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Dozens attend auction of former commissioner and mayor's pottery collection

Brandon Paykamian • Jan 1, 2019 at 9:53 PM

Years before former Johnson City mayor and commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin died unexpectedly in September while jogging along the Tweetsie Trail, he estimated he had more than 2,000 rare bottles in his antique pottery and vintage advertising sign collection.

On New Year's Day, Van Brocklin’s collection — including some of the most sought-after pottery from across the region — was auctioned off by Kimball Sterling. Other items featured at the auction included a vintage advertising collection from Don and Shirley Kay and an amber bottle collection from local collector Charlie Greene.

Van Brocklin’s fascination with collecting began when he first became interested in coins as a young boy, but he had been collecting antique pottery and whiskey jugs and bottles since around 1968.

“He probably has the biggest collection in the United States of a pottery type called Michigan bar (pottery),” Sterling said said. “Ralph has about 17 or 18 pieces of it, and it’s very hard to find,” he said of Van Brocklin’s extensive collection, which included about 120 pieces of pottery and late 19th-century advertising signs Sterling believed could sell for more than $1,000 due to their “fabulous condition.”

Some of the most sought-after items at the auction were Van Brocklin’s pieces of pottery made by local potter Charles Decker, who operated Keystone Pottery in Johnson City beginning in the 1870s.

“A lot of local people are in for the Decker pieces,” Sterling said ahead of the auction.

Sterling, a longtime friend of Van Brocklin’s, said his collection was of very high quality. For many who also collect pottery, vintage whiskey jugs and advertising memorabilia, Van Brocklin’s collection was among the best.

“I met Ralph the first week he came to Johnson City — he only went for the best. He wouldn’t go for something that was messed up,” he said.

To the dozens of bidders who attended Tuesday’s auction, some of Van Brocklin’s pottery was, indeed, the best. At the beginning of the auction, some of the pieces of pottery sold anywhere between $800 to 1,300.

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