a rounded shoulder continuing to a tapered base, and an iridescent drip glaze over mottled blue, 5 inches tall, est. $200-$400, sold for $1,300 + buyer’s premium at an auction held May 12, 2018 by Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Mich. Schmidt’s Antiques and LiveAuctioneers image

Gus Bolstrom of California Historical Design Inc. in Alameda, California, said Pewabic Pottery is known and revered throughout America, “not only because they were making incredible Arts & Crafts Pottery – they were early in the movement right from the earliest days of their inception back in 1903 – they were making incredible iridescent glazes unlike anyone else at the time.”

Bolstrom added, “Pewabic Pottery is one of the only pottery studios from the Arts & Crafts period still in business today. This allows collectors of modest means to afford something made from their kilns. Interest in many pieces of the Arts & Crafts Movement has been down for the past 10-20 years, but Pewabic Pottery seems to hold its own better than most other potteries.”

Pewabic Pottery vase, metallic glazed ceramic, impressed signature, 4 inches high, in excellent condition with nice drip glaze, est. $450-$550, sold for $850 + buyer’s premium at an auction held Dec. 3, 2016 by Treadway Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Ill. Treadway Toomey Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image

As an example, Bolstrom pointed to a 16-inch carved Pewabic Pottery vase that sold not long ago for $53,125 (including buyer’s premium) at Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Illinois. “That may be a record for a piece of Pewabic pottery,” he said, adding, “I reached out to a few collectors of Pewabic in the San Francisco Bay area to gauge market demand. The consensus is there will continue to be strong demand because of the rarity and the exceptional fine glazes.”

Rachel Szymusiak at Schmidt’s Antiques said, “There has always been demand for earlier pieces, and in general we see the demand as steadily increasing. Again, the timelessness of the pieces, consistent quality, and exceptional craftsmanship will ensure a reliable demand.”

Pewabic decorated tiles, metallic glazed ceramic, Detroit, overall 17 x 24in. Sold for $2,000 + buyer’s premium. Treadway and LiveAuctioneers image

Lori Stefek said Pewabic’s popularity among designers and collectors has remained steady throughout the years. “A lot of variables go into the demand for the pieces, including the shapes, sizes, and rarity of the glazes,” she said. “I don’t see Pewabic losing its market demand anytime soon, and if anything it has the potential for higher demand. The younger generation, especially in Detroit, is starting to move back toward appreciating quality products made in Detroit due to the city’s renaissance. They’re attracted to the tenacity of Pewabic’s heritage during the turbulent times of Detroit’s history. The Internet has also opened up the market to interested people across the globe who wish to learn more and have the chance to acquire a Pewabic piece of their own.”

The wide world of tin-glazed earthenware

NEW YORK – Earthenware has a long history dating back nearly 30,000 years. The ability to form earth and clay into storage, drinking, cooking and household utensils proved helpful, especially as a nomadic life transitioned into more stable communities.


Earthenware by its nature is porous. Forming earth and clay into a pot or utensil, then allowing it to dry has limited use. It is fragile, unable to hold liquid and cannot be made too large as it is bulky, heavy and easily damaged. Firing it at temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees C (2,000 F) is the only way to strengthen it for daily use as a storage container.

However, to make it impermeable for the storage of liquids, a thin, clear coat of lead glaze and other oxides was fired to seal the pot. Later a tin oxide was added to form a white glaze from which a hand-painted decorative element could be applied.

A Rouen faience tray, mid 18th century, “decorated in the Rococo manner with an amourous Watteauesque couple set in a stylized garden setting,” according to the auction description. It sold for about $12,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy: Dreweatts Donnington Priory and LiveAuctioneers

Lead glaze vs. tin glaze

To fire correctly, the basic composition of clay used for earthenware today is 25% kaolin (a silicate), 25% ball clay, 35% quartz and 15% feldspar. When formed together and fired the result is a biscuit, or bisque, from which the final product is glazed and decorated.

A lead-based vitreous compound consisting of powdered glass melts over the earthenware at very high temperatures to create a glossy, transparent, impermeable coating. This type of “enameling” has been found in China as early as the 13th century B.C. Lead glaze is more durable than the tin-glazed compound and is used for molded decorative items that are painted after firing. Lead glaze alone was largely replaced by tin glaze about the 15th century.

Tin oxide was added to the lead glaze about the eighth century in region that is now Iraq to create a white opaque compound allowing colorful overglazes and design to be painted directly onto a mostly flat surface before being fired. This process required more skill since mistakes couldn’t be corrected and therefore was more expensive to produce. Tin oxide became difficult to get during World War I and zirconium and zircon has since been substituted as a cheaper alternative, except in very small quantities.

Identifying tin-glazed earthenware

Once tin oxide was added to lead glaze, most collectible earthenware is made with this formulation.


This is the French name for tin-glazed pottery first produced during the 15th century Renaissance period in the Italian city of Faenza, near Ravenna. Today, it is more of a catch phrase for white tin-glazed pottery glaze that doesn’t have its own particular style. Usually the term refers only to the tin-glazed wares made in France, Germany and Scandinavia.

