Published: May 12, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Crocker Farm
SPARKS, MD. – The email came in early February. A 7-gallon stoneware water cooler by Geddes, N.Y., potter W.H. Farrar had descended in a family that had long roots in New York state, and the sender wanted to know if it had any value. It did.
According to Crocker Farm patriarch Tony Zipp, the sender believed it had been passed down in their family since the Nineteenth Century. It was the only piece of stoneware that had descended in the family, though they did have other quality New York antiques. The five members of the Zipp family, who collectively run Crocker Farm, were not after the other antiques. They were awestruck by the masterpiece of American stoneware that had just landed in their inbox about six weeks before their scheduled sale on March 21. An agreement was reached and Luke Zipp got in the car and headed west, where the family had since moved from New York, to bring it to the Gorsuch Barn gallery in Maryland.
“The Broadway water cooler is regarded as the finest example of American salt-glazed stoneware to come to auction since the [Elizabeth Crane / 1811] punch bowl sold in 1978,” the auction house announced. “Our March auction is a rare opportunity. We may never see a piece as good as this cooler come up for public sale again. It really is a ‘perfect storm’ kind of piece that transcends its genre.”
Around March 9, amid a national moment of pandemonium caused by the outbreak of coronavirus across the United States, Luke Zipp called our office with a question. “What are other auction houses doing?” he asked.
Every antiques show within the next month had tumbled, one after the other, in that and the preceding week. On account of the growing pandemic, and without any Federal action to that date, governors wisely began to order restrictions on events above a certain attendance. Auction houses followed with the closing of their physical locations and, in many cases, the tabling of their sales. It was, and remains, a national economic disaster. The stock market was crashing, losing more money in a day than it had in over 30 years.
“Some are moving online, who knows if that’ll work,” I said. “The larger question is this – what’s going to sell if the economy collapses?”
The auction was less than two weeks away and Crocker Farm was tasked with trying to sell one of the greatest pieces of American stoneware that had ever hit the market.
That phone call ended as uncertain as it began – there were no profound words of wisdom to be shared. A great uncertainty was upon us all as we closed our doors and buckled in.
On March 13, the day that Donald Trump declared a national emergency in the United States, the Zipps pulled the plug on the sale.
They wrote, “The better part of our week has been spent in a long, thoughtful discussion about the best way to proceed with our current auction in light of the pandemic. Through all of this, we have primarily kept in mind the many customers we have known for decades, bidders who have regularly attended our sales for over 15 years, people we have come to call friends. Many are part of a demographic that is hardest hit by COVID-19. This has given us grave concern about holding an auction on March 21.
“Yesterday afternoon, Governor Larry Hogan issued a ban on all events within the state of Maryland expected to exceed 250 people. Under ordinary circumstances, our more well-attended auctions can certainly fall into this category.”
Talking about this moment after the sale, Crocker Farm partner Mark Zipp said the response to their decision, “was generally positive. A couple people said a few things. We knew we had a few consignors that needed the money, too.”
Tony and Barbara Zipp handled the calls that came in.
A few days passed. By March 17, Hogan outlawed any gathering over 50 people.
The Dow bottomed out on March 23, and then began a climb as Congress neared a $2.2 trillion stimulus package.
Success stories began trickling out from around the industry. Some auctions were doing $1 million-plus, bid entirely online, absentee and phone. Collectors were still buying, and not only that, but the top end of the antique market was demonstrating resilience and energy.
On April 2, the Zipps announced a plan.
“Our Spring 2020 auction has been converted into a Remote-Only, Internet / Phone / Absentee auction that will begin Monday, April 6 and end Friday, May 1,” they wrote, “with a special callback session to finish the sale on Saturday, May 2.”
Mark told us, “We knew there were some other auction houses at this point that were transforming their live sales into online formats. We are so fortunate to have Brandt, who is talented with coding and IT. We asked if he could set us up in an online format. We weren’t really sure what the bidding was going to be like for it.”
“The way Brandt described it to me was that he basically built the 1990s version of eBay. He created it in a week and we did some test trials to make sure it would work alright. Then we had a test run for the rolling stop at the end, the soft close, to make sure that the 10-minute extension for every new bid after 9:50 pm would work. There were a couple glitches early on that we fixed in the build process, the hardest part was to get that runoff to work right. I remember one morning he said ‘let’s try it,’ so we did and it worked.”
A timed auction.
“There was a certain sense of nervousness. It was uncharted territory for us,” Mark said.
The family launched the sale on April 6 and the bids poured in – 400 in the first day.
“I thought everyone was going to wait for the end,” Mark said. “I really thought we weren’t going to have a strong idea of bidding for three weeks, but people started popping right off the bat.”
