Homespun Riches: Invest in American Folk Art

From duck decoys to weather vanes, a primer on handcrafted masterpieces.
Author:
Publish date:

Since Colonial times, untrained craftspeople have recorded aspects of everyday life.

According to Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, "No examination of American culture can be complete without its consideration, as folk art has consistently been a finger on the national pulse and a reflection of cultural priorities, individual creativity and community values."

Whether you're a beginning collector or a seasoned pro, you want to know where the world of American folk art is going. The popular "

Antiques Road Show" has sparked new interest in the field by focusing in on 19th- and 20th-century folk art, and the value of certain types have climbed.

As a collector, you always want to buy what you love, because you may live with your purchase for a long time.

If you're collecting not only for enjoyment but also as an investment, you want to have the foresight to acquire the right piece before prices soar even higher.

Handcrafted Masterpieces

Folk artists usually make works of art with traditional techniques and content, in styles handed down through many generations, and often specific to a particular region.

Paintings, sculptures, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, tools and household objects all may be folk art. Since folk artists hail from all walks of life, each piece created is unique, emphasizing color, simplicity of line, and bold, simple form.

If you're on the fence when it comes to collecting American folk art, here are two genres where you could begin.

Take the time to learn the important distinctions in a field as you go. If you read enough books, attend auctions and visit museums and galleries, you'll develop a collector's eye, and be able to separate out the good, the better and the best.

Duck Decoys

The duck decoy is recognized as a functioning folk-art form.

The craft of decoy making can be traced back to American Indians, who bundled grass to form a duck's body, decorated it with feathers and added a branch to resemble a bird's beak.

As European settlers started to hunt waterfowl, they used their wood-crafting skills to craft wooden decoys. Glass was added for eyes, and decoys were finished with stylized painting to capture the look of the species represented.

Decoys were made for one purpose -- to lure waterfowl within range of the hunter's shotgun. More than one would be used to lure a flock. The decoy maker would paint some decoys as hens (female ducks), others as drakes (male ducks); some of the masters even crafted immature birds with mottled feathering.

The art of the decoy is found in the experienced carver's ability to capture the essence of the waterfowl. These decoys become the artist's interpretation of what he or she sees when observing a flock of waterfowl in their natural habitat. The masters' ability to translate their interpretations into a visual art form is what separates them from the average decoy makers, and makes theirs more desirable to the collector.

Collectors tend to specialize not so much by production date, but by the flyway where the decoy was used -- flocks travel back and forth between South America and Canada along four major flyways, such as the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi Valley -- the species, condition, and the maker.

Decoys vary in quality, from crudely made silhouettes to museum-worthy forms -- names like Charles "Shang" Wheeler of Connecticut, Lem and Steve Ward of Maryland, and Elmer Crowell of Cape Cod, Mass., are a few excellent examples.

Crowell stamped his name on the base of his decoys, but others are recognized by appearance. The Wards, for instance, commonly carved ducks with heads turned to one side.

Also, age is not always the big factor. Decoys made as late as the 1940s and 1950s but by masters like Wheeler and Crowell are highly sought today.

Prices range from astronomical to affordable (see

Guyette & Schmidt for reasonably priced decoys), so it's not impossible to start building a collection now.

And the record price for a decoy? Well, that was just broken at a January 2007 auction at Christie's, in which a rare 19th-century carved merganser by Lothrop Holmes fetched $856,000. Coming in second was a feeding black-bellied plover carved by Crowell -- this early-20th-century carving went for $830,000.

Weather Vanes

The production of copper weather vanes truly blossomed in America for much of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

Skilled metalworkers were folk sculptors, and their ability to choose a form that looked good against any horizon and simultaneously withstood wind, rain and snow was a test of their metal mastery.

Some of the most valuable weather vanes were handmade by local blacksmiths before 1850. These hollow, three-dimensional figures of hammered sheet copper are rare today and mostly show up in museums.

What collectors find now are often factory-made vanes from companies such as Cushing and White, E.G. Washburne, J.W. Fiske and A.L. Jewell, in designs ranging from trotting horses to peacocks to quill pens, most produced in the late 19th and early 20th century by hammering copper into iron molds. Even common shapes such as cows, horses and sheep are desirable if they come from one of these makers.

Weather vanes have become one of the hottest collector's items today, relocated indoors and displayed for their beauty and craftsmanship. The form and condition are of the utmost importance in weather vanes. Also important is the patina, size and full-body look.

In terms of pricing, you needn't lay down a significant investment to start collecting. Prices for collectible vanes start in the low thousands, but be leery of anything with a fresh coat of gilding (the new paint makes it difficult to see how old the vane is). Original patina and condition make all the difference in value.

Until recently, the record price paid for an antique copper weather vane was $700,000 (copper horse and rider,

Sotheby's

(BID) - Get Report

). In January 2006, this price was topped by a weather vane of a figure of Liberty that sold for $1.08 million (Christie's), and in August 2006, a train weather vane sold for $1.2 million (Northeast Auctions).

On Oct. 6, 2006, yet another record was set: A 5'2" copper weather vane of an Indian Chief, made by J.L. Mott Iron Works, was purchased by Jerry Lauren (executive vice president at Polo Ralph Lauren) for $5.84 million!

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Malcolm Katt is the owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also co-authored the second edition of

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business

.