A porcelain teapot with a reconstructed handle and a missing top just sold at an auction for over $800,000.
Decorated with two sandhill cranes underneath a palmetto tree, the official tree of South Carolina, the blue and white pot measures just 3.5 inches high and 5 inches across.
In a heated 8-minute dual between a private American art collector over the phone and Roderick Jellicoe on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Jellicoe took home the piece.
Shockingly, the teapot was expected to go for around $10,000 to $12,000, nearly 23 times lower than what was actually paid.
But according to experts, the selling price is well worth it. The piece, thought to be the oldest of its kind, marks the “birth of American porcelain” in the 1760s, and is attributed to America’s first known porcelain manufacturer, John Bartlam.
And as if that isn’t impressive enough, the teapot is incredibly rare, as it is one of just seven recorded pieces left of Bartlam’s work.
“It proclaims Bartlam’s success in mastering the medium,” Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts in the American Wing of the Met said. “Porcelain was the holy grail of ceramics.”
Just before the sale of the Bartlam teapot, a similar blue and white one from around the same date and with a lid sold for only $700, as it was made in England, not America.
But the discovery of the teapot itself was incredibly ordinary. It all began when an antiques enthusiast purchased the piece on an internet auction in 2016. The buyer had no idea how much is was worth, and paid just $20 for it.
You read that correctly — he paid just $20 for an item later sold for nearly one million dollars. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
“If it hadn’t been for that internet bid, it probably would have ended up in a bin,” Clare Durham, head of Woolley & Wallis’ English and European ceramics department, said.
The incredibly high value the Met put on the Bartlam teapot is “entirely due to the connection to American history.”
“Just before the Revolutionary War, there was a non-importation agreement in place because the colonies didn’t want to import anything from England,” winning bidder Jellicoe said.
“And, of course, if they could make their own porcelain, they didn’t need to import it from England, so it was a way of being independent from the British.”
Of course, the curious question remains as to why the only remaining pieces of Bartlam’s work have been discovered not in America, but in England.
“In America they would have thrown away old porcelain, but in England it would have had novelty value,” Jellicoe said. “Maybe that’s why someone hung onto it.”
I’d say it is a good thing the original collector decided to just “hang onto it” too. And it’s definitely safe to say that their $20 investment was well worth it in the end.
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