Soon thereafter, Crocker Farm had fielded 1,000 bids. The sale would produce 3,995 total.
“I was looking at some of the prices early on and I realized that some of them were decent selling prices,” Mark said. “I knew then that this was going to work. As it went on, there was an entertainment value and people enjoyed the process. I love live auctions, I think they’re fantastic. It’s always a selling point for us that we have the pulse of the piece selling live, right there. Breaking into this, we were unsure of the route, but it worked out. And in a lot of ways, it worked out better. Bidders thought ‘What am I going to do today? Let’s take a look at the Crocker Farm catalog and see where bidding is.'”
When the sale ended after callbacks on May 2, it produced $1,386,840 in total sales, the highest sale total yet for the auction house. The Broadway Water Cooler by W.H. Farrar would achieve the second highest auction result for a piece of American stoneware to date at $480,000, selling to collector Adam Weitsman. He called it “the finest piece in existence.”
It missed the American stoneware record by $3,000, or one standard bid increment, that was set at $483,000 by Crocker Farm in 2015 for a 7-gallon Remmey water cooler with incised Federal Eagle. It succeeded in setting a new bar for New York state pottery, surpassing a stoneware churn depicting four marching Civil War soldiers that Crocker Farm set at $402,500 in 2014.
Interest in the Broadway water cooler was purely from private collectors, six of which had an iron in the fire above $100,000.
The 26-inch-high cooler features a three-dimensional street scene that is without comparison in American stoneware production.
The scene focuses on Broadway, New York City, at the headquarters of the Order of the Sons of Temperance, which had established its national headquarter lodge at that address only one or two years prior. It is believed that Farrar visited the lodge during June of 1846 – the same year the cooler was produced – for the order’s Grand National Jubilee, which period accounts say was a 12,000-person celebration. The accounts specifically mention the ringing of bells, and the jug features a tall belltower with a woman standing at its base holding a rope as she rings the bell up top.
“It was a perfect storm kind of piece, combining many elements of what a collector wants in a masterwork of stoneware,” Mark said. “The form was a particularly large water cooler with a pedestal base and a vasiform style to it, which you don’t see in stoneware. It had applied handles, applied decoration, and outside of the form itself – decoratively speaking – the level of incised decoration is something that is not found in American stoneware. It was really remarkable that Farrar used both incising and stamping. The lodge itself has impressed work delineating what it was. The woman that is pulling the bell is adding life to the scene: it’s a moment in history. Temperance antiques have been widely studied and collected for a long time, so that added value to the piece.
“The motto was great: ‘Love, Purity & Fidelity’ and then ‘Look not upon the wine,’ taken from Proverbs 23:31,” Mark continued. “The maker added value as well. Farrar is mostly known for slip-trailed bird designs, but his work is collectable and desirable. It just ticked all the boxes. Sometimes you’ll see something and say ‘it has condition issues’ or ‘the firing didn’t go well, it’s dark on this side,’ or ‘it’s a shame it’s not on a larger piece,’ but this one was really tailor-made for success.”
It is believed that Farrar was a member of the Order of the Sons of Temperance and the jug features the inscription “Salina Division. No. 86 / Sons Of Temperance,” which is surmised to be his possible chapter.
Geddes, N.Y., was formed from the town of Salina in 1848, both are now suburbs of Syracuse.
Adam Weitsman is a well-known Syracuse boy. “The cooler was made 15 miles from my house,” Weitsman told Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “There’s nothing like it. I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old, and I’ve never even heard of something like it – not even in the back room of a museum. A New York City scene like this – it’s just remarkable.”
“It has everything you want in a piece of pottery,” he said. “It’s something way better than that pottery ever produced. Geddes was an average pottery that created a masterpiece – a historical scene – something that I’ve never seen before.”
Weitsman has donated 300-400 pieces of American stoneware to the New York State Museum in Albany since 1996. He hopes to help create an American stoneware wing at that institution in the future. He said he is going to hold onto the rights to the Broadway water cooler for the time being – it will be the only piece in his personal collection – but will lend it to the New York State Museum so that it may go on public view and perhaps tour to other interested institutions.
Southern works supplied a number of the other top lots, particularly those from Edgefield, S.C., an area that is the subject of institutional and art world interest of late. All three of the top Edgefield lots sold to art collectors.
A 16-inch-high 8-gallon stoneware jar by enslaved African American potter Dave sold for $216,000 to a private collector, producing a smattering of new records. They notably include an artist auction record and the highest price paid for any work by an African American potter, for South Carolina pottery, for Edgefield pottery and for alkaline-glazed pottery.