Two 19th century Italian majolica plaques depicting saints “in the manner of Benozzo Gozzoli (Italian, 1421-1497),” according to the auction catalog description. The pair sold for $38,000 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy of Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Maiolica, Majolica

Said to have come from the Spanish island of Majorca to Italy in the 15th century, this style of tin-glazed pottery is highly decorated with vibrant stylized natural or historical events known as istoriato. It is common in collector circles to identify lead-glaze pottery as majolica and tin-glaze pottery as maiolica.

Mid-18th century Dutch blue and white delftware, the smaller plate hallmarked with ‘IVDH’ for Jan van der Hagen of the ‘Het Jonge Moriaanshooft’ workshop. Image courtesy: Thomaston Place Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers


A vibrant blue and white tin-glazed pottery from the city of Delft in the Netherlands. This style is easily recognized in the Delft blue tiles and jars showing Dutch scenes such as windmills. The heyday of Delftware is from 1640 to 1740 but became popular in England (known as English Delftware), Japan and China in the 18th century. Delftware production continued at a greatly reduced level through Victorian times into the 20th century. 

A 19th century luster glazed Etruscan-style charger featuring bulls, lions and other animals surrounding a large rooster in iridescent black, red and gold from the Italian potter Ulisse Cantagalli recently sold for $2,500 + the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Neue Auctions and LiveAuctioneers


Tin-glaze pottery having a golden iridescent sheen is aptly named luster, or lusterware. Originating in the Middle East in the ninth century, this metallic glaze of copper and other metallic oxides provides an earthy brown to the white tin-glaze underglaze. Luster decoration became popular with English potteries in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Tin glazed Hispano-Moresque copper luster charger, probably 16th century, decorated with leaves, flowers and acorns with luster gold rings and small circles decorating the reverse that sold for $2,200 + the buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy of Hyde Park Country Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Hispano-Moresque ware

Produced during the period of Muslim Spain beginning in the eighth century, tin-glaze earthenware was originally produced using Islamic and Christian elements, particularly the “IHS” monogram and personal coats-of-arms for export to Europe. The 14th and 15th centuries constituted the peak period before the Italian maiolica earthenware become prominent.

Specialty ware

Saint-Porchaire Ware

From 1520 to 1550, a specialized and highly detailed bas relief white lead glaze earthenware was produced in the French city of Saint-Porchaire intended only for high-end collectors of the time. Known as Henri II ware or Saint-Porchaire Ware, only about 70 pieces survive from the period.

Palissy Ware

French potter Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) created high relief, polychrome lead-glaze natural scenes such as fish, snakes, frogs and even mussels often from taking casts of the real thing. Known also as “rustic ware,” most examples at auction are 19th and 20th century reproductions attributed to the style of Palissy while the 16th century originals are considered museum pieces.

Made for export to the United States, this early 19th century English creamware jug made in Liverpool features President Thomas Jefferson surrounded by a garland and the 13 original states that sold for $5,500 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy: Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers


Making use of the white, glassy lead-glaze coating, potters in 18th century England, particularly from Staffordshire and Leeds, created a relatively inexpensive substitute for porcelain. Josiah Wedgwood’s production of what was called pearlware was so prolific by 1780, that his mass- produced transferware was exported throughout Europe and undercut the more expensively produced tin-glazed, hand-painted earthenware.


When reviewing auction values for vintage lead-glaze or tin-glaze earthenware, it doesn’t seem as if there is a significant difference in the final hammer prices. The style, period, age and condition dictate what is more collectible.

Tin-glazed earthenware doesn’t hold up as well as lead glaze, however. Edges, posts and the feet of tin-glazed objects are prone to crack and decay more often than the harder edge lead-glaze pottery.

While most early tin-glaze and lead-glaze pottery have higher auction values, a resurgence in replicating early Renaissance tin-glaze pottery in Italy in the early 20th century can be an alternative. Artists such as Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Alan Caiger-Smith and others from the 1920s to the 1950s can be the start of an alternative collection. Even Picasso has his own brand of tin-glaze earthenware design.

There is a lot more to glazed earthenware to discover. With so many design elements and periods to choose from, tin-glaze and lead-glaze earthenware easily lends itself to the collector mantra: Collect what you like first.

Blue Staffordshire: timeless elegance in deep, rich hues

NEW YORK – Thanks to the plentiful availability of clay, salt, lead and coal in the area, Staffordshire, England became a bustling center of ceramic production starting as far back as the early 1600s. Hundreds of firms make all manner of pottery, from tableware and decorative pieces to more industrial items. Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain were all produced in huge quantities and Staffordshire became a major innovator of bone china, jasperware, transfer printing and glazing.

Staffordshire had a major advantage over other potteries of the day: it was the strongest in the middle and low-price ranges (although fine and expensive types were also made). It was the affordability factor that helped propel North Staffordshire to the largest producer of ceramics in all of Britain by the late 18th century, even though there were many significant centers elsewhere. Starting in the 1800s, large export markets took Staffordshire pottery literally around the world.

