The 25-gallon stoneware jar was sold by Sparks, Maryland firm Crocker Farm for a massive $1.3m (£1m).
Interest in the enigmatic 19th century enslaved black potter Dave Drake’s work is at an all-time high.
In an environment where many institutions are eager to plug gaps in collections hitherto dominated by the output of white male elites, auction records have tumbled in recent years.
The previous hammer price high of $300,000 for Drake’s work jar had been set by Brunk of Asheville, North Carolina, in November 2020.
The Crocker Farm jar, first ‘discovered’ in the 1960s by Southern folk historian and author Dr John Burrison, is widely published. At just over 2ft (61cm) high, it is among the largest of Drake’s known works (it has four handles to aid with transport) and is made with a poured rather than a dipped glaze.
Its most arresting feature is a sgrafitto inscription A very Large Jar which has 4 handles / pack it full of fresh meats – then light candles.
More than 30 of Drake’s jars include ‘poems’. Proof that he was was literate at a time when many enslaved African Americans were not, they also provide a window into the mind of one of the few enslaved craftsmen to be granted an identity.
This verse, which references the practice of sealing meal jars with candle wax to aid preservation, is also signed and dated LM April 12 1858 Dave. The LM stands for Lewis Miles, Drake’s owner, who ran the Stony Bluff pottery in South Carolina’s Edgefield District from 1840-68.
The vessel’s grand proportions are denoted by 25 short incised slash marks, haphazardly scrawled in rows, between two handles.
Crocker Farm operates a curious bidding protocol in which all participants register their interest online before the four leading bidders are contacted and bid by phone. On this occasion all four ‘last men standing’ were American museums.
With 20% premium, the jar sold for $1.56m, nearly doubling the previous auction record for an American ceramic set by the £460,000 John Bartlam porcelain teapot at Woolley & Wallis in 2018.