The double-handled jar had a poured, green-toned alkaline glaze and is incised “Lm / Decr 17. 1857 / Dave.” The initials LM stand for Dave’s owner, Lewis Miles.
This was the second time in three months that an artist auction record was set for Dave. Crocker Farm surpassed the $184,500 result for a similar size jar set at Brunk Auctions on February 7. By a stroke of fate, the two dated vessels were produced by the potter three months apart in 1857.
“It’s the size of them that’s desirable,” Mark said. “Dave is on the move, period. Interest in art objects by African Americans is rising, the whole market is white hot as these things are very topical in society right now. All attributed works to Dave, even down to the small pieces, are increasing in value. But this one was a great size and a great form. His large wide-mouth jars are his most iconic creations and they have a certain presence about them.”
Setting a record for any Dave jug was a $78,000 result inscribed “Lm / June 10 1853.” The jug featured a streaky, olive-colored alkaline glaze, overlain with heavy bluish-white rutile runs. Of the glaze, the auction house called it “Among Dave’s most brilliantly-glazed vessels known… While rutile-glazing was relatively common elsewhere in the American South, it is considered extremely rare in Dave’s work, with only a few examples documented. As Dave’s oeuvre consists almost entirely of pieces with sporadically-poured or neatly-dipped alkaline glazes, this jug can easily be regarded as one of the potter’s masterworks in terms of the quality of its glaze.”
A similar example is held in the American Folk Art Museum.
At $31,200 came an alkaline-glazed stoneware face jug with kaolin eyes and teeth attributed to Miles Mill, 5 inches high. Crocker Farm says the distinctive flattened spout is typical of a Mill piece, and the artist is among the few Edgefield face jug makers that can be attributed based on archeological evidence.
Mark Zipp said that for its condition and glaze, it was a fine Mill example. The consignor had bought it and an O. Henry face jug, also sold in this sale, during the 1970s, paying less than $50 each for them. The consignor thought the O. Henry face jug was the better one between the two, though he did not know the age of the Mill work. The O. Henry jug, with its gaping mouth and upturned nose, was no dog, as it set an auction record for Twentieth Century North Carolina potter Evan Javan Brown Sr at $4,080. “The Brown family was making face jugs in the early Twentieth Century to today, and it exemplifies a continuity of the Nineteenth Century tradition into the Twenty-First Century. As these pieces get older, there’s more respect given to the Brown family. It’s a good market indicator,” Mark said.
Measuring 18½ inches tall and featuring a brown brushed iron-oxide outlined with slip-trailed kaolin slips in a drape-and-tassel motif was a 7-gallon jar by Thomas Chandler, which brought $20,400. The piece was illustrated in Brothers in Clay (Burrison, 2008).
Sailing past its $12,000 estimate was a 1-gallon Alexandria, Va., stoneware jar made by John Swann, stamped “J.Swann/Alexa,” that sold for $39,000. Circa 1820 and 8½ inches high, the jar featured a cobalt highlighted two-masted sailing ship, the only signed example featuring that design on a Southern-made piece, according to the auction house. The Zipps said that it is only the second known piece of Alexandria stoneware with incised decoration, the other in the collection of the Smithsonian. It was discovered by the consignor in the basement of her grandmother’s Warren County, Penn., farmhouse. Mark Zipp said that in 1820, Swann advertised that he had greatly improved the quality of his wares, and it is thought that this is when he started using cobalt decoration.
Rising to $33,600 was a fabulous Alamance County redware pitcher featuring a floral motif above bands on the body with a further decorated handle. The auction house attributed it to the Loy or Albright Families, dating to the late Eighteenth Century.
Incised “S.J. Heath. / I.C.R.R. / Chicago-Centralia / 1884,” a Shoo Fly flask from Anna Pottery was likely presented to a railroad employee who worked the Chicago to Centralia line of the Illinois Central Railroad. It was one of only two Shoo Fly flasks that the firm had ever sold, and it featured the inscription “Don’t Bodder me,” in the place of the more common line, “The Original Package.” The piece had descended in an Illinois family, was in excellent overall condition, and sold for $16,800.
“We thought the auction did tremendously well,” Mark said. “It was a smaller-size sale and it grossed our highest total yet. That really spoke to the quality of the sale throughout. We were happy with the numbers from top to bottom as we set a number of records. It could not have gone any better. We had very positive feedback after the sale from bidders.
“When you take into account the uncertainty of this auction,” he continued, “and add in the quality of the material we offered – to watch it come to fruition…we feel very blessed.”
Prices include buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house. For more information, www.crockerfarm.com or 410-472-2016.
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