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The inaccurately appraised “grotesque face jug” on an episode of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ (all GIFs by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

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.

WHAT (click to enlarge)

“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.”

h/t cfile

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

23 replies on “‘Antiques Roadshow’ Mistakenly Values High School Art Project at $50,000”

  1. Let’s hope he doesn’t go the way of the art critic in “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.”

  2. As a high school art teacher for almost 18 years, I would value this pot at approximately at an A.

  3. Wow, anyone familiar with historic 19th-20th century face jugs would have not recognized the clay body not to mention the handling of the imagery. I guess this is what happens when you don’t know enough to -at the least – keep quiet!!

    1. Bingo. Also the condition of the glaze might have been a give-away about the jug’s age.

    1. No because her art teacher probably told the class about the history of face jugs. They are supposed to be weird and scary looking to scare evil spirits away, or so said the Gullah in the 1700’s and 1800’s.

      1. The jug was compared to a Picasso. I get your response but, I was looking at the situation from a different perspective.
        Here’s a snip-it I copied from the interweb…
        But it was not just art that Picasso experimented with, as the painter was also known to use psychotropic drugs. Many believe that Cubism was the direct result of Picasso’s use of opium, morphine, and hashish, though this is still up for debate.

        1. If you don’t think drugs have done good things for us, take all your records, tapes, and CDs and burn them. – Bill Hicks

  4. This does not surprise me at all. I’ve taken things to alumnae appraisers on this show, who were working elsewhere, for some of my own things, of which I knew the basic value. I was amazed at how little they knew about fairly common antique decorative items.

  5. When I was watching that episode all I could think was that the appraiser was way off and it looked like something very amateurish. The piece seemed like something a high schooler could have made, but when he started talking about face jugs, it threw me off, as I had never heard of face jugs…and this was Antique Road Show talking. So I’m not surprised to hear the truth, just really surprised that their expert(s) got it so wrong!

    1. Actually he got it wrong because as face jugs go this was an exceptional one. Face jugs are an acquired taste and there’s no shame in not liking them.

  6. All I keep thinking is that is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Like really ugly. Like that Star Trek episode – the being so ugly that if you look at it you go mad! LOL

    1. Most potters in the United States know quite a bit about these “face jugs” which are thought to have been first made in America by Gullah people on the east coast of Georgia and South Carolina. It is said that the jugs resemble clay face jugs made in parts of Africa to “ward off evil”…which is why the more contorted and ugly they are the better they are at doing their job.

      About 150 years ago, male potters in the Appalachians and around Seagrove North Carolina began to copy the Gullah face jugs, generally putting only one face on them. Those jugs were made as an entertaining place to store alcohol, especially during Prohibition when moonshine was stored in jugs.

      Today you can find potters all over the U.S. making the occasional face jug, though there are a few potters who produce a lot of them with great variations, including Carl Block of Texas.

      The face jug in the photo is remarkable well hand-built for pottery work by a high school student.

  7. Look, if he thinks it is that valuable, then it is. We all can make our own assessments based on our means and experience. I do like it very much. If I had millions to spend, I might pick it up. The contingency is my ability to pay and my impression of value. When it comes to art there is a nebulous application of facts and figures. Now, with this story behind it, it might actually accrue the value he assigned because this nebulousness is defined thereon.

  8. In terms of the art market, monetary value is anything that the market will bear. Compared to a Jeff Koons or a Damien Hirst, I would say that $30,000 is a low price. Why not $50,000? Why not double that?

  9. Had she remained quiet and started reproducing the pots, she could have become a very wealthy woman. 🙂 People, we are funny. We think we know so much and the Lord shows us, we know very little.

  10. Art experts can be wrong. We gather dozens of misattribution at auction, from the most famous players of the industry every single week. If you do not know who the designer/artist is, how can you provide a proper appraisal?! Identification is the key to any legit valuation, especially for 20th Century furniture and works of art. And nothing is better than vintage documentation to confirm an attribution. This is our core business.

    1. There is no need to have a degree to be an ‘art expert’, so no surprise they make mistakes. The only experts I trust are my books.

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