The market for traditional American folk art has been buffeted in the last few years by changing tastes and an uncertain economy. Still, top pieces—from portraits and carvings to weathervanes and scrimshaw—continue to bring record and near-record six- and seven-figure prices. That’s reassuring if you already own some of these treasures; not so much if you overpaid for them in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, if you’re starting a collection and looking to buy folk-art gems at a discount, you’re out of luck. Despite the premise of TV shows like Antiques Roadshow, the nation’s barns and attics no longer hide much in the way of overlooked masterpieces.
“Basically 90 or 95 percent of new discoveries have been made,” says folk-art dealer Fred Giampietro of the Giampietro Gallery in New Haven, Conn. Country auctions and rural shops no longer feed the market with a steady stream of new finds. “As dealers, we’re now handling material that’s coming out of existing collections,” he says.
In the 1920s and ’30s, when the first serious collectors began paying attention to American folk art, much of it was still on church steeples and carousels. Since then, it has been widely gathered, studied, appraised and brought to market. That market went into overdrive following the Bicentennial in 1976, when interest in Americana surged. Prices for top-quality pieces soared. In 1984 collector Ralph Esmerian acquired Ammi Phillips’ circa-1835 portrait Girl in a Red Dress with Cat and Dog for a record $1 million—an event that made headlines. Ralph Lauren’s brother Jerry topped that in 2006 when he bought a weathervane at Sotheby’s for $5.8 million.
“The good, the bad and the ugly all came up together,” says Giampietro of the go-go years of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Since the 2008 recession, he says, there’s been a shakeout. “From a valuation standpoint, the heart has been plucked out of the lower three-quarters of the folk art market.” A good but not great piece that sold for $25,000 seven or eight years ago now might bring $6,000. “It’s a market correction. It’s no different from the stock market. The problematic material is going for what it’s worth—its decorative value—while the very best material is bringing as much as it ever did.”
High-end folk art dealer David Wheatcroft of Westborough, Mass., has observed that particular genres periodically create what he calls “mini-cyclones of interest” before subsiding. Quilts are a good example, he says. In the 1960s, good quilts were cheap and seemed likely to remain so; few people thought of them as collectible. “By the 1980s, there was a hypermarket for quilts,” Wheatcroft says. “At the end of the decade, they were selling for 10 times what they had been.” Corporations hung them in their executive suites. Jackie Onassis shopped for them. Then the market for quilts collapsed.
That quilts crashed (softly, one imagines) shouldn’t be a surprise; booms usually end in crashes. Moreover, relatively abundant items like quilts are more vulnerable to speculative booms than one-of-a-kind objects like paintings and carvings are. “The quilt market has taken a long time to climb back out of its hole,” says Wheatcroft. “But compared to 20 years ago, I’d say it’s pretty solid now.”
Here and there, records are still being set in the folk-art market. At its Annual Summer Americana Auction last August, Northeast Auctions of Portsmouth, N.H., sold a scrimshawed whale’s tooth for a record $324,000, double the estimate. Many other areas have been flat. “The market these days is a challenge,” admits Northeast owner, appraiser and auctioneer Ron Bourgeault. “A few years ago, Bellamy eagles”—wooden eagles carved in large numbers and variations by John Haley Bellamy (1836–1914)—“could sell for $150,000. Now they’re $35,000 to $50,000.” Bourgeault is quick to point out that a seller’s loss is a buyer’s gain. “It’s a wonderful time to selectively hunt for bargains,” he says. “The market is healthy but it’s not insane. Something has to be very special to command top prices.”
Ed Hild is co-owner with Patrick Bell of Olde Hope Antiques in New Hope, Pa. Like others, Hild stresses that the current market rewards those who pick carefully. “The better things have probably gone up in value, if you bought them more than 10 years ago,” he says. “A lot of the middle-range pieces, like some kinds of painted furniture, have gone down in value.” But as with any category, the best material always draws interest. “An exceptional dower chest with painted flowers or a wonderful New England lift-top chest with very special decoration, those pieces have gone up and seem to be progressing still.”
