The four Beatles mugs that sold for £6,000 – and other Toby Jugs that are worth even more
There are few things as quintessentially British as Toby Jugs. Since the 1700s, drinkers have collected them to celebrate the pleasure of sipping ales in pubs and homes across the country.
But now, thanks to their growing popularity among collectors here and abroad, the unusual pottery pieces are selling for record prices.
While most have only sentimental value to the owners, there are likely to be thousands gathering dust that are worth hundreds or thousands of pounds. Antiques experts believe their prices could continue to rise, making them a worthwhile investment for those who like them.
A rare set of character jugs depicting the Beatles, which includes this of John Lennon, sold for £6,050 earlier this year
What are Toby Jugs?
Toby Jugs are decorative vessels that depict quaint characters often in a three-cornered hat. British potters began to make them in the mid-1700s and some were used for pouring strong beer in pubs – especially a sharp ale known as stingo.
The name is thought to come from a depiction of an 18th Century Yorkshireman, Henry Elwes, who earned the nickname Toby Fillpot for spending all his time in taverns.
The name Toby is thought to derive from the French word ‘tope’, an old French term for hard drinking. He was said to have drunk more than 2,000 gallons of strong ale during his lifetime – or 16,000 pints.
Decorative jugs with figures of this jolly fat man wearing a tricorn, puffing on a pipe with a beer in his hand began to be made to depict merrymaking.
Some had a lid that looked like a crown and could be removed to serve as a cup. Surviving jugs with lids are particularly rare – and therefore valuable.
Ringo Starr (left) and George Harrison
What are they worth?
Some are worth just a few pounds, others tens of thousands. One of the earliest – a 1785 Admiral Lord Rodney – recently went under the hammer for £65,000, triple the estimate and the most paid for a Toby Jug.
This 11-and-a-half-inch figure was part of a group made by Staffordshire potter Jacob Marsh and depicts the British commander best known for his part in the American War of Independence.
At the same sale, held in December last year at the auction house Bonhams in London, a seven-and-three-quarter-inch Toby Jug figure playing a violin from the same Midshipman group went for £28,000.
Toby Jugs have always been popular in the UK, but there is increasing demand for them abroad, particularly among collectors in the US, who may have historic connections with Britain.
The appeal is not just their unique aesthetic, with early examples individually glazed and portraying an interesting character. Their history comes to life when you hold them, imagining their former owners sitting with their mug of ale centuries ago – as if it were yesterday.
Bob Moores, owner of the Toby Jug specialist dealer NestEgg Antiques in Godalming, Surrey, says: ‘Interest in collecting is rising across the world – potentially making Toby Jugs a great investment.
‘And it is certainly a lot more fun that watching your savings earn no interest in the bank.’
Which ones are valuable?
‘For shrewd investments you are best off looking at Toby Jugs from the late 18th and early 19th Century,’ says Moores. ‘These rare pieces of pottery were hand-tinted with individually-painted shades, such as cobalt blue, manganese and ochre. The potter only knew how the glazing colours would appear after taking them out of the kiln.’
By the Victorian age the earliest Toby Jugs were being copied – and the quality of craftsmanship was rarely as impressive.
You might be able to tell them apart as the later copies use a thicker pottery and are neatly coloured, without the imperfections of delicate early hand-glazed pieces. Toby Jugs made from the 20th Century on are rarely of investment value, though a few attract attention.
Moores points to a set produced in 1917 by the potter Wilkinson in Staffordshire and designed by cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould which depicted contemporary wartime leaders.
A number were sold by the American auction house Lion and Unicorn this January. A Lord Kitchener Toby Jug sold for £950 while a rare General Louis Botha, the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, sold for £2,600.
Strictly speaking, Toby Jugs must show a full body – head to toe. Those that just depict a head and shoulders are ‘character jugs’ and tend to be less valuable.
Moores explains: ‘It is a common mistake people make, but a genuine Toby Jug is made up of a person sitting or standing in a full pose. It is these that really drive the investment market.
‘Character jugs tend to be more novelty pieces that are a bit of fun and rarely worth much.’
However, a rare set of character jugs depicting the Beatles showed there are exceptions to this rule.
They sold for £6,050 earlier this year, as only three sets of these five-inch Royal Doulton Fab Four characters were made before the pottery shelved plans to mass- produce them.
Dan Wade, manager at auction website Paul Fraser Collectibles, says the sale of The Beatles character jugs could boost wider interest, adding: ‘Keep an eye out for other Royal Doulton rarities such as Fidel Castro, which can go for more than £8,000.’
Another is a 1984 Clark Gable, which can sell for £3,000. Only a hundred were released before the estate of the Hollywood legend denied its approval.
How do you buy them?
Be wary of buying a Toby Jug from a website such as eBay without being able to see the figure in person – the market is awash with fake reproductions.
Specialist dealers such as NestEgg Antiques and John Howard have built up reputable businesses by only dealing in authentic pieces.
They can also offer free valuations and trading advice.
Here’s a Fab Four that are worth even more
Admiral Lord Rodney – £65,000
This 1785 depiction of the British Naval commander in the American War of Independence is said to come from the Staffordshire potter Jacob Marsh. Only a dozen are known to exist. This one was sold at Bonhams in December.
Tailor Toby – £36,000
From the same range as the admiral, left, this late 18th Century jug was sold in 2009 for a then record price of £36,000. It shows the character doing some ironing. Another figure in the same range – a man seated playing a fiddle – sold for £28,000 in December.
Collection of leaders – £21,000
Winston Churchill, right, was in a collection of 30 character jugs made by Royal Doulton that sold for £21,000. Others in the set included former US President John F Kennedy and ex-Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin.
Toby Gillette – £15,000
This character jug was made in 1984 by Royal Doulton, in response to a boy who had written in to the TV show Jim’ll Fix It asking to have a mug made in his image. An example of this rarity is kept in a pottery museum, while two others were later auctioned at Sotheby’s.