American Folk Art: Returning to A Simpler Time

American Folk Art: Returning to A Simpler Time – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2005

By Ken Hall with Helaine Fendelman

Of all the collecting categories in the art market today – and that would include furniture, paintings, jewelry and vintage clothing, just to name a few – American folk art is probably the most popular. But as popular as American folk art has become over the past several years, it is somewhat difficult to define. It is often described as self-taught, non-academic, or untrained work, since folk artists were not formally schooled in their areas of artistic skill. Still, young girls in a seminary generally made needlework samplers and silk pictures; fraktur artists were often schoolmasters; and some media, such as base metals and pottery, required an apprenticeship.

Maybe a better definition would simply be to say that American folk art is something hand-made, the result of individual effort and not mass production. But wait — almost all weathervanes (a hugely important and highly collectible category) were factory made. So were some decoys and cigar store figures.

American folk art has also been called primitive and naive. This suggests the graphic success it enjoys is primordial, even accidental. Whether an itinerant portrait, a memory painting or a patterned quilt, the process of creating such work is rooted in decorative tradition and choice. Neither of these things is primitive or haphazard. And we haven’t even touched on so-called “outsider art,” which is more about the artist than the work. Outsider art is generally regarded as a 21st-century phenomenon (although several giants of the outsider tradition were, in fact, born in the 19th century). These artists, for a variety of reasons, exist and create outside the bounds of mainstream culture.

See what we mean? American folk art is multi-faceted and difficult to put your arms around, but people like it nonetheless. And the reasons for that are much easier to define. Simply put, American folk art is beautiful, and it has an evocative ability to transport the viewer to a simpler time. That said, we should issue a fair warning that with the escalating popularity of folk art has come heftier prices (as well as forgeries). “I’ve actually seen dealers handing chalk and crayons to homeless people and telling them to create something,” said Helaine Fendelman, co-author of the book “Collecting American Folk Art” and co-host of the PBS television show “Treasures in Your Attic.”

“There’s a lot of mediocre art that’s being sold as great art,” Fendelman said. “You must have knowledge. The key is to attend the shows and auctions, even minor ones. Develop your own aesthetic. Find a dealer you can trust. Work with that dealer, that appraiser. You can even schedule a talk with a museum curator.” Fendelman was blunt when she said that, at the higher end of the genre, American folk art is way out of reach for the average or modest collector. “Major weathervanes are selling for $100,000 and up,” she said. “I remember buying them for $500, but no more.”

Generally speaking, American folk art has risen considerably in value. In some areas, though, it has actually declined. Most run of the mill or ordinary quilt prices have cooled off considerably. Portraits, too, which were also hot during the ‘80s, aren’t selling nearly as well as they did fifteen years ago (with the exception of a few works by a few artists). In contrast, weathervanes, needlework and Pennsylvania German folk art have seen tremendous gains in value. So much so, in fact, that the low end is the high end for most people.

Is it possible to buy a weathervane for, say, $7,000? “Sure!” Fendelman said. “Buy what you like. And that’s the key. A client of mine liked high-end American furniture, but was only able to buy one piece a year. Well, after twenty years, he’s amassed a very nice little collection for himself.” Fendelman herself had a sizeable collection of paint-decorated furniture that she sold through Sotheby’s in 1992 for an undisclosed sum. “If I had those same items today, they’d be worth a lot more, but I don’t have any regrets,” she said. “Now I collect what makes me laugh, along with Art Deco items, mainly because the building I live in is Art Deco.”

Be on the lookout for fakes and forgeries, Fendelman warned, because they’re ubiquitous. “Anybody who tells you they haven’t been fooled is lying,” she said. “And that includes me.”

She tells the story of the time she bought a painted dressing stand that was from the 1840s. “It turned out, however, that the painted decoration on the stand was from the 1930s,” she said. “It can happen to anybody.”

Fendelman heartily recommended investing in the tools of the trade to guard against fakes, or at least to investigate what you’re buying: a black light, cloth tape measure, magnifying glass with light, 10x jeweler’s loupe, flat-head screwdriver and a portable light source. She told another story of two well-known dealers who bought a weathervane that was advertised in a major publication. “A guy saw the ad and said, ‘Hey, that’s my weathervane.’ He knew all about the provenance. The two dealers thought they were buying something from the early 20th century, but they weren’t.” Caveat emptor, Fendelman advised — let the buyer beware. “You’re talking about antiques,” she said. “It’s a rich man’s game.” She said she’s seen a ton of fakes on her TV show, “Treasures in Your Attic,” to include bird cages, rocking horses and scrimshaw.

“I think that eBay serves a purpose but it is a very difficult venue within which to buy because one cannot examine the object in person. I would say that eBay needs to be used with a healthy skepticism, unless you are an advanced collector,” she said. “Touching and feeling and being able to ask questions is what the antiques and collectibles industry is all about. It’s built on human relationships.” As for price guide books, she said, “They’re just that, guides.”

