Barr knew he had to have it, and paid $300 to take it home. Later, he would tell an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow”: “It speaks to me.”
“What was it saying?” asked the appraiser, Stephen Fletcher.
“It was saying, ‘I’m very unusual,'” Barr responded. “‘I’m very different.'”
Fletcher concurred. The American decorative arts expert noted that while “it’s a little difficult to identify precisely when this was made,” it likely had origins from the late 19th to early 20th century. The age of the jug, combined with the potter’s inventiveness and the “impressive array of techniques” used, made it a valuable item.
Just how valuable was it? To Barr’s palpable shock, Fletcher estimated that the object — hereon dubbed “Grotesque Face Jug” — was worth between $30,000 and $50,000, potentially more.
Barr was shaken. “I thought I over — I over — excuse me,” he stuttered. “I thought I overpaid.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it, ever,” Fletcher said. “And I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
The exchange followed the arc of a typical segment of “Antiques Roadshow,” a traveling PBS program that invites collectors across the country to have their items appraised by experts. Often, the object appears to have been wrested from obscurity by its sharp-eyed owner, who loves it dearly despite its dubious value. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the expert reveals that the object is worth tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands more than originally suspected.
Now in its 20th season, the show has been nominated for multiple Emmys and boasts a loyal fan base. Its appeal is two-fold: each “hidden treasure” offers both a small history lesson and the hopeful promise that any unwitting buyer, at any time, can strike gold.
On the “Grotesque Face Jug” segment that aired in January, Barr was that buyer, but his triumph was short-lived. Soon afterwards, the program received a call from a viewer who claimed to know the maker of the supposedly century-old jug.
She remembered it from high school, the caller said. It was made by her friend in the 1970s.
That friend was Betsy Soule, now a 60-year-old horse trainer in Bend, Ore. Her artistic prowess had gone more or less unnoticed until an interview with the Bend Bulletin last week, in which Soule said she hadn’t heard from the friend in four decades when she got a call about the jug.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to get on the Internet and look up ‘Antiques Roadshow’,” Soule told the Bulletin. “That weird pot you made is on there.”
Sure enough, it was: the project for a ceramics class at Churchill High School in Eugene, Ore., characterized as a unique art piece from the Mid-Atlantic coast of 19th-century America. Fletcher had pegged the jug’s design to a style Soule was unfamiliar with, she said. The object was more adolescent imagination than historical rendering.
“I was just a really passionate, artistic kid,” Soule told the Bulletin. “I don’t know where those faces came from; they just came roaring out of me onto those pots.”
PBS issued a correction on the item’s Web page in February. Fletcher wrote of the blunder:
This example, with its six grotesque faces, was modeled or sculpted with considerable imagination, virtuosity and technical competence….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.
Soule studied art at the University Oregon and made ceramics for a few years, only to forgo the craft for professional horse-training. Barr has offered to buy any other pieces she has.
After the “Antiques Roadshow” appraisal, he stowed the jug inside multiple boxes and hidden it behind his couch, for fear that it might suffer errant damage.
“I hated it when it was $30,000 to $50,000, because who wants $30,000 to $50,000 lying around their house?” Barr told the Bulletin. “Now, it’s on my table, and I love it.”
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