From $20 to $806,000 – The incredible story of the John Bartlam teapot

Blue and white porcelain teapots

What would you pay for a commonplace, blue-and-white teapot (with a super-glued handle and missing lid) at your local antique shop? $5? $7? Max?

So, you can imagine that an unknown online seller was pleased when he sold that exact teapot for $20 at auction. There was just one problem…

…This mystery seller didn’t know it was the John Bartlam Teapot. A teapot that would eventually sell again at auction—but this time for over $800,000.

The original seller of this seemingly unremarkable English attic find wasn’t the only one who would underestimate that little teapot. In a matter of weeks, the John Bartlam teapot would be put up for online auction again. This time, in 2018, it would be drastically undervalued at a starting bid of £10,000 (about $12,554).

Who was the maker of this $800,000 teapot?

Eleven years before the American Revolution, 28-year-old John Bartlam left his pottery work in England to start again in Cain Hoy, South Carolina.

After discovering that there wasn’t enough fine white clay (kaolin) there, he moved again. This time he established a factory in Camden, South Carolina.

Bartlam employed African Americans as apprentices, rather than using slave labor. And with their help, he began making the first-ever porcelain produced on American soil.

“Equal in quality and appearance and can be afforded as cheap, as any imported from England”

As the only American porcelain maker of his time, Bartlam was in a unique position to capitalize on anti-tax sentiments. Colonial boycotts of foreign goods had failed to lift all British import duties. And while many businesses accepted the “tea compromise,” the early patriots of wealthy South Carolina still weren’t buying. 

While political tensions bred war rumors, Bartlam made his pottery.

It was an enterprise that more or less ended when Bartlam — despite his conflicting loyalties to England — joined the South Carolina militia. He fought for the colonialists until Cornwallis’ watershed victory in 1780, when Bartlam finally gave in to his loyalist sentiments and switched sides.

It is suspected that Bartlam was later hung by the Americans for treason.

This brief talk by Nicholas Panes, a porcelain and ceramics expert, highlights some unique (and surprising) details about the life of John Bartlam and what makes the teapot so special:

The John Bartlam teapot was the first made in America

In any case, there was no more Bartlam pottery. American sentiments were for throwing away chipped or damaged ceramics, meaning that only a few British sentimentalists managed to hang on to any pieces.

And, until recently, those pieces were often misidentified as belonging to Bartlam’s English competitors, who all made similar blue-and-white designs.

Thus, the stage was set for a once-in-a-lifetime auction.

Eight other Bartlam pottery pieces — the only ones known to still exist intact — have gone at auction for anywhere from $50,000-$175,000. So, the initial $12,554 bid was reasonable.

Yet at the prestigious Woolley & Wallis Auctioneers of Salisbury, the price for the John Bartlam teapot sky-rocketed beyond all expectations.

Timeless excitement of an art auction

People bidding at an auction

Two bidders quickly emerged as the most serious.

The first was a private American collector bidding anonymously by phone. The second was porcelain specialist Roger Jellicoe — bidding for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

Perhaps it was poetic justice that Jellicoe, who originally identified one of the first Bartlam tea bowls eight years earlier in 2010, won.

It was one of those moments that defines the truly indefinable value of art:

  • Infinitely precious, and yet capricious.
  • Often defined more by history than by skill.
  • Valued by some, overlooked by others.

How else to rationalize the up-and-down fortunes of a little teapot?

Rejected by its own country of origin. Carelessly stored in an attic of the very country that its maker had forsaken. Lost, forgotten, broken, and ill-mended. Callously discarded for a mere $20.

And then, a sudden flash of realization.

The revelation of the John Bartlam teapot for what it really was instantly increased its value by a stunning $13,000. Then, the incredible bidding war itself.

Resulting in the historic first porcelain teapot of America coming home to rest on its native soil, for an incredible final auction selling price of $806,000.

Curious what an auction for an $806,000 teapot looks like? This video from the Woolley and Wallis auction house recorded the money-making event:

What’s in your attic?

Most of us have things hiding in attics and basements that aren’t really wanted but we can’t quite bear to throw away…

  • Grandma’s old ceramic vase stuffed in a cobwebby corner?
  • A pipe from some long-lost uncle who served in the Civil War?
  • A tarnished and ugly disk that might (or might not) be a Roman coin?

For some it’s sentimental value that keeps those dusty treasures hanging around. And for others, it’s an indefinable feeling that maybe — just maybe — that thing isn’t so worthless after all.  

If that’s you, then it might be worth it to stop hoarding junk and treasure alike and go see what you’ve really got.

  • Dust off some history books.
  • Talk to a local antique dealer.
  • Spend some time with Professor Google.

Just remember, if you can possibly help it, don’t get rid of a piece of “junk” unless you’re sure. Because there’s many a sharp-eyed connoisseur who’ll be happy to turn your discard into a fortune.

Suzanna Fitzgerald

Suzanna Fitzgerald is a professional content writer specializing in crafting your stories into irresistible online marketing blueprints.

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