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.