Until recently, Hild recalls, the market for American baskets, like the market for quilts, was climbing dizzily. “People who were collecting didn’t own two baskets. They owned 50 or 60.” As a consequence, high-quality baskets almost disappeared from the market. As with quilts, if good material stop showing up at sales, potential buyers lose interest—the game stops being fun. They start collecting other things instead. “Today, you can find a good basket for a reasonable price,” Hild says. “It’s actually a good time to buy them, if you have the bug.”
Dealers can lose interest as much as collectors can. Indeed, several folk-art dealers have switched to selling modern and contemporary art instead. After all, in the contemporary art world, no one blinks at million-dollar price tags. “This has never been an easy business to make money,” says dealer David Schorsch of American Antique Art in Woodbury, Conn. “It’s a thinly traded market compared to contemporary art. There’s a limited amount of it, and there is a relatively small number of people who collect it.”
But new discoveries still arise, and new kinds of folk art attract eager collectors. Schorsch points out that 18th- and 19th-century folk art from the American South—including pottery, painted and decorated furniture, samplers, and watercolors — has long been overlooked compared to folk art from the Northeast. Early Southern folk art is now being studied, he says, and its creators are being identified and their bodies of work defined. “It’s emerged as a strong part of the market,” he says. “It’s rare and it’s highly sought after. Some of this material has brought phenomenal prices.”
A few years ago, for example, Schorsch sold an 1804 fraktur (a decorated German-language manuscript) by an artist from a German-American community in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Frakturs from Pennsylvania are much better known and are already widely collected, he says. “I sold the Virginia fraktur for almost $100,000. If it had been by one of the well-known fraktur artists in Pennsylvania, it might have sold for $5,000 or $6,000.”
Like other dealers, Schorsch, who’s been in the business for more than 30 years, says connoisseurship is essential to collecting in the slightly off-kilter world of folk art. This is particularly true of paintings, he says. There are no Rembrandts or Picassos whose signatures alone will guarantee a good price in the folk art market. “One of the things I personally love about folk art is that people who made some of the greatest masterpieces are anonymous and will likely always be anonymous,” Schorsch says. “That forces collectors to really be connoisseurs and deal with an object on its aesthetic merits.” What matters most, he says, is what you see on the canvas, not who signed it. You’re not going to impress anyone by saying you own an Ammi Phillips—even if one of his portraits did sell for a million dollars. “You can probably buy a really nice Ammi Phillips portrait of an adult or older person for $5,000 to $15,000,” Schorsch says.
Actually, that may depend on how you define “really nice.” Phillips (1788–1865), an itinerant New Englander, painted the people he was paid to paint, and his clients were not always attractive individuals. Stephen Fletcher, director of the Americana department of Skinner Inc. in Boston, describes what customers like to see in a folk art portrait: “The women should be enchanting. The men should be dashing. The kids have to be adorable and should wear red dresses. Nobody wants to look at an old dried-up Yankee,” he says with a laugh.
At auction last year, Fletcher sold an anonymous late 18th-century portrait of a 14-year-old Connecticut girl, one Abigail Rose, for $1.27 million. That is the highest price ever paid for a folk portrait. The artist’s anonymity obviously wasn’t a drawback. “What’s important is visual appeal,” Fletcher says. “Abby was 14. She’s pretty, and she’s holding a rose. The books on the table are almost abstract.” The composition is graphically strong, and the deep folds of her dress mirror the swirling grain of the table. In some ways, the painting has a proto-modernist feel.
Indeed, many kinds of folk art, not just the record-breakers, appeal to collectors with a taste for modern art and decor. The things most apt to work in a contemporary space are the three-dimensional objects, says Nancy Druckman, head of Sotheby’s folk art department since the 1970s. “These include duck decoys, trade signs, weathervanes, figureheads, cigar store figures—all of the sculptural objects.” Take a minimalist interior with white sofas and lots of glass, she suggests, and add a large and dramatic gilded weathervane with an interesting patina (yes, like the one she sold six years ago for $5.8 million). “Suddenly, it takes on a new dimension. It has a kind of haunting presence with a flavor of the past.”