Historical blue Staffordshire ‘New York Heights from Near Brooklyn’ platter, 19th century, by A. Stevenson, with repaired rim, 12¾in x 16¼in, est. $150-$250, sold for $1,200 at an auction held Oct. 21, 2017. Image courtesy Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Blue Staffordshire is what caught on most quickly with the buying public, for its deep, rich color and gorgeous, intricate patterns. Flow blue was a style of white earthenware that originated in the Regency era, sometime in the 1820s, also in Staffordshire. The name was derived from the blue glaze that blurred or “flowed” during the firing process. Most flow blue could be categorized as transferware, as the decorative patterns were applied with a paper stencil to white-glazed blanks.

“Blue and white is a timeless combination that will be popular in perpetuity, for its classic elegance and versatility,” said Pam Briggs, a pottery and porcelain specialist with Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, N.C. “The blue transferware styles adopted by makers like Staffordshire in the 18th and 19th centuries made finely decorated tableware accessible to an ever-growing middle class.”

Group of flow blue tableware, Staffordshire, England, 19th century, three tea bowls, a covered sugar, three saucers, a low bowl, three plates (two decorated in the Sheltered Peasant design). Eleven pieces total. Largest plate 10¼in diameter, sold for $240 at an auction held Aug. 4, 2018. Image courtesy Leland Little Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Briggs added, “Traditional designs have lost some popularity in the past 15 years but have recently made a comeback as consumers begin to incorporate classic elements in their home décor to soften other, more modern pieces. The blue Staffordshire pieces that command the highest prices, and are most likely to hold value, are those with historical interest, like ones that depict a landmark building or scene, or those that evoke a personal connection with buyers.”

The multi-cultural element that went into the development of blue Staffordshire was explained by Tom Curran of Litchfield Auctions in Litchfield, Conn. “There’s a reason it’s called royal blue, particularly in England,” Curran said. “Historically expensive, the pigments were originally from the Middle East and used to decorate pottery with classic Islamic motifs, then perfected by the Chinese with their discovery of porcelain. Added to the enormous risks and expense of the early China trade was the closely guarded secret of porcelain.”

Lot of 15 blue Staffordshire dinner plates English, circa 1800. Clews, Adams, Wood, Stubbs & Kent, Longport and others, ranging in diameter from 9¼in to 10½in, est. $600-$900, sold for $700 at an auction held Oct. 13, 2016. Image courtesy Litchfield Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

He went on, “So, blue and white ceramics just screamed class and wealth and we saw the Dutch first copying the Chinese with primitive pottery imitations from Delft. In the 19th century, English potteries in Staffordshire found a huge demand among the general population for affordable imitations of the fine porcelain owned by the upper classes, with blue and white remaining the standard. Even when porcelain and bone china became more common and affordable, the charm of antique Staffordshire made it appealing to 20th century antique collectors for their mantels, china cabinets and plate racks.”

Not today though, Curran remarked. “Antique Staffordshire often has minute chips, crazing and knife scratches, isn’t dishwasher or microwave safe and screams ‘grandma.’ So, collections built over the years have plummeted in appeal and value contrasted with decorative blue and white Chinese ceramics still warm from the kiln stepping in at Walmart and T.J. Maxx prices.”

Historical Blue Staffordshire Soup Bowl the Beach at Brighton with Shell Border, 9¾in diameter, in very good condition, est. $50-$100, sold for $550 at an auction held Nov. 7, 2015. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. (division of Hess Auction Group) and LiveAuctioneers

In his experience, Curran concluded, “It’s unusual subjects and the earliest examples of American historical or commemorative subjects that still sell decently – John Paul Jones, the Boston Massacre, General Lafayette. While the prices aren’t what they were, they’re still terrific examples of the creativity and marketing reach of the Staffordshire potteries of the 19th century.”

Joseph Perron of Merrill’s Auctions in Williston, Vermont, said the intense blue hues of early Staffordshire held an appeal for both collectors and decorators alike, one that endures today. “Whether it be a small arrangement of blue Staffordshire items on a wall or a shelf, or a large collection in a cabinet, their rich colors can have a truly dramatic effect in a room,” he said.

Circa 1819-1835 deep blue historical Staffordshire porcelain plate with transfer decoration titled ‘America and Independence’ showing scenic landscape and Washington memorial cartouche, surrounded by festoon bearing the names of 15 states, 8¾in diameter, est. $100-$200, sold for $175 at an auction held June 21, 2019. Image courtesy Duane Merrill & Co. and LiveAuctioneers

“Also, despite massive quantities of this type of ware being exported to the American market in the 19th century, due to the delicate nature of the porcelain, it is quite remarkable that any of it survives, which makes it all the more coveted by collectors. The combination of the potter’s art combined with the skill of the printmaker executing the transfer designs also broadens the appeal of this type of porcelain. Strong visual themes delight the collector, and detailed depictions of historic events appeal to those seeking a greater understanding of the past.”

As most of the best examples of blue Staffordshire are now in public and private collections, Perron believes the opportunity for discovery of unknown or scarce examples becomes rare, so collectors will compete more for the best examples when they come to the market. “However,” he said, “condition and subject matter will continue to be important drivers of demand. Unusual forms and scenery will continue to demand increasing prices, but more average examples with heavily floral decoration may stagnate.”

