Recently on an episode of Antiques Roadshow, an art appraisal went very wrong. An Oregon man who presented a clay jug to one of the program’s apparent expert appraisers received word that it dated to the late 19th century, had emerged somewhere in the “Middle Atlantic states headed southward,” and had a value of up to $50,000. However, it turned out to be the creation of fellow Oregonian Betsy Soule, sculpted in her high school ceramics class in the 1970s.
Owner Alvin Barr had bought the pot, decorated with six beast-like faces, at an estate sale in a barn in Eugene, Oregon, for $300. He was naturally short of breath when Antiques Roadshow‘s bespectacled expert appraiser Stephen L. Fletcher (specializing in clocks, decorative arts, folk art, and furniture) revealed its alleged market value.
“It was covered with dirt and straw,” Barr told Fletcher. “Looked like some chicken droppings were on it. It was very dirty. I had to have it. It speaks to me … it was saying, ‘I’m very unusual … I’m very different.'”
The episode — titled “Grotesque Face Jug” first aired last year, but PBS recently issued a correction online after receiving a call from Soule, who also sent a photograph of herself surrounded by similar pots she had made. Now a horse trainer, Soule had first heard about her onscreen handiwork from a friend who saw the episode in January, according to The Bulletin, and told her, “You’ve got to get on the internet and look up Antiques Roadshow; that weird pot you made is on there.”
The accuracy of Antiques Roadshow often comes into question (it is, after all, intended to entertain); the show’s producers make clear that the appraisals are “verbal approximations of value” and are presented in context, but rarely — if ever — do such blatant errors occur. Past appraisals have received updates to better reflect art market forces, but Fletcher’s was simply way off. In this context, his lovely spiel to Barr, which includes him dropping that he’s been in the business for 20 years, is simply hilarious, consisting entirely of obvious and broad descriptions:
In my experience, to a certain degree, they tend to be predictable, and in fact, some of them are attributable, and some of them are signed, and they even make grotesque face jugs today. When we turn this around, there’s a whole variety of, well, characters, and this particular person looks like he had an eye injury. They’ve stitched his eye closed.
They all have very distinctive characters or personalities. This person speaks with a forked tongue, it would seem. There’s a little damage here and there…When we look at the base clay, it’s red ware, and the potter has used an impressive array of techniques to come up with this extraordinary texture.
This, in its own way, is really over the top. It’s bizarre and wonderful. You even see a little bit of, like, Pablo Picasso going on here. It’s a little difficult to identify precisely when this was made, but I think it’s probably late 19th or early 20th century.
On its website, PBS now lists the work with a retail value of $3,000–5,000. Fletcher has also released a statement, admitting that “as far as its age is concerned, I was fooled, as were some of my colleagues.
“We have sold at auction several examples from the 19th century — all of which are from the eastern half of the United States, and have a single grotesque face — some for five figures,” he said. “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.
“Still not bad for a high schooler in Oregon.”