It takes a special object to work in that milieu, she says. “They’ve got to be sexy and interesting and in great condition.” By great condition, Druckman certainly doesn’t mean pristine. “Collectors like to see the history of the piece. They want to see the bullet holes, the dings, the wear on the patina, the softening of that bright gold.” One of the bugaboos of folk art collectors is material that’s been subtly cleaned up, restored, or otherwise enhanced. As Rye, N.H., dealer Russ Goldberger of RJG Antiques observes, “There are a lot of things in the marketplace that, let’s say, look better than they need to.”
Fletcher recalls the second most expensive folk portrait he ever sold, an anonymous circa-1815 portrait of a sweet young boy in a painted chair with a dog and a ball that went for $886,000 in 2007. “The painting was filthy,” he says. “It had a very yellowish varnish with lots of grime.” Fletcher left it as it was. He thinks the best policy is to let the winning bidder hire a conservator and decide what to do, if anything.
Folk art is traditionally associated with the Northeast, but there is a small but vibrant market in other parts of the U.S., especially on the West Coast. (One of the limitations of the overall market, by the way, is that it’s largely confined to our borders. Says Sotheby’s Nancy Druckman: “There are no Middle Eastern potentates interested in Americana. It’s strictly a homegrown passion.”) Although much of the folk art available out West is originally from the East, Californians seem less enamored of the old New England standbys, like blue spongeware pitchers.
“People out here are more willing to take chances,” says Susan Baerwald, co-owner with Marcy Carsey of Just Folk in Summerland, Calif., near Santa Barbara. “California is more geared toward contemporary. That’s why quirky, whimsical, one-of-a-kind pieces appeal to the California crowd.” As an example, she cites a pair of funky mechanical boxers from an old arcade. Another of her finds is a purse that turns into a ventriloquist’s dummy. (It was once a vaudeville prop. How it was used is anyone’s guess.)
Many folk art pieces that suit a modern milieu are bygone utilitarian objects that now serve as sculpture. Michael Ogle of American Garage Antiques in Los Angeles has on display an industrial thread-winder, for instance, which has gears that turn, a lever that moves, and a wheel that spins. “People love it and they don’t even know what it is,” he says.
Lately, Ogle has been having success with what he calls crossover pieces. These are large objects like trade signs or oversized safety pins that have strong graphic or sculptural forms. He’s especially fond of a six-foot wooden sign from a circus midway. Professionally lettered in black and red Deco-style capitals is the mysterious phrase: “SEX EXPOSED IN THE NAKED TRUTH.” Side panels read: “Daring” and “Bold.” Ogle says, “You hang that in a super-modern house, and it’s suddenly modern art!” He plans to bring an assortment of his crossovers to the Winter Antiques Show in New York in January.
A different kind of quirkiness is on display in the Ames Gallery in Berkeley, Calif. “The glory of the everyday is coming into its own,” says owner Bonnie Grossman, who has owned the gallery for 42 years and has seen her share of trends. “My next show here at the gallery will be entirely mended things.” These include a broken hammer with a wrench handle soldered to it, a cracked soup tureen with 56 staples, and an old jug wrapped in a heavy wire cage. The jug’s handle broke off sometime in the distant past, and the cage was added so it was easier to tote. “I find these things enormously interesting,” Grossman says. She’s sold a number of them, but not necessarily for a lot of money; she bases her prices on what she paid for these humble objects in the first place.
A particular favorite of hers is a set of homemade pie jaggers that use perforated coins as crimping wheels. She categorizes these as “make-dos.” A collector herself for some 50 years now, she realizes that customers who share her aesthetic form a limited universe. “You’ve got to have gas,” she says. “You don’t have to have a pie jagger.”
By Doug Stewart