SPOKANE, Washington — Let the following story serve as a warning to all of you. Art is not a science, no matter how knowledgeable you are. Knowing that and using it to keep yourself in check could save you a lot of embarrassment in the future.
Consider this wince-worthy clip of The Antiques Roadshow on PBS, the television program that convinced a generation of grandparents that every dusty attic in the Midwest contained a treasure trove of long lost Rembrandt paintings. You’re probably familiar with the show, but to recap: owners of antiques bring their belongings to experts who appraise them. You may very well learn that a grotesque clay jug you found covered with chicken droppings in the corner of a barn could sell for up to $50,000, as Alvin Barr of Oregon did.
Or, again like Alvin Barr, you may find out that your appraiser was horribly mistaken and that the jug was actually the work of Betsy Soule, a horse trainer who made the work as part of a high school ceramics class in the 1970s.
Note: Unfortunately, the following video was set to private after I posted this article. That’s too bad because, more than anything, it shows how the appraisal was an honest mistake. The logic is sound, even if the conclusion it reaches is incorrect. It makes myself and many of our readers question the seemingly arbitrary nature of the value we assign to artwork. Until I find a replacement video, I’ll leave this embedded here in the hopes that whoever set it to private will allow us to have this discussion.
The jug was appraised by Stephen L. Fletcher, a partner, executive vice president and chief auctioneer director with American Furniture and Decorative Arts. My journalism training usually demands that I roll my eyes at any professional title longer than a word or two, but here the credentials actually serve a purpose. Even with all of his training, Fletcher reached a little too far and got smacked down by the hairy knuckled, calloused hand of Hubris. After the program aired Soule contacted the show’s producers and proved that she was the creator of the jug.
Fletcher wrote a corrected version of his appraisal. I’m projecting, but it’s hard to read this without picturing the author breathless and nervously shifting his weight from side to side. I mean, how could he not? He went from comparing the work to a Picasso to saying it’s fine for a high school student.
After a couple of decades of Roadshow seasons, I note that each city presents new opportunities for discoveries and learning experiences. The grotesque glazed redware pot I saw and admired in Spokane is unlike any other example I have seen. 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. This example, with its six grotesque faces, was modeled or sculpted with considerable imagination, virtuosity and technical competence. This mysterious piece was reportedly found at an estate sale, covered with dust, straw, and chicken droppings, and purchased for $300. As far as its age is concerned, I was fooled, as were some of my colleagues. Alas, among the millions of people who watch Antiques Roadshow faithfully was a woman who identified herself as being a friend of the maker, a lady named Betsy Soule! She created this in [1973 or ’74], while in high school! 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.
This isn’t to make fun of Fletcher, far from it. His re-appraisal is like watching someone smack their thumb with a hammer: you feel it, too. I write about art between two to four times a day, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to stick my foot in my mouth. I imagine that many of our readers are in similar positions. It’s a danger special to our professions, the risk of making mistakes in front of groups of people. This story is supremely effective as a cautionary tale.
The story hangs a lampshade on the arbitrary nature of the marketplace. Why is a skilled work of art, one that prompted a comparison to Picasso, worth just a tenth of its perceived value after the artist was identified? In the leadup to Fletcher’s $50,000 appraisal at no point did he attempt to guess who the maker was. How could he say for certain? Fletcher and Barr didn’t even check the jug for a stamp. The work could have been made by anyone, but once a face was put to the work, the perceived value of the jug evaporated. Why? Does it lose value because it’s dated much later than initially thought? or is it taboo to suggest that an outsider is capable of operating within the artistic sphere? There is evidence for both in the re-appraisal, but I can only guess, which is fair because guessing is the central conceit of the Antiques Roadshow.
I’ll leave out the backhanded “for a high school student” qualifier and say that I enjoy Soule’s work. The twisting, shoggoth-like transitions between the faces is the stuff of nightmares. I love gross, aggressive art because it’s reassuring to know that other people see the faces, too. I also like her quote for the Register Guard newspaper. She’s not Picasso, but Soule certainly talks like someone who has the touch.
“Soule said she was amazed to learn something she made in high school could be worth even what Barr paid for it. At the time she made it, she was unfamiliar with the style of jugs the appraiser referenced on the show and was just sculpting what came to her in her imagination.
“’I was just a really passionate, artistic kid,” she said. “I don’t know where those faces came from; they just came roaring out of me onto those pots.’”
Someone should reach out to Barr and offer to buy the jug, then kick some more money to Soule to compensate her for her work. That would be a great way to put a bow on this whole mess.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this $50,000 work of contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.
8 thoughts on "Oddity | Gross Jug Made in High School Art Class Appraised at $50,000 by Antiques Roadshow"
It’s very funny, actually, and everyone should read The Painted Word, take a deep breath and laugh. At themselves and at the whole scene, with gentle forbearance. It’s all relatively harmless, even if it is a bit rubbish; it’s just one of the odd things that humans do.
No art is inherently valuable (in a monetary way I mean of course) – or worthless. We make it valuable, we assign it its valuable meaning, and the standards by which we do that are somewhat haphazard, actually. I’ve now and then seen pieces on Etsy selling for $50 that I think are exquisite – all they’d need is something like a very articulate, well positioned agent to fetch four figures, or some cultural context or agedness to lend them status that relies little upon their actual aesthetic value. And vice versa, ad my particular nauseam. Unless we are evaluating technical skill – which reduces ceramics to a craft again or aesthetics to a pre-modern sensibility – it’s all about language. Unless we believe, as humans once did, that sublimity is the desired quality and that that can be universally recognized. No one buys that any more.
Looking at that student’s work I found myself composing articulate, rapturous descriptions in my mind, until I was actually able to see them quite differently. That’s philosophically interesting and rather fun.
Best that we simply remember to love what we love, and buy it at the price that reflects the degree of affection.
M. L. Kappa
Making a mistake is not a problem- why should it be so hard to admit? Why couldn’t he just laugh it off, instead of embarrassing himself further? After all, the lady who made it was very talented, and the rest is just context. People in the art world (and elsewhere, I’m sure) just take themselves so seriously…
Good article, fair to the appraiser’s honest mistake…except I do think that you’re misreading the last sentence. “Not bad”, I believe, refers to the value that Fletcher had just mentioned (direct antecedent), not to the quality of the piece itself. Quite the opposite of disrespect–rather complimenting Soule on having been able to make something worth $4-5K as a young high-school student.
Love it, and I am perfectly fine with value of $50.000 at that moment. It’s the context that makes the art, not always it’s maker.
your sentence expresses a major mix-up : it is context that determines value. But today, and it has been a long while, we stick the ‘art’ tag on anything unusual that sees his value rise.
But art still means what the word says: an artist is a special form of an artisan, where an artisan is a special form of technician. Art meaning techinque. In clear: an artist is someone who uses a particular technique, or a set of different techniques, in a singular way that makes his work stand out as particular and – at best – unique.
You can give value to many things. But only few things can truly be considered art.
It’s very true, thanks for the exact and sensitive comment . My appreciation, wish you all the best.
Thank you for your story. In March 2012, I bought an ca. 1860 Edgefield face vessel from Skinner’s auction for$56,000. The auction estimate had been $800-1200. When this face vessel appear on the Road Show and subsequently on Social Media, it was clear that was an amateurish 20th century creation using the grogged commercial clays some commonly in art centers and high school.