Alabama museum buys two rare Lehman political jars

John Lehman (1825-circa 1885) covered his stoneware jars with a Southern alkaline glaze and carefully decorated them with eagles, banners and vines.

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This rare John Lehman 19th century stoneware political jar graced the cover of the Brunk Auctions catalog. The head of Jefferson with "Hurrah for Jefferson" was on one side with George Washington and "Hurrah for Washington" verso. In fine condition, the 20 ¾" jar may have been made in either Alabama or Georgia since Lehman practiced his trade in both states. Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, purchased it for $74,750. Another Lehman jar with relief portraits Jefferson and Andrew Jackson was purchased by a museum benefactor for $32,200.

Asheville, N.C.: Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, knew what she wanted and it didn’t take her long to get it. The two political jars she sought crossed the block during the first hour of Brunk Auctions sale on November 13. Both were Alabama treasures made by one of the state’s most celebrated potters: German-born John Lehman (1825-circa 1885).

Lehman covered his stoneware jars with a Southern alkaline glaze and carefully decorated them with eagles, banners and vines. Just below the shoulder on one, he fashioned a relief head of George Washington; verso was the head of Thomas Jefferson. “I had seen the jars before in Joey Brachner’s exhibition at the museum,” said Andrews, “and I wanted to add them to our collection. But I was worried they could go very high.” With the help of the Frank and Nelle Newton Fund and the museum’s acquisition fund, Andrews bid the Washington/Jefferson jar to $74,750 (est. $40,000/$50,000). It will be added to the two other Lehman pieces in the Birmingham collection. All selling prices include a 15 percent buyer’s premium.

A second Lehman jar with the heads of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson was taller than the 20 ¾-inches Washington/Jefferson jar by a half inch, but carried a lower estimate – $30,000 to $50,000. Perhaps our third and seventh presidents had a bit less cache than presidents No. 1 and No. 3.  And the word “Hurrah” in the banner over the heads of Jefferson and Jackson was misspelled as “Hurah.” Nevertheless, the jar was an almost perfect match to the Washington/Jefferson.

The couple that traveled with Andrews to Asheville took the lead in bidding for the second Lehman jar. After winning it for $32,200, the benefactors told Andrews that they would like to live with the Lehman jar a while before gifting it to the museum. Both jars will be exhibited at the museum in January.

The jars came from the extensive collection of Mr. and Mrs. Levon C. Register of Franklin Springs, Ga. In addition to the Alabama pots, the Registers had consigned silver, clocks, etchings, painted furniture and a stunning 14 karat gold basket by Gorham. Of the more than 100 items they consigned, the basket tied for fourth high dollar lot after the Lehman jars and six Chippendale chairs. With flared rim, openwork scroll, engraved border and openwork bellflower handle, the gold basket sold to the phones for $12,650 (est. $10,000/$15,000). That equaled the selling price of their banjo clock by Simon Willard. The early 19th century mahogany and gilt clock with cast eagle finial and leaf and berry decoration carried a pre-sale estimate of $4,000/$6,000.

Like the Willard banjo clock, the Registers six Chippendale chairs from 1760-1770 consigned also doubled its high estimate. The mahogany chairs were exhibited at the White House and pictured in the book, The White House: An Historic Guide. A phone bidder took the chairs for $19,550 (est. $5,000/$7,000) making them the Register’s third highest selling lot.

Exceeding high estimates was taken to extremes by bidders for a 1909 Steinway grand piano. From a New York family, the professionally restored grand was cherry with ornate gilt Louis XVI style ornamentation. It opened at $5,000, its low estimate, and finished with a crescendo at $74,750. The piano’s selling price, almost seven times its high estimate, was tied with the Washington/Jefferson jar as the sale’s top lot.
Not quite as spectacular was a doubling of the high estimate on a 16th century Italian majolica footed bowl. The scene was the slaying of Medusa by Perseus with Pegasus emerging from the Gorgon’s spilled blood. From the Umbrio workshop, the 12½-inch bowl sold for $12,650 (est. $3,000/$5,000). From the same collection as the bowl was a Tuscan majolica two-handled jug. It too more than doubled its high estimate. Dating from the mid-16th century with sea creatures for handles and decorated with fruit, flowers and pinecones, the 13 ½-inch jug opened at $1500 and closed to the phones at $7,475.

Among the non-painted Southern furniture in the sale, possibly the most dramatic was a walnut and poplar sideboard attributed to the Burgner family of Greene County, Tennessee, dating from the 1840s. Even from across the wide Brunk gallery one could not miss its boldly cut dovetailed splash panel. The panel resembled crashing waves or large animal ears. Its surface was original untouched varnish. A collector of Tennessee furniture in the room bought it for $33,350 (est. $20,000/$30,000).

Then there was the 100 ½-inch high inlaid tall case clock from Northern Virginia or Baltimore. What made this clock so clever and attractive were the birds painted in the arched dial and a bird figure inlaid in the tympanum. In figured walnut with poplar and yellow pine secondary, it went to a phone bidder for its reserve, $16,100 (est. $20,000/$30,000).

Between 1730 and 1830, furniture makers along Virginia’s famed Eastern Shore, that strip of land on the Delmarva Peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, produced attractive raised panel furniture. A prime example surfaced at this sale: a single-case construction Chippendale sideboard from the second half of the 18th century. Its patina may best be described as “mellow.” In yellow pine with maple cornice molding and standing on its original straight bracket feet, the sideboard opened at its $10,000 reserve and sold within estimate to the phones for $13,800.

Total with buyer’s premium for the two-day, more than 1,100 lot sale, was $1,286,856.

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The sale's biggest surprise was the selling price of this 1909 Steinway long model A grand piano. It rose from a humble $5000 to $74,750. Its professional restoration was probably by Steinway.

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