Start free trial

Home > News, Articles & Multimedia > Blog Entry > Art of the Glaze: Collecting North Carolina Art Pottery

Art of the Glaze: Collecting North Carolina Art Pottery

by priceminer (04/08/09).

By A. Everette James, Jr.

This unsigned North Carolina ring handle art pottery vase with decorative ring lug handles on the top sides is advertised as made by Arthur Ray Cole in the 1940s.

This unsigned North Carolina ring handle art pottery vase with ring lug handles is advertised as made by Arthur Ray Cole in the 1940s.

The wheel-thrown vase has a rutile crystalline rustic glaze, and the red clay body, with stilt marks visible on the bottom.

The wheel-thrown vase has a rutile crystalline rustic glaze, and the red clay body, with stilt marks visible on the bottom.

(All items shown in this article are availabe for purchase through GoAntiques.com. Click on the photos for individual item details)

For almost any acquisition endeavor, knowledge is power; whether one is collecting old masters, Oriental carpets, raw land in the South Pacific or the XYZ Corp. Ltd. However, if the object of one’s desire is relatively fragile, condition is a judgment of great importance, and the whereabouts not well known, then one’s personal knowledge becomes paramount to your success in the endeavor.

North Carolina art pottery has been made since the first decades of this century and was fashioned in large numbers. Thus, you would assume that finding it would not be problematic, if only you knew where to search. There is certainly an element of truth in that. The facts are that these sixth- and eighth-generation N.C. potters shipped their wares all over America by rail and later by truck. Some of the potteries shipped their wares in lots numbering in the thousands, so their pieces are out there, if you can determine where “there” is. With the advent of the Internet, finding these items is not as hard as it once was, but there are certainly other things to learn: The shapes and glazes, while not specific, were characteristics to identify potteries in general, but the successful collector should learn to identify the individual pottery or even the potter as well.

This nice and early vessel, made by J.B. Cole, has a flaring form and is covered in a lead green glaze.

This nice and early vessel, made by J.B. Cole, has a flaring form and is covered in a lead green glaze.

The condition of this particular vase, made in the 1920s, is good, but has numerous nicks to the rim, a small ding to the body, and rub on the base. The lower portion shows lime deposits in the crazing.

The condition of this particular vase, made in the 1920s, is good, but has numerous nicks to the rim, a small ding to the body.

The art pottery movement in the Tar Heel state began as an adaptation for financial survival. Progress in the form of glass and plastic containers, the availability of electricity and even something call Prohibition, led to a decline in the need and demand for utilitarian wares. The potters in North Carolina had been fashioning these crocks, storage jars, churns and jugs for more than two centuries, but after the turn of the century they had to make different wares if they wanted to survive in the remainder of the 20th century. Those who were able to make the transition survived, but even then it was not an easy life.

The transitional forms and glazes used in the 1920s and 30s provide the collector with an interesting challenge. Not a great number have survived, and the particular examples have not been systematically documented. These pieces appear crude in the reflection of the changes in turning required for decorative pieces, and the glazes were often simple and not inspiring. A number of these pieces were salt glazed, or some variation of Albany slop might have been used, as the potters were familiar with these glazes. They also tended to employ those forms that were easily translated from their previous activity. Many of the potters had difficulty with fashioning the smaller pieces and had little, if any, experience with the decorative glazes. One can sometimes find these examples with a crude but appealing form and wonderful patina in junk shops, boxes at estate sales and at flea markets.

In the 1930s the potters became more accomplished, both in the turning of these decorative wares and in choosing glazes that increased the visual appeal of their creations. Another very interesting development was the change in distribution patterns from local to widespread, and a marked increase in the volume of wares produced so that many pieces were shopped all over the country. This means that the aggressive collector has an opportunity to acquire pieces from almost anywhere, but some locations are much more likely than others.

Where to Begin the Hunt

Most antiques shops that specialize in a particular form of antiquity or fine art dealers are not likely to have these hand-turned wares. The most commons place to find N.C. art pottery are in malls and in multiple-dealer shops where all the dealers carry a large variety of goods to appeal to the generic desires of the public. Estate sales can be very good sources, but one has to devote a great deal of time to this endeavor and be extremely patient. You can drive for hundreds of miles, wait for what seems to be a lifetime for the piece to come up, and then be outbid by a little old lady in tennis shoes who is reminded by the piece of her late great Aunt Tillie and who has a $20,000,000 trust account.

Antique festivals or shows will yield good results, provided you have stamina, are willing to use your own judgment and are prepared to bargain. The small shows at Liberty and Cameron, two North Carolina towns (more like villages), have good examples if you are prepared to pay from dealers who are fair but well informed.

You will discover that there will be a substantial difference in the asking price between signed and unsigned pieces; so you should learn to identify the characteristic clay, glaze, form and turning of the North Carolina potters. For the knowledgeable, there are unparalleled opportunities for acquisition, but there are no guarantees, absolutely no warranty and no return policies.

A pair of Pisgah Forest North Carolina arts pottery candleholders, with exterior and interior glazes in soft shades of seafoam green and faded rose pink. Made sometime between the 1940s and 1960s.

A pair of Pisgah Forest North Carolina arts pottery candleholders, with exterior and interior glazes in soft shades of seafoam green and faded rose pink. Made sometime between the 1940s and 1960s.

