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    Auction Finds

    Black Americana cookie jars

    I was a little disappointed as I took a seat inside an auction in progress last weekend. The pieces I had come to see – the black cookie jars – had already been sold.

    I wasn’t going to buy any – most were “mammy” images – but I was curious about how much they’d sell for. There were about 30 of them, and I saw them all sitting behind the auctioneer – sold.

    They were among a lot of more than 850 cookie jars from two collectors. Looking at them lined up on long tables, I was amazed at the breadth of these collections. They were all sizes and shapes – from people to animals to castles to Little Red Riding Hood – and bore some familiar names – McCoy, Red Wing, Metlox, Shawnee.

    From what I could see, they were in remarkably good condition and very clean. These cookie jars were loved.

    “There’s a cookie jar for everyone,” a woman sitting next to me said. She was right. I watched as she bought a couple of them. Among the most popular were the Red Riding Hood jars, one of which went for $155. Many of the cookie jars with no-names sold for as low as $1, including Babe the Pig (which prompted the auctioneer to recall that silly Geico “Wee, Wee Wee Wee” piggy commercial).

    But I was there for the Black Americana jars. At one point, I noticed that winning bidders had begun to walk up front behind the auctioneer and start toting away their buys. One was a black man with a cane carrying a cookie jar toward the back. I had seen him when I came in; he was the only black person among the 50 or so people at the auction.

    Later, I turned and saw a grouping of the black cookie jars on a table in a back room. When I investigated, I found that they belonged to the man with the cane. He had bought most of the jars, paying from $85 to $170, he said. He’d keep some (he’s a collector; his wife had given him cookie jars as gifts) and will sell some. The photos on this post are the jars he bought at auction.

    Fascinated, I wanted to know more about him. His name was Larry Whyte, and for 30 years he had been an auctioneer, he told me then and later in a phone interview:

    Whyte, 65, and his wife, Barbara, 64, have a booth in the red barn building at Antique Village in Strasburg, PA, where they sell Depression glass and other antiques. Married 31 years, they both like antiques.

    “My family went to a lot of auctions when I was young,” he said. ‘I decided to go to auctioneer school.”

    He got his auctioneer’s license from the Mendenhall School of Auctioneering in High Point, N.C. He never had his own auction house, but instead conducted auctions around where he lives in Lancaster County, PA. Five years ago, he sold consignment items out of a 2,000-3,000 square-foot building. He’d sell mostly on Mondays, Wednesdays or Thursdays (which, he said, was a good auction day because folks don’t have much else to do on that day).

    Not only was he an auctioneer, but he was also a real estate salesman and property manager (at one point, he managed up to 97 properties). “I did a lot of real estate,” he said. Was it lucrative? “Yeah, if you get it sold.”

    Two years ago, while riding his motorcycle, he was involved in an accident that left him hospitalized for three months. “I almost died,” he said. When he was released from the hospital, he couldn’t walk. Now, he walks with a cane.

    He stopped auctioneering: “I can’t do that kind of work anymore.” He’s sold off his 14-foot trailer (thought he’d get $500 for it, but instead got $1,350) and his auction tables (sold them to another auctioneer). A friend is expected to sell his 18-foot trailer.

    Now he buys, sells and collects. He has four china cabinets full of items, including his Black Americana collection. His basement, he says, is crowded with stuff. “I like old stuff,” said Whyte, who signs his emails as the “Antiques and Collectibles Man. “I like black stuff and I started collecting that.”

     He’s sold Aunt Jemima pieces in the past and has seen the prices drop. Pieces that were selling for $500 a pop bring in only about $100 now, he said.

    As for his cookie jars, he’ll sell some of them in his booth. One of the jars was made by a potter named Rick Wisecarver. On the auction sheet, the jar was listed as “Mammy with Churn, Wise Carver.” The Wisecarver cookie jar is the one to the far left among the cookie jars in the photo above. Next to it is a photo of Wisecarver’s maker’s mark.

    In Googling, I found that Wisecarver was a painter and potter who made cookie jars with images of both blacks and Native Americans (these are said to be the most collectible). He lived in Roseville, OH, and started out as a painter before moving over to pottery-making at the suggestion of his mother, who owned a ceramics shop. He also made vases and other items. Wisecarver died in 2002.

    Several sites warned of reproductions of his works, urging buyers to look for his marks: “Wilhoa’s Originals (a combination of his family and partner’s names), Cookie Classic, Rick Wisecarver, Rick W, the initials YW (for his mom) that is incised in the pottery, R Simms (partner) and RS. The number of the edition is often found, as well as the name of the actual jar,” according to the website

    Whyte seems to have at least one major winner on his hands.

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