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Stoneware: yesterday's coolers are today's hot collectibles

The demand for Americana continues unabated, fueled by a resurging economy and the popularity of the American country look among home decorators. Prices for all types of Americana are on the rise, including those for painted furniture, baskets, watercolor paintings, and sculpture. But none reflects the increased demand as much as stoneware.

Collectors eagerly seek the rare examples.

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At a September auction in Bennington, Vt., a one-gallon ovoid (pear-shaped) jug with the incised decoration of an American eagle and a flag with 19 stars sold for $5,225. A crock decorated with two fish in blue brought $5,060 from a dealer.

Private sale prices are harder to document, but one Bennington, Vt., crock with strong decorations reportedly sold for more than $7,000 at an antique show this past summer.

Stoneware encompasses a whole range of products, including jugs, crocks, jars , churns, bottles, and pitchers. The pieces were used in the pre-refrigeration age for such things as water coolers, receptacles for pickles and preserves, cheese strainers, milk pitchers, and cider jugs.

Stoneware was made by manufacturers up and down the East Coast and as far inland as Ohio. The majority of pieces today's collector will find come from the period 1830 to 1900.

Most were finished in a simple clear glaze over gray-colored clay, but even these undecorated items are in demand as lamp bases, umbrella stands, or kitchen collectibles.

Demand really blooms for the fancier decorated pieces. Dark-blue floral arrangements, often painted in rather rudimentary fashion, are the decoration most often found. Paintings of birds, fish, dogs, deer, or people are scarcer. Stoneware with incised decoration (cut into the clay before it was fired) is rarer still.

Stoneware pieces of vivid or unusual decoration or exceptional quality fit into the folk-art category and command premium prices.

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Most stoneware collectors and dealers agree: Avoid pieces with extensive repair. It's better to buy a piece with an obvious crack, chip, or missing handle than one that's been repaired.

Avoid pieces with damage in the decoration. A broken base or a crack running down the side opposite the decoration is preferable to one running through a flower or deer.

Consider your use of the stoneware. If you plan to display your crocks on a high shelf in the kitchen, you may be able to live with cracks that don't show, or missing handles.

Not all stoneware pieces have climbed to astronomical levels. Most stoneware beer bottles are still in the $35 to $65 range. A lot of cuspidors (or spittoons) are still available for well under $100.

The increased demand for decorated stoneware has led to another interesting phenomenon. Whereas a decade ago almost no one was reproducing the pottery, now many artisans are turning out credible copies.

The Colonial Williamsburg catalog features incised and decorated stoneware by potter Bob Arkles. Faithful to 19th-century patterns, his $30 pitcher and $50 lamp are especially fetching.

In York, Maine, Beaumont Pottery produces salt-glazed stoneware in a variety of shapes. Potter Jerry Beaumont has found it necessary to sign and date all his creations; several years ago someone tried to sell his reproductions as antiques.

Now that stoneware is more expensive, collectors need to be careful. One New Hampshire dealer reports that old pieces with new decorations and glazes are beginning to turn up at auctions.

If you can't tell antique stoneware from new, the safest thing to do is make your initial purchases from a dealer you trust, buy some good reference books, and get acquainted with the medium before you hit the auction arenas.

And, as always with antiques: caveat emptor.

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