While the remains of a tripod evidenced on the glaze of the bottom of a piece, coupled with the uniform sanding marks of a belt sander on the undersurface, may tell you this piece was made at Jacon B. Cole Pottery, this will be totally lost on 97 percent of antique dealers. You can thus translate this lack of information or interest on their part into opportunity for you. If you have exercised a bit of independent scholarship, the rewards may be extraordinary. The specialized pottery dealer will probably know as much, or more, as you will, but will most often be fair because the goal here for the dealer is repeat business.

Whether a piece is signed should not be an incentive or serve as a deterrent to the purchase of N.C. pottery. If it is for you, then you have simply not done the proper due diligence to identify the unsigned pieces, which comprise the vast majority of the pieces you will find. There are a few specialized N.C. pottery dealers and certainly you should buy from them as well as learn from them; but if this is your only method of acquisition, then you are going to miss a great deal of the pleasure in the process. Do much of your own searching because the chase can be as or more pleasurable than the act of acquiring.

Fundamentals of North Carolina Art Pottery

Certain basics to collecting North Carolina art pottery are as fundamental as the rod to fishing, the putter to the links, or the hoop to basketball. You have simply got to be able to tell a mold piece from a hand-turned one. Do not believe that the turning grooves will always be prominent or the telltale joining line readily apparent. Look at the handles; could they have been shaped by the human hand and fixed to the body of the piece manually? How translucent is the glaze? Does it have the deep patina of a kiln-fired piece or a more translucent sheen of a porcelain ware? Granted Pisgah Forest, a well-known line of N.C. potters, is fired at a higher temperature than earthenware, but the glazes are typical and almost all the Pisgah Forest pieces are marked.

Fabulous turquoise-blue crackle finish baluster-style vase by W.B. Stephen of the Pisgah Pottery Company of North Carolina.

Fabulous turquoise-blue crackle finish baluster-style vase by W.B. Stephen of the Pisgah Pottery Company of North Carolina.

It is 9-inches tall and has the Stephen’s trademark pink glazed interior. This piece is fully marked and dated '1946.'

It is nine inches tall and has Stephen's trademark pink glazed interior. This piece is fully marked and dated 1946.

North Carolina clay can usually be differentiated from other contenders but not always. Mitchfield clay from the Auman Clay Pit is basically white, and allows the glazes to be put to their greatest decorative use. The luster from a clear glaze over the natural clay is both lovely and identifiable. Candor clay, named from the small town in south central North Carolina, is so white that it has a similar appearance to porcelain, but the effect on the glaze will be different and the object will not have the very high-gloss shine. The appearance of redware is red, and most of the North Carolina clay is orange. However, it was a common practice to shellac the bottoms or to allow the glaze to run over the bottom of the piece and sand it smooth. The bottom might also become darkened by the firing process. The message here is to look at the clay and examine the undersurface of the piece, but be aware that you are not examining an object in pristine condition or understand that what you are observing might reflect some of the potting process and not just the properties of the clay.

Glazes are helpful in identification but seldom specific. However, you certainly need to be able to identify the colors of A.R. Cole when he operated at Rainbow Pottery, or the multiglazes of C.C. Cole, Jugtown’s very desirable Chinese blue, or the double-dipped glaze wares of North State Pottery. If you would like to acquire some rare and very desirable North Carolina pieces, learn to identify the cream-colored and cobalt-decorated wares of the Auman’s in the 1920s or the mottled “spotted” appearance of the early Jugtown pieces.

You will not be able to carry in your frontal cortex all the forms and shapes of even a single N.C. pottery’s wares. There are hundreds of entries in the 1932 J.B. Cole catalogue alone. However, certain common forms, such as Rebecca pitchers, suggest a North Carolina origin and the specifics such as a “rat tail” handle suggest a particular potter such as Jack Kiser. Since this pottery was made for a national market, regional shapes were not as common as with the utilitarian goods of yesteryear. Form and shape are very important.

This tall split handled pitcher is covered in a robin’s egg blue glaze with colorful splashes around the shoulder. Believed to be made in the 1930s.

This tall split handled pitcher is covered in a robin’s egg blue glaze with colorful splashes around the shoulder. Believed to be made in the 1930s.

Unmarked on the bottom, but attributed to Rainbow Pottery, the condition of this pitcher is excellent, with one small flake on the mouth.

Unmarked on the bottom, but attributed to Rainbow Pottery, the condition of this pitcher is excellent, with one small flake on the mouth.

When you begin your independent quest for N.C. pottery, pick up every piece you think may have a chance of being the object of your desire. You will get to see the bottoms of many pieces of Roseville, Fancoma and Fulper, and gradually you will come to be able to eliminate them quickly. You will soon come to “feel” the presence of a mold piece, but to differentiate Bybee wares made in Kentucky or some Gordy art pottery from Georgia from N.C. pottery.

The search for N.C. art pottery can be an intellectual adventure, but you may find yourself on some remote porches, exploring a defunct florist or tracing the sales from the 1930s, of a nursery that insists they have the records in an abandoned warehouse. The rewards are great for the informed and diligent, but the process will be pleasurable for the less successful as well.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Join WorthPoint on Twitter and Facebook.

Sorry, comments are closed on this article.

Want a picture icon with your comment? Sign up with Gravatar to get one.