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Antiques Roadshow Insider - Vase Pottery

Appraiser Rago details the finer points of the tall (11 inches) Harrison McIntosh vase that turned up in Salt Lake City on June 24.

A longtime Antiques Roadshow expert had an appraisal "in the can"---or so he thought. Here, he explains how confusion over the date of an item left a segment on the cutting-room floor.

- By David Rago

Over the years, Antiques Roadshow's executive producers have reminded their stable of appraisers during taping sessions that the information we provide when explaining a fake or reproduction is noticeably superior to that which is dispensed when evaluating a perfectly authentic piece.

With that in mind, I thought Insider's readers might enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at a good appraisal gone bad. In the process, you'll have the chance to consider some valuable information that otherwise might never see the light of day. As my colleague Noel Barrett would say: When given lemons, make lemonade.

I was with Antiques Roadshow in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June, sitting in my usual place at the Pottery & Porcelain table, when I saw a young woman at the head of the line holding, unwrapped, what I knew to be a very good piece of modern pottery. It was a tall vase by California ceramicist Harrison McIntosh, and it was made, I assumed, in the 1960s. McIntosh was known mostly for his bowl and jar forms; his larger vases are really quite rare.

I motioned the woman toward me, and in the course of about a minute, I heard enough to know we had something that possibly merited taping.

The vase passed all the tests: The woman owned it, she had never had it appraised (which nearly everyone says anyway, but I really believed her), and she shared a good story of how she got it. In addition to what I already knew about McIntosh's work, I was sure we'd never taped a piece of his pottery at an Antiques Roadshow event. To top it off, the value of McIntosh pottery has increased dramatically in the past year.

Antiques Roadshow Insider - Vase Pottery

Our correspondent knew all the details about this Harrison McIntosh vase, but its age became an issue after he taped an Antiques Roadshow appraisal.

All the "major food groups," so to speak, were definitely covered.
I shared all of this information with Antiques Roadshow executive producer Marsha Bemko, who agreed that we should get the story on tape. With less than an hour to go before we'd tape the segment, I decided to check my information, so I called a friend who knows McIntosh's work better than I do.

I've sold more than 20 of McIntosh's pieces at auction over the years, which is a substantial amount considering the rarity. But little is in print about this artist, and most of what's known at this point passes from mouth to ear.

I described the vase to my associate this way: Harrison McIntosh tall vase, about 11 inches tall by 5 inches wide, with vertical ribbing in soft blue and cream. Body of red clay, impressed mark, white sticker on base with writing, maybe in artist's hand, maybe in the hand of a retailer who sold his work.

My associate agreed with my thoughts about the piece---except for one point.
Having personally visited McIntosh about a year earlier, he said that the potter told him that red clay---the type I seemed to be describing---was typical of his work from the early 1980s, not the 1960s. Since McIntosh did not much alter his signature decorative technique---a distinctive two-tone vertical ribbing---there are relatively few ways to distinguish an earlier example from a later one.

Antiques Roadshow Insider - Vase Pottery

Owner of the McIntosh vase shows off her prize.

Shortly thereafter, while taping the appraisal, I told the owner that, although I originally thought the vase dated to the 1960s, I subsequently learned that the red clay body dated the vase about 15 years later.

At that point, the young woman said that she thought the label on the bottom of the piece, with its handwritten numbers, corresponded to the date of production. If this were correct, it would have clearly placed the piece in an earlier time. It also would have contradicted what I had just learned about the red clay from my associate.

Since I had never heard of McIntosh using such a dating system, I stuck to my guns about the early-1980s date. I also told the owner of the vase that it's worth $3,000-$4,000 (a total that elicited a solid "7" on the "Queen for a Day" reaction-meter).

About two days later, I received an e-mail from executive producer Bemko who-after reviewing the tapes at Antiques Roadshow's home office in Boston----wanted to fact-check the dating information. The vase's owner had raised enough of a question during the segment that it seemed prudent to become certain about the piece's origins.

