By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
The weathervane collection at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont presents a visual feast of folk art. Dozens of antique wooden and metal sculptures that once crowned barns, churches, meeting houses, town halls and other structures symbolic of small-town America grace the interior of Shelburne’s Stagecoach Inn building. “We’re known for weathervanes,” says Jean Burks, senior curator and director of the museum’s curatorial department. But the 130-strong collection hasn’t moved many patrons to give weathervanes to Shelburne. “I wish people would donate, but nowadays, people want to sell,” says Burks. “They seem to be worth a ridiculous amount of money.”
Weathervanes began to be coveted 40 years ago and have only grown more desirable since then. “Weathervanes became popular as people started to collect folk art as true art objects,” says Ron Bourgeault, owner, appraiser and auctioneer at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H. “They got very collectible and very expensive.” The record-holder is a circa 1900 copper Indian chief weathervane that garnered $5.8 million at Sotheby’s in October 2006, and other examples have sold for prices from the five figures to more than a million dollars. Nancy Druckman, who has directed Sotheby’s folk art department since 1975, believes the market for weathervanes remains strong because they suit a variety of decorative schemes and have modernist appeal despite their age. “Weathervanes tend to be abstract art,” she says. “A weathervane done in 1880 is spare, pared-down, a simple kind of form. It doesn’t look late Victorian, but an equivalent-age folk portrait reeks of the late 19th century.”
A client of Connecticut dealer Jeffrey Tillou proves the point by placing a rare zinc-and-copper horse weathervane alongside a Lichtenstein, an 18th-century highboy and pieces of Art Deco glass. “He doesn’t have a lot of weathervanes, but what he has are great examples,” Tillou says. He recalls the collector telling him, “Tens can go with tens.”
Though they belong to the category of folk art, many sought-after weathervanes were made by factories that sold them through catalogues. In its lot information on the Indian weathervane, Sotheby’s stated that the J.L. Mott Iron Works Co., which had facilities in New York and Chicago, apparently produced the piece as a custom order. Julie Lindberg, an antiques dealer who exhibits in Wayne, Pa., and York, Maine, says she rarely handles handmade weathervanes, which she describes as “not too spectacular” because of the makers’ general lack of skill. However, she adds, “sometimes handmade vanes have a wonderful folky look. I have had a wonderful large fish that didn’t fit any factory’s pattern.” Whether they are handmade or factory-made, collectible weathervanes are often shorn of the four spokes that point north, south, east and west to enhance their sculptural appeal and make them easier to display in a home. For that matter, weathervanes were not always equipped with directional indicators.
Scarce and unusual weathervane forms, such as mermaids, tennis players, cars, trains and firemen, command strong interest. “The most common are horses, roosters, cows and steer. Ninety percent of weathervanes are those four forms, and for the most part, they fetch lower prices,” says Fred Giampietro, a folk art dealer from New Haven, Conn. “You can buy a gorgeous horse weathervane for $5,000, but if it was an angel Gabriel, it could sell for $30,000. Rarity has a lot to do with it.”
A weathervane’s surface is also crucial. According to collector Raymond Egan, a Maine resident, the best kind of surface is gilded and worn so that the copper underneath, oxidized to a verdigris color, is exposed. “You get a wonderful pale green-blue with lots of other colors in it,” he says. Egan succeeded in trimming his holdings to four weathervanes at an August 2006 Northeast Auctions sale that saw a circa 1882 copper steam train weathervane bring in $1.2 million. “You couldn’t beat the surface on the train, but I got rid of it because it was static,” he says. “It was a big piece of machinery, just sitting there. The four I have all have movement and are dynamic.”
A verdigris patina is aesthetically pleasing and can testify to a weathervane’s age. However, that look can be imparted to newer vanes through various tricks. In search of objective ways to confirm the authenticity of her stock, Lindberg recently asked a surface analyst to train a microscope on tiny chips taken from several weathervanes to pinpoint their age. She hopes such testing of weathervanes, which she says was not possible until three or four years ago, will become standard. “Everyone loves the look of a weathervane, but they’ve been faked pretty heavily since the 1970s. It makes people a lot more cautious of what they’re buying.”
