As It Happens

Fancy a cuppa? Early American teapot that last sold for $25 fetches over $1M at auction

Ceramics specialist Clare Durham tells As It Happens how an extremely rare teapot made by John Bartlam once sold for $25 but ended up going for over $1 million in auction.
This cracked teapot with a missing lid was originally purchased for $25 but just sold at auction for over $1 million. (Woolley and Wallis)
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Story transcript

The last time the teapot was on the market, it went for $25 — which, considering it was missing a lid and cracked, already seemed a bit steep.

But last week, when auctioneer Clare Durham threw down her gavel, the modest little teapot sold for over $800,000 US ($1 million Cdn.) to a buyer from the New York Metropolitan Museum. 

Durham is a ceramics specialist for U.K. auction house Woolley and Wallis, which sold the one-of-a-kind piece.

She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the history of the teapot and John Bartlam — the British-American potter who made it during the late 1700s.

Here is part of their conversation. 

How did this teapot end up in your hands?

It was brought to me by one of our regular private clients. He is a collector of English porcelain and pottery. He brought it in just before Christmas last year and had purchased it at auction about a year previous to that. 

Now, on paper it doesn't read like much, does it?

It doesn't sound like much at all. I have to say, when we first saw it, then I knew it was interesting. The pattern made it really interesting.

Luckily, there was enough about it that I had a gut feeling that it was more than just a broken teapot. But I have to say, it certainly didn't initially occur to me that it was going to go on to be the superstar it has become. 

There must be crates of old English teapots out there, made in England. But the fact that this is from the United States, this was probably the earliest teapot people have seen from the U.S. Tell us about that, where it might have come from.

It was made a potter called John Bartlam, in Cain Hoy, in South Carolina. Bartlam was actually a Brit. But we know that he left England in some debt [and] went across to South Carolina in 1763 and set up a pottery in 1765. 

He was the very first producer of porcelain on American soil. So, yes, as you say, this is the earliest recorded American porcelain teapot.

I think it's the only surviving teapot. There are a couple, certainly one, that has recently been excavated.

So it is, indeed, the earliest American porcelain teapot and perhaps the only recorded 18th century porcelain teapot surviving — and that's what makes it so incredibly rare.

No lid, cracked, very old. When the gavel finally went down on this price, what did you think?

Just absolutely amazed. I mean, in the room, you could have heard a pin drop. It was absolutely silent. All I could hear was my heart hammering, to be honest.

But just an incredible prize. I think it has taken a while for it to sink in that that is what it has done.

Obviously, it's going to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is absolutely the right place for it. I'm delighted it's going there.

But there was a private collector underneath their bid who really, really wanted it and battled them all the way. We had no idea it was going to go that far. 

And what is the seller saying about that price?

He's over the moon. Obviously, it's a fabulous return for him having only spent £15 on it. But he is such an enthusiast. He loves pottery and porcelain so much, and he's been studying it for so long that I actually think that more than the money, he loved being part of something.

This is an object which he has rescued, essentially, because it was languishing at a general sale. And probably, without his bid, could have ended up in the bin.

He has rescued that and it is now in one of the biggest museum in the world and going to be looked at for generations to come. So I think he is just as excited at that as he is for this incredible sum of money. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Clare Durham.

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