English dark blue Staffordshire soft paste pitcher with repair to rim, 7½in tall, est. $100-$200, sold for $110 at an auction held April 22, 2014. Image courtesy William Bunch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Perron added, “We see collectors particularly interested in pieces with fantastical depictions of quadruped animals because they’re flamboyantly graphic and employ an endearingly naive sensibility about what was considered ‘rare’ and ‘exotic’ in the 19th century. The historical scene decorated pieces were produced in less quantity than the more typical wares to begin with, so their desirability by collectors will continue to increase. It seems that this type of porcelain is an exception to many other ceramics in that it will continue to hold appeal to both older and younger buyers.

Production of blue Staffordshire, which had already begun to decline in the late 19th century, took severe hits during and following World Wars I and II. Some production in the area still continues to this day, but only a fraction of what it was during its peak years and heyday.

Lacquered wares cross many cultures

What started as a utilitarian need for watertight objects eventually became its own art form known as lacquerware. To keep wood, pottery tin and other metal objects watertight, layers of natural lacquer were brushed onto boxes, buckets, trays and other household items. Once dried, though, lacquer turns a distinctly dark black which is not always a designer choice of color. That’s why, over time, artistic designs were added to help make the item more decorative as well as useful.

Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, is a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer and carved with small knives. Image courtesy Bally Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Lacquerware:  5000 BCE China, Japan, Korea

Around 7,000 years ago, sap from Toxicodendron vernicifluum, a tree grown and cultivated only in East Asia, was refined into a useable waterproof compound used to coat household items such as tableware, boxes, furniture, trays, bowls, screens and even coffins.

Known in China as a varnish tree, the sap is tapped by cutting into the bark and collected. Smaller branches are soaked in water and its sap is collected, all of which contains urushiol, the skin irritant in poison oak. Once exposed to air, the sap slowly turns black. After being strained and heated to remove moisture, the final product, lacquer, is stored in airtight containers ready to be brushed onto wood, tin or another metallic object.

A 17th century Chinese lacquerware dish in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The process of applying lacquer is a time-consuming process, usually over several days. Each successive layer, 20 or more at times, is left to dry and harden before another layer can be applied. Curiously, in order for lacquer to dry it must be placed in a moist atmosphere such as caves, according to early Chinese accounts. This process can take as long as 18 days before a design can be introduced. This process was eventually spread to Japan and the Korean peninsula by the sixth century.

Decoration can include gold, silver, charcoal, white lead, and mother of pearl surrounding decorative plants, animals and intricately carved domestic scenes. Carved lacquer, known as diaoqi, started with a buildup of many layers of different color lacquer (red, known as cinnabar, green, brown and even purple) until it was quite thick. Once dried, an intricate design was carved by hand into the object.

Chinese lacquerware was prominent throughout each dynastic period with its process a closely guarded state secret. Exports of generally mundane consumer items began in the 17th century to Europe but by the middle of the 19th century Chinese lacquerware was no longer a stable export.

An example of a 19th century European ‘japanned’ tea tray on display at the Birmingham History Galleries, UK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Japanning: 17th Europe

Chinese exported its lacquerware to Europe by the early 17th century, mostly to the Netherlands, Italy, France and Great Britain by the East India Company, but it was mostly utilitarian items, not its most noted artwork. Yet, Chinese lacquerware became popular at all levels of society. The process of lacquer production as practiced in East Asia for thousands of years was limited to the sap from the varnish tree which grew only there. And China wasn’t sharing its secret. An alternative needed to be developed.

A viable lacquer was finally discovered from the secretions of the female lac bug known as Kerria lacca. Mixed with ethyl alcohol, these secretions became known as shellac, which dries into a high-gloss finish.

Black lacquer as a base with Japanese motifs such as this 18th century pocket watch was made in the UK and is on display at the Walkers Art Museum in Baltimore, Md. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With this discovery, Italian craftsmen saw an opportunity to expand a market for the popular East Asian lacquerware, particularly from Japan, by creating their own Asian-themed designs that they felt represented daily life there usually on heavily lacquered tin and ironware in stark black or red with gold painted decoration. Because Asian societies were generally closed to outsiders, particularly to Europeans, scenes depicted by Italian craftsmen were more imaginary than realistic.

Still, japanning, as the art form was known in Europe, became popular from the early 18th century until the late 19th century. Once its popularity declined by 1920, the focus moved away from japanning metal items to japanning bicycles. In fact, by 1887, the Sunbeam bicycle company was formed to create the ubiquitous black japanned bicycle with gold stenciled markings.

A painted toleware coffeepot that sold for $1,200. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Toleware: 18th century Americas

By the time lacquerware was introduced in 18th century America, rolling mills were being perfected in Pontypool, England. Pressing bars of steel and iron between rotating wheels allowed for the cost-effective formation of plates, coated with tin, then stamped into household goods like trays, candle holders, breadboxes, plates and utensils for export and commercial trade.

Once formed, the goods were coated against corrosion with a special blend of linseed oil, an asphalt compound, turpentine and other industrial compounds. The final dark varnish (a version of lacquer) is called “japan black.” Henry Ford’s Model T was painted with “japan black” giving rise to his quote that “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Once the varnish is applied to iron, steel or tin-plated items and cooled, the item is decorated similar to the Japanese lacquerware, known as japanning.