Re-releases of 19th-century designs complicate matters further. In the early 20th century, when interest in folk art began, original molds from defunct factories were salvaged from junkyards and pressed into service. The manufacturers generally did not conceal the replicas’ origins, but subsequent sellers and owners sometimes do. “I’ve seen people in the collecting world buy them who should know better,” says Giampietro. “If you saw the 19th-century and the 20th-century next to each other, it’d be obvious. But if you don’t have the weathervanes, you get trapped.”
The sums paid for weathervanes have also attracted thieves who risk life and limb to pry them from high places. The most infamous robbery targeted the copper grasshopper atop Faneuil Hall in Boston, which was fashioned in 1742 by Shem Drowne, America’s earliest weathervane-maker of repute. (Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, Drowne’s Wooden Image, inspired by another Drowne weathervane, an Indian chief.) When the 80-pound grasshopper disappeared in 1973, police speculated that it had been snatched by a helicopter.
This claim proved incorrect when the weathervane was discovered hidden inside Faneuil Hall, but it seeded the popular imagination with visions of hovering crooks plucking prizes from the landscape and flowered into vane-snatching yarns told by people who had not witnessed any such crime. Mary and Edward Utterback are exceptions, however. In February 1999 they spotted a dark, military-style helicopter retreating from their century-old West Virginia barn, then noticed that the copper-and-zinc cow weathervane, made 100 years earlier by J.W. Fiske of New York, was gone from the barn’s 60-foot-tall spire.
Unfortunately, the cow never came home. “It cost $50 at the time it was bought,” Mary says. “I don’t remember what it was appraised at, probably $12,000 or $13,000. It probably brought more to the people who took it.” Speaking of the empty weathervane spire on the barn, she says, “I’m determined to have a helicopter up there, but my husband won’t let me do it.”
Stolen weathervanes are rarely recovered, but a dealer awaiting an owner’s change of heart helped return one to its rightful home. In 2005 a collector brought Giampietro an angel Gabriel that had vanished two years earlier from a church in Crown Point, N.Y., wanting Giampietro’s opinion before buying it from a seller in Indiana. Giampietro knew the 1822 weathervane because he had tried unsuccessfully to buy it two decades earlier and still had pictures of it on file. In 2007 the church, fearful that the weathervane might be pilfered again, enlisted Giampietro to sell it, for a reported sum of $750,000. A replica was installed earlier this year, and the proceeds went to a church maintenance fund and a town scholarship program.
A Winchester, Va., firehouse offered its circa 1850 copper fireman weathervane at Sotheby’s in New York in January to raise money for a new building and equipment, but bids failed to reach the $3–5 million estimate. (In June firehouse officials said that they were still discussing the fate of the weathervane, which is now in storage.) Tillou has a weathervane from the barn of a family that has lived in Connecticut since the 18th century; the asking price of $18,000 for the circa 1883 copper bull with traces of gold leaf will underwrite repairs to the barn’s roof.
Egan helped place a 1722 rooster weathervane with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which will display it in a wing that opens next year. He spied the rooster, which is attributed to Drowne’s son Thomas, on a Newbury, Mass., church. The eventual sale, for a reported $575,000, supplied the church with vital funds. Egan declined to purchase the weathervane himself because it exceeded his budget. “It was a win-win story for the church, the MFA and the public,” says the collector.
G.K.S. Bush, New York 917.432.5295
Fred Giampietro, New Haven, Conn. 203.787.3851 fredgiampietro.com
Julie Lindberg Antiques, Wayne, Pa. 800.768.2647 julielindbergantiques.com
Just Folk, Summerland, Calif. 805.969.7118 justfolk.com
Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H. 603.433.8400 northeastauctions.com
Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt. 802.985.3346 shelburnemuseum.org
Sotheby’s New York 212.606.7000 sothebys.com
Jeffrey Tillou Antiques, Litchfield, Conn. 860.567.9693 tillouantiques.com