The one that got away

Betsy Soule's odd pot. (Photo:

Betsy Soule’s odd pot. (Photo:

I vividly remember the first time my work was reviewed in the press, and my copious tears at being savaged. That painting remains in my private collection and I stand by its painterly qualities.

I once took an important piece to a highly-respected teacher for critique. She called it “an immature Chagall.” I went home and tried to repaint the whole thing. I now realize that it had a technical, not conceptual problem, one I could easily fix today. But it was lost in a fury of brush strokes.

Expert opinion is useful, but it has its limits.

Alvin Barr recently brought a grotesque clay jug to Antiques Roadshow to be appraised. He’d found it at an estate sale and paid $300 for it. Appraiser Stephen L. Fletcher identified the piece as a late 19th or early 20th century grotesque jug, in the tradition of the face jugs made by African-American slaves in the Carolinas and Georgia.

South Carolina Stoneware Face Jug, attributed to Bath, auctioned for $56,287.50 in 2012 by Stephen Fletcher's own auction house. (Photo:

South Carolina Stoneware Face Jug, auctioned for $56,287.50 in 2012 by Stephen Fletcher’s own auction house. (Photo:

“This, in its own way, is really over the top,” said Fletcher of the pot. “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.” Fletcher put a price tag of $30,000-50,000 on the pot, which is in line with what single-face grotesque jars sell for.

An alert watcher recognized the pot as being not a Southern face jar, but the work of her friend Betsy Soule, who had made it in high school in the 1970s. Fletcher immediately corrected his assessment, giving the piece a value of around $3,000-5,000. “Still not bad for a high schooler in Oregon,” he added.

As someone who was in high school in the 1970s, armed with advance information about its provenance, I see the pot as part of the R. Crumb-infused visual culture of my youth. Stephen Fletcher may be about my age, but his mind is trained to a different aesthetic now.

Fletcher is an experienced and competent appraiser of American Decorative Arts. This kerfuffle changes nothing. Appraisal and criticism have much in common, including the subjective analysis of value. Fletcher never changed his opinion that the piece was imaginative and inventive; he merely corrected its provenance, and along with its price tag.

Keep On Truckin’ Poster, R. Crumb, 1967

Keep On Truckin’ Poster, R. Crumb, 1967

Art is a commodity, not intellectual property, and it has no residual value. Betsy Soule will see no money from that jug, any more than the descendants of the slave creators of those face jugs will ever see a cent of the fantastic sums those pots now sell for.

Soule’s pot remains unchanged in intrinsic value regardless of the price tag attached to it. From the time it was worthless in a high school classroom, worth $300 in an old barn, worth $30,000 for one glorious moment on Antiques Roadshow, or worth the $3,000 value ascribed to it today, it’s the same darn pot. Provenance, history, artist’s reputation, trendiness—these are all artificial constructs, but they affect the monetary value of art far more than its actual quality ever will.

The full video of the segment of the show is available here.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.