An example of a hand lamp that is varnished with basic ‘japan black’ without the added decoration that sold for $50. Image courtesy Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

Rather than import these items from England and France, communities in North and South America, particularly in 18th century New England (mostly Boston and Hartford, Conn.) and the Pennsylvania Dutch, manufactured, hand-painted and later stenciled their own tin, pewter and metal goods for trade and home use. It was called toleware from the French term tôle peinte or painted sheet and practiced as tole painting.

The production of hand-painted toleware lasted from early 18th century to late 19th century when its popularity declined. There has been a resurgence of tole painting from the late 20th century within communities as an individual art project with classes, workshops and even organized groups such as the Society of Decorative Painters or the National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters.


Acrylic paints have replaced the variations of natural and industrial lacquers common before 1950 or so. Their use is simply more efficient, cost effective to produce and is more conducive to innovation where the early lacquer was easily more time consuming and toxic to create.

Lacquers aside, in the end it is difficult to distinguish vintage lacquerware in any of its forms. The use of different lacquers might just help on an atomic level (which is why this article focuses on types of lacquer) but the decorations applied, styles used or even what colors are predominant simply don’t lend itself to specific periods, which can be easily categorized without knowing each local style. Even the carved lacquer of early China is faithfully reproduced today.

Varnishing with lacquer wasn’t limited to just household items. Furniture was also ‘japanned’ such as this chest of drawers that sold for $375. Image courtesy Dumouchelles and LiveAuctioneers

Still, certain characteristics do stand out. Japanned items from France in the 17th and early 18th century, for example, have a rougher surface and more rust from peeling varnish because they hand stamped their iron or steel plate which produced more uneven surfaces.

What do collectors like? Collectors like bright colors, intact inlays like mother of pearl or gold leaf, regional styles such as “thumb work” of the Pennsylvania Dutch, flowers, Japanese or Chinese motifs, or any number of combinations. Decorators love the blend of colors that stand out. Most examples after 1950 are widely available for under $100.

Since variation is the main theme of lacquerware, whatever its name, the first rule of collecting applies: Collect what you like first.

Rookwood defines American art pottery

NEW YORK – In American art pottery, there is perhaps no more important name than the Rookwood Pottery Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio, an industry leader since the pottery was launched by Maria Longworth Nichols in 1880 as one of the first U.S. manufacturing companies founded by a woman. 

Rookwood has long been renowned for not only its talented decorators but its scientific experimentation, resulting in innovations such as “air-brush” glaze application and some of the most sought-after glazes used in pottery. 

This Rookwood Black Iris vase with swallows and ivy by Kataro Shirayamadani in 1907 made $43,500 in June 2015 at Humler & Nolan. Photo courtesy of Humler & Nolan and LiveAuctioneers.

Rookwood artists changed the way art pottery was created. “They were arguably the best at underglaze decorating,” said Don Treadway, owner of Treadway Gallery in Cincinnati and a specialist in the Arts and Crafts movement. “From their inception, there was nobody producing the quality of work they produced. They were the best at this technique by far and their vellum glaze was another innovation others couldn’t copy.”

Underglaze decorating techniques were mainly developed through significant research and development by Rookwood’s founder and its expert staff. Rookwood was the first company of its kind to hire a glaze chemist to scientifically research glaze chemistry and perfect the glazes. The many international awards it garnered attest to its success, which continues today with crystalline glazes on the cutting edge of new multiglaze decorating techniques.

Attributed to Kataro Shirayamadani for Rookwood, this Fish vase, 1898, in Tiger Eye glaze, sold for $16,000 in March 2016 at Treadway Toomey. Photo courtesy of Treadway Toomey and LiveAuctioneers.

“These glazes were perfected, a time-consuming early research and development project, before the Rookwood decorators could then use them to paint as artists did on canvas. Importantly, each artist had to have a thorough understanding of glaze interactions for the colors to commingle and work together as a unit,” said George Hibben, historian and tour coordinator for the Rookwood Pottery Co. “The atomizer was perfected by Laura Fry in the 1880s and allowed glazes to be sprayed, fading from color to color in a smooth transition. Rookwood vases were thus sprayed with a few glazes, then decorated, creating a seamless canvas of artistic beauty on a three-dimensional form. This was a radical transformation of artistry.”

Rookwood led the industry by adhering to high standards of quality control while always experimenting to improve and develop new and striking glazes. “Oral tradition says that Rookwood never fired a kiln without there being experimental pieces in the mix,” said Riley Humler, auction director and art pottery expert for Humler & Nolan in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A William P. McDonald for Rookwood Pottery Sea Scene vase, 1897, fetched $19,000 in June 2018 at Treadway Gallery. Photo courtesy of Treadway Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Stylistic themes have tended to change about every 10 years throughout Rookwood’s history, Hibben said. “Asian-inspired themes were popular and tend to be prior to 1910 and include dragons, birds and koi fish in flowing themes. Many of these were executed by Kataro Shirayamadani or Albert Valentien. Native American portraits were popular during the 1890s with many artists contributing, the best possibly being Grace Young. Tight geometric designs were seen in the 1920s-30s with Sara Sax and Arthur Conant being among the best decorators in this style. Abstract decorations of animals and nudes evolved in the 1930s-40s, Jens Jensen being one artist sought after by collectors.”