So I contacted the only other person I knew who could confirm this information. He'd been in Europe for an extended trip, so the only way I could reach him was by e-mail.

He responded almost immediately with very concise data about the dating system McIntosh employed. He also said that McIntosh, who indeed used a reddish clay in the 1980s, also worked with a limited amount of buff (or light red) clay in the '60s.

I forwarded his letter to Bemko. I heard back from her, almost as quickly, confirming that the guest's information was exactly right: The vase in fact dated to the 1960s, contrary to what I said in our taped segment. Great pot, great information-and a now faulty appraisal that will never be aired.

While appraisers like to get taped and enjoy getting airtime, the real loss in this case was the opportunity to get rare information about an important modern artist out there in front of more than 11 million viewers. At least, though, we're able to provide Insider readers with a scoop they'll never see on the show itself.

One last thing: Despite all the twists and turns regarding the date of the McIntosh vase, one important detail remains the same. The value of the piece is $3,000-$4,000, regardless of whether it dates to the 1960s or 20 years later.

About the author - David Rago

The author runs Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J. He also has authored a number of books on pottery, is publisher of Style: 1900, and has been an Antiques Roadshow appraiser since its first tour (1996).


You see it on Antiques Roadshow all the time....

Appraiser: "This wonderful widget was made in Paducah, Ky., in 1907 by Ernest Wheelbottom III in an effort to assist his bedridden cocker spaniel Elmo in ridding the family farm of stinging nettles. They usually come in vibrant tones of chartreuse or burgundy but, this one year, they were produced only in vermilion. While usually worth 47 cents apiece, this rarer color brings the value to $45,892.22." (Or something like that....)

Guest: "How could you possibly know all that?"

In an ongoing effort to demystify the process you see carried out on Antiques Roadshow, let's examine exactly where the appraisers' information comes from.

  • What we bring with us: Nearly all of the regular appraisers on the show have at least two decades of experience in their respective fields, and a handful have been at it for nearly 50 years.

If you haven't seen it/felt it/studied it/or otherwise gotten it by then, you're not going to last long on the show. Some things are understood only by handling objects, time and time again. Reading information in books will never translate to the feel in the palm. If I had to make a pie chart to answer the question in this sidebar's title, I'd allot 65 percent of it to this factor.

  • Custom research, on the spot: What we can research at the show accounts for another 15-20 percent of the appraisal picture.

No matter what you know, you'll never know it all. Indeed, the brightest experts in any field are those who understand the gaps in their knowledge as chances to learn better the things they do know. And really now: Does anyone expect that we should remember the marks, names, and dates of all the Bavarian china producers from 1890-1910? This is why, at nearly all of the appraiser tables at an Antiques Roadshow event, you'll see a stack of research books. These traveling libraries are on hand to address the "stretch marks" in the broad swath cut by the appraisers' experiential knowledge. And thanks to the greater availability of wireless Internet access, online research is generally available to appraisers as well.

  • The owner's story: What you bring us accounts for the other 10-20 percent of our pie chart.

While a good deal of the data we hear from the owner of an object is, at best, only partially correct ("No, I'm sorry, but they did NOT have plastic on the Mayflower..."), our attendees have been an undeniable source of both familial and experiential information.

I remember at one of my first Antiques Roadshow events---in Dallas during the second year of taping---when a man brought in a rare baby dish made by the Union Porcelain Works, an obscure turn-of-the-century American porcelain maker. I told him what I knew about dating the piece, which put it from about 1900, since the company supposedly went out of business soon after that. He gently put his bowl, and me, in our respective places by telling me his grandfather owned the company and had made this bowl for his birth in 1917---well after the commonly held closing date for the firm. You would have thought, after that lesson of long ago, I might have paid more attention to the woman with the McIntosh vase in Salt Lake City....
-David Rago



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