Published: December 22, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Ledbetter Folk & Americana Auction
GIBSONVILLE, N.C. – There are key moments in a person’s life that only reveal their importance long after the dust has settled. For Matt Ledbetter, the picker, collector, dealer, auctioneer and gym owner, that settling came on January 27, 2020.
“When Kobe Bryant died, I woke up the next day,” he said, “I called LiveAuctioneers, paid the money and said, ‘I’m tired of saying I’m going to do an auction, I’m just going to do it.'”
Ledbetter began buying antiques when he was 9 years old, accompanying his father, Wade Ledbetter, as he knocked on doors in rural parts of the Tar Heel state.
“North Carolina was a hotbed for door knockin'” he said. “Hey ma’am, I’m Matt Ledbetter, you got anything old down in the basement or the barn?”
Now in his late 30s, Matt said he learned much of what he knows from his father and the local weekly auction they sold at throughout their lives.
“It’s Monday and the auction is Friday and I have to buy antiques to sell them,” he said. “That’s how I got brought up in it, I didn’t come at it from a shop or shows, we did auctions.”
Ledbetter Folk Art & Americana Auction’s first sale was in June, where he sold a 6-gallon jar by Nineteenth Century Catawba River Valley potter Isaac Lefever for $15,080.
His second and most recent sale closed for bidding on December 12, led by three pieces of Southern furniture and followed by a smattering of folk and outsider art, both historic and contemporary.
Ledbetter and his father owned about 150 lots in the 450-lot auction. The rest were supplied by under ten consignors.
On auction day, he set up about 30 chairs distanced throughout his 5,000-square-foot warehouse-turned-gallery.
“We didn’t have many people here compared to a big sale, but at all times we had more than 400 people watching and bidding online,” he said. “There are no museums in Gibsonville. But after three months, this building was a museum with art by Purvis Young, Mose Tolliver, Richard Burnside, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Benny Carter and more. Bill Arnett would have been proud to see we were getting $1,800 out of a Mose Tolliver.”
Ledbetter’s sales boast southern charm. Beer, wine, barbecue – they’re free. “It’s an event,” he said.
The sale was led by a $3,245 result for a Nineteenth Century walnut chest on frame from Piedmont, N.C., which sold to a bidder in Alabama. Ledbetter said it was quite early for North Carolina furniture.
“Any chest on frame, that’s an early piece of furniture, one of the earliest North Carolina chests you can get,” he said. “Many are from the mid-Nineteenth Century, but this one was 1790-1810, it’s a different classification.”
Behind at $2,714 was a Columbia, S.C., paint-decorated blanket chest with the Confederate motto Deo Vindice appearing over a firing cannon. The yellow pine chest had repaired feet, which likely kept it back, but the auctioneer said the paint on it was original, dating to the Civil War.
A pie safe collector took home a South Carolina yellow pine example for $2,360. “He said it was the only one he has with a single door,” the auctioneer noted. To all sides, the tin panels lined up in a column of three vertical full tin sheets and were joined on their right side by a half sheet of the same design, providing a very folky motif.
There was an exceptional amount of pottery in the sale, largely from contemporary Southern makers.
“When I was a kid, every home in the South had pottery by the 20s,” Ledbetter said. “I’d come out of the basement with two jugs in my hand and a basket in my teeth. And that’s true, because we’d buy eight pieces of pottery each time we got in a house back in the 1990s. I used to only like old pottery, even back in my early 20s when I was an antique dealer – I would not buy one that was new. About five years ago, I had the thought one day, ‘Once upon a time Burlon Craig was alive, and you could go to him and buy a ‘Cryin’ Eyes’ face jug for $5. You could go to his kiln and buy as much pottery as you wanted for nothing. When I was in Hillsville and I stumbled into Marvin Bailey’s booth, I started thinking I should take advantage of this because one day he’ll quit potting. That was when I got into the living artists.”
The Meaders family of potters accounted for 21 lots in the sale, led by a rock tooth face jug by Lanier that sold for $2,030. Behind at $1,968 was a red clay rooster by Edwin, while his double headed rooster sold for $1,121.
From Lancaster, S.C., is Marvin Bailey, and he was represented by 23 more lots of imaginative southern pottery, led by an “I See You” eyeball jug, 9½ inches high, that took $523.
Other potters in the sale included Billy Ray Hussey, Burlon Craig, Roger Corn, Stacy Lambert, Steve Abee and more.
In anonymous folk art came a polychrome painted cane featuring images of bathing beauties that sold for $1,845.
“I own 350 canes, and I’ve handled over 1,000 of them. I’ve never seen a cane this good before,” Ledbetter said.
At $1,353 was a Nineteenth Century pair of folk art andirons featuring rabbits. Ledbetter wrote that they were found in the original homeplace in Vance County, N.C.
“I woke up at 3 am on auction day and got out of bed at 4:30,” the auctioneer said. “It was dark and I’m walking over to the gallery that morning and I started thinking about those andirons. I have never seen a pair of andirons like these. There were times I wouldn’t do nothing but go and look at them. That’s how good they were – the best piece of folk art in the sale.”
Ledbetter has never held an auction outside of the age of Covid and its processes of heavy online and phone bidding, spaced seating and preview appointments.
He recalled, “I looked at the audience halfway through the sale and I said, ‘Listen, you take advantage of this, because one day there will be 300 people in this building. Every chair is going to be full and people will be standing up. When things bring $60 to $80 dollars now, they’ll bring $300 then. People online are looking for specific things, they’re not pulling up a trailer and loading it up.”
On the results, Ledbetter related that he was happy, though he’s still hunting for the blue chip outsiders.
“If I can get a couple more sales under my belt and prove I can handle good material, you’re going to see a Bill Traylor sell in Gibsonville,” he said, “you’re going to see the untouchables: a Wolfli, a Sam Doyle. You can’t just wake up and say I’m going to sell a Traylor in my next auction. It doesn’t work like that.”
But he’s looking for it. One day, you may see Matt Ledbetter standing there with a Traylor in his teeth and two Dave jars in his hands.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. The auctioneer’s next sale is scheduled for June 2021. For information, https://ledbetterauctions.com or 336-524-1077.
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