Great examples of Rookwood hail from every era but the most desirable Rookwood pieces today date from the late 1910s to the early 1930s, Humler said. “This is a period of great technical achievement at Rookwood coupled with innovative work by many of Rookwood’s better artists. These pieces have always been of interest to collectors but they seem to be gaining favor and holding value better than some. Early examples of Rookwood (early 1880s pieces) have recently gotten a boost of collector interest and are doing well.”

Better items, regardless of price range, are doing well, Treadway said. “The standard glaze floral examples aren’t very popular as has been the case for a long time. Native American portraits have continually done well and sculptural examples are also very popular but rare to find. Unusual glaze examples are often very sought after but they are in short supply.”

A Rookwood Standard Indian portrait twin-handled vase by Grace Young, 1900, took $29,000 in November 2013 at Humler & Nolan. Photo courtesy of Humler & Nolan and LiveAuctioneers.

Glazes have been innovative throughout Rookwood’s history with updated versions equally as eye-catching, Hibben said. “From 1880 to 1885, the Limoges style of underglaze decoration involved new colors in slip decoration, allowing texture and creating depth of color. Standard Glaze was in vogue from about 1884 to 1909. The elusive Goldstone-Tiger Eye Glaze was hard to control, but award winning from 1884 to 1900 (the modern cousin being Nebula).”

“Luxurious and soft mat glazes were developed in a variety of colors beginning about 1900, with this color palette being used for architectural tile installations,” he said. “Vellum Glaze was developed in 1904 and used until 1948, yielding a translucent softness to landscape decorations and harbor scenes. Ivory Jewel Porcelain, from 1916 to 1953, is a translucent to semitranslucent glaze, yielding a softness to the artistic decorations.

Lesser known but equally appealing glazes include Black Opal, French Red, Butterfat, Nacreous (used only in 1915 and now Kaleido), drip glazes and fades (continues today), Wax Mat, Bengal Brown, and a multitude of others, he added. “Rookwood glazes have always been evolving, roughly every five to 10 years over the history, and that trend continues today with continued experimentation to find the next most interesting glazes.”

An important proto-Lorelei vase for Rookwood by Artus Van Briggle, 1898, having a Paris Exposition Universelle 1900 label, achieved $150,000 in June 2016 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Regardless of their era, great Rookwood pieces have several traits in common: great artwork and great condition, Humler said. “Being fresh to the market is also important. Pieces that have never been sold before are apt to stir collector interest but the ultimate yardstick is excellent art and condition.” 

“When considering a piece, listen to the piece. As strange as this sounds, if it speaks to you or tugs at your heart or soul, that connection may be the best advice when considering a Rookwood piece,” Hibben said. “I have sometimes defined the attraction to Rookwood as a virus, inexplicable, but once inside you, something that cannot be cured.”

Warm and casual Southwest style enjoying revival

NEW YORK (AP) – A desert storm is brewing in the design world. Renewed interest in earthy color palettes, rich textures, tribal patterns and rustic elements has sparked a revival of Southwestern decorating style, long associated with homes in New Mexico and Arizona.

The look is interesting and exciting but also warm and casual, designers say.

William Acheff, b. 1947, AOA, NAWA, ‘Pueblo’s Pottery,’ signed l/r: © WM. Acheff, 1982, oil on canvas,16in. by 26in. Image courtesy of Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“The overarching trend for 2019 is all about being real. It’s about surrounding yourself with nature, including natural fibers and earth tones,” said Dayna Isom Johnson, a trend expert with, the online marketplace that focuses on handmade and vintage goods. That’s a change from 2018, she says, when “it was fantasy, celestial and unicorns,” design inspired by mythology and science fiction.

Southwestern decor – distinguished by colorful, geometric prints and a palette that includes periwinkle, terra-cotta, cream and tan – often evokes a desert feel, said Maggie Lydecker, a designer for the online home-goods store,

Large Navajo pictorial rug, circa 1930, native handspun wool, aniline dyes, 74½in. x 107¼in. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Southwestern looks feature natural elements that bring the outdoors inside even in a small space that could otherwise look stark,” she said. “For those who are hesitant to pinpoint one particular style, Southwestern can be a nice compromise, as it encompasses many different elements such as batik, leather or relaxed linen. It is easy to mix and match with this style – so what’s not to love?”

Since many homes are in styles or regions that don’t automatically scream “Southwest,” start with small touches, Isom Johnson suggests. “When a trend happens, you don’t have to deck out your entire home,” she said.

Frank Peshlakai (1903-1965) Navajo silver and turquoise jewelry box, marked ‘FP’ with the artist’s arrow hallmark on inside of lid; 1.75in. high x 3.75in. wide x 4.75in., mid-20th century. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Consider adding a throw to your bed, a rug in your foyer, a piece of pottery on a living room table or new knobs to your kitchen cabinets, she said.

Linda Robinson, who works as an interior designer in Arizona, says that even there she adheres to the principle of blending Southwestern pieces with other elements. “It can be beautiful – the mixing,” she said. “Mixing gives character. It’s very today.”

