Record price paid for locally crafted pottery

Posted: August 1, 2013

The Winchester Star

This pair of redware dogs was purchased last month by the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley for a record price of $115,000. It is the only known pair of Winchester-made whippets.
Two redware statues, including the one shown here — the only known pair of Winchester-made whippets — sold for a record price at a Maryland auction house in July.

WINCHESTER — A rare pair of redware dogs made by a local potter in the 19th century recently sold at auction for $115,000 — a record for a single lot of Virginia pottery — and the winning bidder was the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV).

The figures are of whippets, which resemble greyhounds. They were bought by the Winchester museum on July 20, according to Crocker Farm Inc., a Sparks, Md., auction house that specializes in the sale of early American stoneware and redware pottery.

Bidding was lively, with offers being taken on five phone lines and from about a half-dozen people in the room, said Anthony Zipp, who owns and operates the auction house with his family.

The sale price far exceeded the $25,000 to $40,000 the pair was expected to bring.

“None of us thought $100,000,” Zipp said,

Though one of the figures was in good condition, the head was broken off the other, he said. The damage was repaired before the sale.

What sent the price “through the ceiling” was the rarity of the pair, Zipp said. “This is the only known pair of Winchester whippets.”

Dana Hand Evans, the MSV’s executive director, said the whippets have been on the museum’s wish list for a long time.

“They really represent the material culture of the Shenandoah Valley in that time period,” she said. “We’re excited to share them with everybody.”

The MSV hopes to have them on display by Labor Day weekend.

Located on Amherst, the museum interprets the history, art and culture of the Valley. It has a “substantial” fund for acquisitions and exhibitions, Evans said.

The whippets will join a dozen pieces of Bell pottery in the MSV’s growing collection, including a whippet purchased by museum benefactor, the late Julian Wood Glass Jr., in 1967.

The MSV’s newly acquired pair of stately canines was made by Samuel Bell (1811-1891) in 1841 while he was working in the pottery shop of his father Peter in Winchester.

Both figures are hand-signed by the younger Bell, with Winchester listed before their Sept. 21, 1841, date of manufacture — a level of information that adds to their uniqueness.

Also stamped on the bottom is “S.BELL,” a rare variation of Samuel Bell’s maker’s mark, which is believed to be the potter’s earliest stamp and used only on redware pieces he produced in Winchester.

Another unusual feature is that the hollow insides of the whippets are painted green to match the bases on which they sit.

“No others have ever shown up like that,” said H.E. “Gene” Comstock of Winchester, who in 1994 published a book titled “The Pottery of the Shenandoah Valley Region.”

“The green paint on the inside did not fade in the sunlight,” Comstock added. “Museums, of course, love that.”

The whippets, each of which is 61/2 inches tall and 93/4 inches long, are painted gray.

The figures remained together in the Williams family for 172 years until a descendant living in Florida decided to sell them.

“He called and said it really wasn’t his taste,” Zipp said.

The Williamses once owned the land where Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester is now located, he noted.

Family history indicates that the whippets were likely purchased directly from the Bell pottery shop.

Comstock guessed that the Williamses originally paid $3 to $5 for the decorative dogs, which probably were placed on their mantelpiece.

When compared to the record-setting auction price, “that’s a pretty good profit margin,” he said with a chuckle.

Peter Bell Jr. moved to Winchester from Hagerstown, Md., in 1824. He and his sons John, Samuel and Solomon were prolific potters who mostly produced utilitarian items such as crocks and jugs. They also made decorative figures, and their whippets are “one of the most iconic and highly-prized forms in the genre of Shenandoah Valley pottery,” according to the Crocker Farm auction catalog.

Few, however, remain.

“They are exceptionally hard to find,” Zipp said.

And the pair purchased by the MSV is believed to be the only one in which the whippets are identically signed and dated.

Not long after he made them, Samuel Bell opened his own shop in Strasburg, which remained in operation until 1914. Strasburg was the center of pottery making in the Valley, Comstock said, and the Bells were the region’s predominant potters.

This is the second time in recent months that a pair of redware figures made by a Bell family member has brought a commanding price at auction.

In April, two redware cats made by Samuel’s brother, Solomon, sold for $73,000 at a Headley Auction in Berryville — the most ever paid at auction for Strasburg pottery.

The cats belonged to the estate of local resident Glynnell Headley and were purchased by New Market antiques dealer Burt Long, who outbid the MSV on the felines, according to Evans.

Before they were sold, the cats had been on loan to the MSV. Evans said they will soon be coming back to the museum, possibly in September.

After Long bought the cats, he sold them to a close friend — he said he didn’t make much money on the transaction — and that person has agreed to loan them to the MSV.

But when it came to bidding on the whippets, the MSV outbid Long.

“I stopped at $70,000,” Long said. “I would have liked to have had them myself. They are exceptional examples of redware figures from the Shenandoah Valley.”

Redware was the first type of earthenware made in the region, according to Comstock. Potters made it from the veins of iron-rich clay they found here. Fired in a kiln at a low temperature, redware gets its reddish color from the iron content.

“The Shenandoah Valley is just full of clay,” said Comstock, who makes pottery. “That’s what attracted potters to the area. If you go down to the Shenandoah River and dig a hole, you will more than likely find it. We’ve got plenty of clay.”

— Contact Cynthia Cather Burton at cburton@winchesterstar.com