Robert Morris treated the five-gallon clay jug like anyone would treat an item they paid $12 for more than 40 years ago.
But Morris recently learned the jug is worth far more than he ever imagined.
“It was a nice little surprise,” Morris said of the 1870s-made figural vessel he said he sold for $100,000 to the Birmingham Museum of Art last month. “It was definitely a happy discovery.”
Morris, a Fayetteville native who now lives near Millerville, purchased what he thought was an interesting jug from DeLoach’s junk store in Fayetteville about 44 years ago, he said. What he didn’t know is the ash-glazed stoneware is one of only three by German-born artist John Lehman, created in Randolph County.
Made just after the Civil War, the container depicts an African American man from head to waist wearing hoop earrings and formal attire. A large belt buckle possibly acted as a label for whatever product the jug may have held. The artist’s signature, J.L., is stamped into the figure’s jacket lapels.
“I had given it to my granddaughter and her husband, and a couple weeks before Christmas, they got to looking at it and thought it might be worth some money,” Morris said. “They looked on the Internet, and that’s when we found out the last one sold for $80,000 about 10 years ago. They gave it right back to me when they found out.”
Morris and his wife, Janice, began contacting appraisers and museums around the state to get an idea of jug’s worth. Morris said he eventually contacted Virginia-based auctioneer Ken Farmer, who is featured on the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow.”
“He said he could sell it for me, but we knew the Birmingham museum had bid on the last one that sold, so he advised me that if they were interested, and I could get $100,000, that would be the best way to go,” Morris said.
Not long after, the Birmingham Museum of Art offered to purchase the piece, telling Morris in a letter that it “would be the star of our collection of Alabama-made pottery.”
Museum director Gail Andrews said Lehman is considered the most important historic potter in Alabama.
“There are two other vessels that look like the one we were able to purchase,” Andrews said. “One is at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the other is with a private collector. When this one came forward, we really couldn’t believe it. It was very exciting, because we want to have the best collection of Alabama pottery in the world. The artist is so important, and it’s a rare piece, and of course, Mr. Morris’ story of buying it 40-plus years ago in a junk store was just great. We love that it had survived all those years on the floor of his family room.”
Morris said his jug was unique compared to the other two. Both of them have two buttons on the man’s shirt, while Morris’ jug only has one button. For a 140-year old piece of art, his was in surprisingly good condition as well. Morris said when he bought it there had been a small repair to the neck, and Andrews said it needs some repair around the lips. Once it is ready for display, the museum hopes to organize a John Lehman exhibit, she said.
Morris, retired from Kimberly Clark, said he always liked the piece, though his wife was never a fan and its strange face frightened their grandchildren, but he never considered keeping it once he discovered its worth.
“I would have to get insurance on it, and I’d be worried about breaking it, so I knew it was going to be sold,” Morris said.
To help his granddaughter through nursing school, Morris said he gave her a third of his earnings and kept the rest.
“I’d say it was a pretty good return investment on $12,” he said.
Contact Emily McLain at email@example.com.