Navajo Third Phase Chief’s Blanket, finely woven in aniline dye; nine stepped diamond anchor points, 77in. x 58.5in, circa 1880-1885. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

She routinely combines Southwestern items with European antiques or Persian rugs. Two or three antique Apache baskets on a French secretary desk would create “a real focal point,” she said. She often uses wood or metal tables as pedestals to display eye-catching Southwestern pottery, baskets or art. She also gravitates to furniture with clean lines because it allows such special pieces to pop.

Traditional terra-cotta tiles are another mainstay of this style and can be interspersed throughout the home, Lydecker said. “Bathrooms, kitchens and stairways are great spots to have some fun with tile and clay elements,” she said.

Acoma Pueblo four-color pottery water jar, circa 1900, painted with birds and foliage, 7in. high x 9¼in. diameter. Image courtesy of Westport Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Osa Atoe, a potter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, incorporates geometric patterns and neutral colors with a Southwestern feel in her pottery. The look is classic, she says, and easily fits in different homes. Her pieces are “colorful and neutral at the same time.”

Vanessa Boer of Portland, Oregon, designs Southwestern-inspired housewares. “My shop’s focus is on textiles, primarily pillows, so people are able to add a pop of color or bold pattern on a couch or chair,” she said. “This adds some fun or character without having your entire living room covered in patterns, or feeling so entrenched in a specific style that you feel compelled to redecorate a year later.”

Western Apache pictorial olla basket, 16in. high, 12in. diameter. Estimate $5,000-$7,000. Image courtesy of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

When done right, Southwestern pieces will gel with elements already in your home, Lydecker said.

“The textiles are often layered, which creates a relaxed, inviting ambiance,” she said. “With white being popular for walls and overall room palettes, Southwestern decorative elements provide a playful juxtaposition that doesn’t feel forced.”


Copyright 2019 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Majolica: bold, wild and whimsical

NEW YORK – Exuberantly colorful, majolica is often decorated with naturalistic and animalistic themes. Monkeys, rabbits, fish, birds and a menagerie of critters run wild – often molded in high relief – on planters, humidors, teapots, platters, pitchers, umbrella stands, candlesticks, tureens, jardinieres, covered cheese keepers and more.

Mastering the art of function with decoration, majolica’s greatest appeal arguably lies in its whimsy. Collectors crave scarce pieces such as a teapot decorated in the form of a spiny blowfish, a monkey hugging a teapot (his tail forms the handle) or a compote held aloft by a camel.

This rare George Jones majolica Four Continents compote depicting Asia, circa 1875, one of four known, sold for $16,000 in October 2016 at Strawser Auction Group. Photo courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

“We have found that people collect in many different ways. There are teapot collectors and cheese dish collectors, some collect specific makers like George Jones or Minton, and many collect majolica in general without any specifics,” said Michael G. Strawser, president of Strawser Auction Group in Wolcottville, Indiana, which holds a specialty majolica auction annually.

“Animal pieces have always been desirable. Some of the most valuable pieces have been teapots, animals and other various forms. Value is based on condition and rarity,” Strawser said.

A rare pair of Hugo Lonitz falcons, circa 1880, achieved $60,000 in October 2016 at Strawser Auction Group. Photo courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

As with any antiques genre, taste is highly subjective. “We have had collectors who wanted tobacco-related majolica, including humidors and match strikers. Most of the collections I have seen over the past 30 years have been varied and not specific to shape or maker. Collectors should always buy what they like,” Strawser said.

A whimsical Minton game tureen and cover, circa 1878, made $22,000 in October 2016 at Strawser Auction Group. Photo courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

According to the Majolica International Society, majolica debuted on the world’s stage in 1851, when Herbert Minton aided by French chemis Leon Arnoux, showcased majolica at an exhibition held at London’s Crystal Palace. The roots of English majolica, however, owe much to its predecessor, French Palissy ware, which was developed by Bernard Palissy in the mid-16th century. After much trial and effort, Palissy formulated five colors of lead glazes, giving rise to majolica pottery.

“The excitement generated by the richly colored majolica inspired Minton artists to develop art revival styles parallel to those of the Renaissance, Palissy design, Gothic revival and medieval styles, naturalism (by far the most prolific), Oriental and Islamic styles, and figural pieces, both human and mythological,” says a commentary on the society’s website.

A rare, important, and monumental Minton ‘Prometheus’ vase, circa 1875, earned $38,000 in October 2015 at Strawser Auction Group. Photo courtesy of Strawser Auction Group and LiveAuctioneers

Including Minton, several English firms were renowned for majolica, and their best and rarest pieces are highly collectible to this day. Minton made pieces for both the garden and the home, especially dining pieces, which, at the height of the Art Nouveau era, featured a bevy of naturalistic designs. Perennially popular patterns included corn, pineapples, fish, leaves and lilies.

A decade after Minton introduced majolica, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons put its own stamp on the opaque tin-glazed pottery, fashioning pieces that were often more staid and traditional than Minton but still as colorful and sometimes just as whimsical. Its lobster and fish platters are much sought after.

Another name many veteran collectors chase, and whose pieces typically bring top dollar, is George Jones & Son, who learned well from Minton during his seven-year apprenticeship there. At once beautiful and ornate, yet indisputably amusing, George Jones pieces are as well made as any majolica made by Minton or Wedgwood. The best-loved George Jones majolica pieces include compotes, covered cheese keepers and game dishes.

