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Hunting for treasure: Picker Vaughan always on the lookout for the next big find

Leigh Ann Laube • Aug 8, 2013 at 12:44 PM

When Larry Vaughan saw the jar sitting in the fireplace of the Sullivan County home, he knew exactly how rare the piece was.

“You have some nice crocks,” he said to the family.

The family, ready for Vaughan to clear some items out of their home, agreed to let him auction the Great Road storage container. At auction on July 27, the crock fetched $17,000.

Pieces like this are rare, Vaughan said, but that doesn’t stop him from constantly looking for the next big find. Vaughan is a picker: an antiquer who scours back road homes and yards for hidden treasures. He’s also a long-time auctioneer who holds weekly auctions through his Pickers Auction Co., which he established in November 2011.

Vaughan was employed at Orkin the first time he cleaned out someone’s attic and put the items in an auction about 25 years ago. He paid $175 for enough items to fill two small truckloads, then sold those items for $1,375. After a couple of years, he left Orkin to pick full time.

“He does it nonstop,” said his wife, Kathy. “If he is driving by a house, he is constantly scanning and if he sees something he will turn around and go back.”

To educate himself, Vaughan began going to auctions.

“It’s a constant turnover,” he explained. “Then I started going to shows and shops all over the country. You’re always looking. You’re always researching. You have to have a passion for it.”

He picks every week — unless he has a local estate to deal with — traveling the East Coast from Georgia to New York. And like Mike and Frank from History Channel’s “American Pickers,” he simply walks up to someone’s home and introduces himself.

Vaughan had been at that particular Sullivan County estate several years ago but hadn’t spotted the treasure stored in the fireplace.

According to the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, the Great Road was the name given to a section of the primary route from Philadelphia west to Tennessee or Kentucky. The land bordering the Great Road was settled by the first people to reach each new area and towns developed around stage stops, way stations and inns. As early as 1780, there were silversmiths, gunsmiths, cabinet makers, wagon makers, portrait painters, clock makers and even boat builders in the counties along the Great Road. Major pottery centers existed in Wythe and Washington counties in Virginia and in Sullivan County.

Vaughan believes this particular crock — a reddish-orange piece with dark splotches — was created by Leonard Cain, a potter in the Blountville area. After securing the piece, but before it was auctioned, Vaughan kept it hidden in his home. If he left his house, the piece went with him.

“I know Scott County, Lee County, Washington County Virginia and Tennessee, Greene County, Sullivan County. I have hit every back road. ... That pottery is not out there. That jar is not out there. That’s how rare it is. It’s not going to do anything but go up,” he said.

Three phone bidders and several bidders in the gallery were interested in acquiring the piece. The piece remains in Tennessee, Vaughan said.

As a picker and auctioneer, Vaughan said, it’s important to know what you have and contact the right people. And it’s important to take a chance.

“We’re not rich, but I love what I do and I can make a living,” he said. “You have to have a good eye. You have to take a chance. If you don’t have the initiative and the passion to go after it, you’d better get a job.”

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