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'Weird' jug fools 'Antiques' expert

BEND — In January, Bend horse trainer Betsy Soule picked up the phone to hear the voice of a friend she hadn't spoken to in close to 40 years.

"She just called me out of the blue," said Soule, 60. "She said, 'You've got to get on the Internet and look up 'Antiques Roadshow'; that weird pot you made is on there."

The weird pot — a jug, actually — more than a foot tall and decorated with six grotesque, gargoyle-like faces, had been made by Soule in a ceramics class at Eugene's Churchill High School in 1973 or 1974. The jug's precise whereabouts over the last four decades remain a mystery, but eventually it made its way in to the hands of Florence resident Alvin Barr.

Last summer, Barr took the jug to Spokane, Washington, for a taping of "Antiques Roadshow," a public television program where experts examine art and collectibles and attempt to explain where they were made and their approximate value. Online, the segment is referred to as the "Grotesque Face Jug."

In Spokane, appraiser Stephen Fletcher said the style of the jug suggested it was made on the East Coast in the late 19th or early 20th century and compared the distorted faces to the paintings of Pablo Picasso. He estimated it could sell for $30,000 to $50,000 at auction.

"This, in its own way, is really over the top," Fletcher said on the broadcast aired in January. "It's bizarre and wonderful."

Soule and her old friend got in contact with the show's producers and provided photos and other evidence to prove she was its creator.

Fletcher issued a corrected appraisal — $3,000 to $5,000 — well above the $300 Barr paid when he found it, covered in straw and chicken droppings, in a barn at a Eugene-area estate sale.

Soule said she was amazed to learn something she made in high school could be worth even what Barr paid for it. At the time she made it, she was unfamiliar with the style of jugs the appraiser referenced on the show and was just sculpting what came to her in her imagination.

"I was just a really passionate, artistic kid," she said. "I don't know where those faces came from; they just came roaring out of me onto those pots."

After high school, Soule attended Lane Community College and then the University of Oregon. She studied art and continued making ceramics, but after about two years, she gave it up for good. She's been training horses professionally ever since.

Soule said the "Antiques Roadshow" experience and Barr's subsequent offer to buy any other pieces she still had was gratifying, suggesting maybe she'd had the talent to make it as a professional artist after all.

Still, she's not completely convinced.

"Actually, I probably would have starved to death," she said. "But the whole story has had me laughing out loud for over a month now; it's just the most fun thing ever."

Barr, an antiques broker, said he thought the jug could be worth as much as $3,000 when he found it at the estate sale but wasn't looking at it as an investment. He just liked it.

"I collect odd stuff," Barr said. "If it's different and weird, it belongs in my collection."

After talking with friends about the jug's similarity to pottery created by slaves in the mid- to late-1800s, he decided to take it to the "Antiques Roadshow" taping. The appraisal by the show's expert was a surprise, but not all good news — upon learning its possible value, he packed it inside multiple boxes and stashed it behind his couch to protect it from damage.

"I hated it when it was $30,000 to $50,000, because who wants $30,000 to $50,000 lying around their house?" he said. "Now, it's on my table, and I love it."

"Antiques Roadshow" executive producer Marsha Bemko said although the experts who appraise objects on the show do their homework and confer with each other before making a guess at an item's origins or value, they still miss the mark occasionally.

Objects like Soule's jug can be particularly hard to appraise, Bemko said, particularly compared with china or silver stamped with the identifying mark of a manufacturer.

"The best things we see, the five- and six-figure objects, are as a rule unique, or one of a kind, or so rare," Bemko said. "Common things are not worth that kind of money — that's what makes appraisal very difficult."

Bemko said while the discovery of the jug's true origins reduced its value, it doesn't detract from its craftsmanship.

"It was worth more when we didn't know who made it," she said. "The devil's in the details."

Soule said seeing arts experts praise her work on television and assign it a high monetary value — even if it's less than originally thought — has got her wondering if she should try her hand at ceramic sculpting again.

"If I ever retire at 103 or something, maybe I'll get back in to it," she said.

Betsy Soule shows some of the pottery she created in middle school and high school. A weird jug made by Soule in the 1970s fooled an appraiser from the 'Antiques Roadshow' program. Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin via AP