While not very valuable, this creamer by Griffen, Smith & Hill in the Shell and Seaweed pattern is appealing for its shell decoration and creamy pink hue on the inside.

Following the U.S. Centennial in 1876, the American pottery movement embraced majolica – just about the same time it was falling out of favor in England. One of the leading American manufacturers was Pennsylvania-based Griffen, Smith and Hill, whose Shell and Seaweed pattern was well received. Majolica was also made by several firms in Trenton, New Jersey; Baltimore, Keene, New Hampshire; and Ohio.

Strawer noted that majolica that was made between the 1870s to 1890s seems to be the most coveted by collectors. “George Jones and Minton are the most desirable pieces of majolica, however other makers are also sought after, including Hugo Lonitz, which made some highly detailed animal and bird pieces,” he said. “Etruscan made by Griffen, Smith & Hill in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is the most common American majolica company.”

A Hugo Lonitz majolica game tureen with a deer atop its cover brought $19,000 in January 2018 at Nadeau’s Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Nadeau’s Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

While demand remains high for rare majolica, prices have fallen for the more common pieces. This further reinforces Strawser’s recommendation that collectors should buy what appeals to them, not what they think – rightly or wrongly – might increase in value.

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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Eccentric Potter George Ohr

Even in the progressive heyday of the American art pottery movement at the turn of the 20th century, the works of Mississippi potter George E. Ohr (1857-1918) were considered avant-garde.

His sculptural handmade pottery – he claimed no two were alike – resembled nothing turned out by his contemporaries. His bohemian behavior and unusual appearance, recorded in a series of mischievous period photographs, earned him the title of “The Mad Potter of Biloxi.”

Petticoat Vase, c. 1899, glazed ceramic, 7¾ in. x 4¾ in. Collection of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Gift of David Whitney in honor of Frank and Berta Gehry.

Eugene Hecht, authority on the potter and a professor of physics, wrote, “Ohr was an incomparable technician, an uncanny colorist, an exquisitely sensual soul, a totally committed, egocentric, eccentric, vulnerable genius who created a body of artistic work that rivals any produced in this country.”

Like many other artists, Ohr’s work was not fully appreciated in his own time. Thousands of unsold pieces remained in storage on family property after his death. The entire collection was purchased by an East Coast dealer in 1972, and only then did the highly manipulated vases and vessels find enthusiastic appreciation and an avid market among art collectors.

Pitcher, c. 1898, glazed ceramic, 5½ in. x 5½ in. Collection of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Gift of the estate of Hollis C. Thompson Jr., in memory of Evelyn Desporte Thompson, Nickie O’Keefe, Tine Lancaster and Annette O’Keefe.

Ohr learned to make pottery as an apprentice to Joseph Meyer and then traveled around the East and Midwest to view the works of other craftsmen. He set up his own pottery in his hometown of Biloxi in 1883 and took a first batch of work to a World’s Fair in nearby New Orleans the following year.

A turning point in his career was a major fire in the town that destroyed his pottery and 10 years’ worth of work in 1894. Ohr quickly rebuilt and the ceramics so admired by collectors today were made between 1895 and around 1907. As the Biloxi Art Pottery, he showed his wares in the Mississippi State Exhibition at the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition of 1904 (St. Louis World’s Fair). The judges awarded him a Silver Medal, but the designs remained too extreme for consumers and nothing in the display was sold.

Vase with in-body twist, c. 1900, glazed ceramic, 6 in. x 3¾ in. Collection of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

A comparison of George Ohr’s work with contemporary ceramics made by well-known art potteries such as Rookwood or Grueby reveals the stylistic risks taken by the Biloxi potter. Although in hopes of a sale, he made traditional forms such a vases, pitchers and teapots, his creative mind transformed these familiar shapes. Vases have eccentric looped handles and glazes in shocking reds and greens. Pitchers are crumpled and deformed.

After exploring the infinite possibilities of colored glazes, he later made unglazed works – sometimes in mottled clay – where all the artistry was in the shape. Each work captures a moment of inspiration.

Red and green vase with handles, c. 1898, glazed ceramic, 7¾ in. x 5¼ in. Collection of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Gift of Susan and Roland Samson.

Auction house owner David Rago has written extensively about Ohr’s work, emphasizing “his forms, thrown paper thin and manipulated with twists, crinkles, dimples and folds. Few people could have crafted pots so thin, and no one else thought to alter them in such bizarre ways.”

Double-handled vase, c. 1898, glazed ceramic, 7 3/4in x 5 1/4in. Collection of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Gift of the estate of Hollis C. Thompson Jr., in memory of Evelyn Desporte Thompson, Nickie O’Keefe, Tine Lancaster and Annette O’Keefe.

Rago says of the market, “The most expensive of Ohr’s pots, and the most desirable to collectors, are those that combine bright, imaginative colors with intense manipulation of form.” The best of George Ohr’s ceramics command prices in the five- to six-figure range.

For more biographical information and images of the potter’s work, the classic reference remains The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art & Life of George E. Ohr by Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison Jr. and Eugene Hecht (Abbeville).