Fendelman said if she were just now jumping into the American folk art scene and didn’t have a king’s ransom to spend, she might be looking at baskets (“you can get a very nice piece for around $700, and it’s something the cat can sleep in or you can put magazines in”); country furniture (“for $3,000 you’d be spending what you would for a new piece, only this one would have a story to it”); or quilts (“for $5,000 to $7,000 you can buy a wonderful late 19th-century piece”).

Quilts are probably one of the easiest areas of the American folk art marketplace to understand. Everyone, at one time or another, has needed to stay warm. Whether pieced, appliqued, stuffed or stenciled, the quilter’s art satisfies this need creatively and often beautifully. And sometimes even historically. On February 20, Skinner’s held an Americana sale in Boston and the top lot was a Civil War era quilt that sold for $82,250, more than twice the high estimate. The probable reason is that there was so much history attached to the quilt, its legend transcended its beauty. The quilt was made in 1864 by Margaret Hazzard in Michigan for her husband, Philetus, to take with him when he went off to war (he would die a short time after entering the Union army). The quilt comprised twenty blocks, each depicting a building that held meaning for the soldier, such as his home and school. Miraculously, the piece made its way back to its creator.

Almost all American folk art carries intrinsic as well as monetary value because of the history of the pieces, just like the quilt described. Other popular forms of folk art include:

  •  Carousel Figures. These have become prized collectibles in recent years. They are lively and often elaborately decorated, bejeweled creatures (most commonly horses, but sometimes other animals and even beasts and serpents). Generally, a carousel figure with its weathered, original surface (called “park paint”) is more desirable (and valuable) than a figure that has been stripped and over-restored.
  • Decoys. An American waterfowl decoy can command serious money if it meets certain criteria: Can it be attributed to a known maker? Was it used? If so, in what capacity? How original is the surface? When these questions can’t be answered, it’s absolutely possible to buy a nice decoy for between $300 and $1,000.
  • Weathervanes. These are among the most popular American folk art forms to collect. Some purists, however, take exception to weathervanes because they are usually factory-made objects, not pieces hand-crafted by individuals. Still, the market is hot and values are on the rise.
  • Needlework. Confirming that the work is American will be a critical factor in determining value, since well-to-do girls in 18th-century England were taught needlework skills similar to girls here. Collectors will usually want to see a viable history of ownership in America, along with a specific aesthetic relationship to other, similar documented needlework.
  • School Girl Art. While this category encompasses other forms, silk pictures done in the 18th and 19th centuries are usually the most colorful and graphic (and collected) of all.
  • Paintings on Canvas. Portraiture was the most popular form of painting in its day. They were enormously popular as collectibles from 1920-1950, but today portrait collectors are much more discriminating. Most American folk art portraits cost less than $10,000, many less than $5,000.
  • Game Boards. These have become an increasingly more active part of the marketplace in the last five years, mainly because there is crossover collecting competition from toys, dolls and games. And, it’s almost impossible to tell an American example from a non-American one without some evidence, like an American flag.
  • Outsider Art. There are four dominant artists in this genre: Martin Ramirez (1885-1960), William Edmondson (1870-1951), Bill Traylor (ca. 1856-1949) and Sam Doyle (1906-1985).

All of these categories have their roots and history, of course, in Europe. For nearly every example of American folk art, there is a European counterpart. In some cases, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two; this is especially true if all other information, like history of ownership, is has been lost.

When the great migration to America began, in the 17th century, virtually all of these people brought with them the only thing they could: their cultural heritage. This rich brew of folkways yielded the surviving material artifacts we now call American folk art. England was the main supplier of humankind in those early days, but after her came France, Holland, Switzerland and the nation-states that now comprise Germany.

“The most important key to collecting is to buy what you like,” Fendelman said. “Entering the marketplace with a financial investment agenda is as risky and fraught with failure as any other ‘get rich quick’ scheme.”

She suggested buying the best you can afford and know your collection for what it is. “It’s better to spend a high amount that’s still within your budget than to go for that bargain-priced object that meets none of your qualifications but sure looks great.”

And in the world of folk art collecting, looking great can directly tie in with condition (or lack thereof). Condition refers to the degree to which the object retains the original elements or decoration of its maker without any alteration, restoration or ‘help’ from a later hand. Objects that survive entirely unaltered from their original state are called ‘pristine.’

Condition also refers to what has happened to an object when it has been altered from its original appearance. For example, a portrait on canvas with a repaired and inpainted tear in the background may be acceptable. But a similar portrait with a repair and inpainted tear to the face of its sitter probably is not.
Fendelman said it’s also important to know “what’s outside and what’s inside” when considering a purchase. What’s outside means two things. First, it means the exterior. With most American folk sculpture, furniture, decorations and paintings, the surface yields valuable information.

Second, what’s outside also means the narrative surrounding the object, whether purpose, provenance or family history.

What’s inside means construction. Is the object put together in the way it should be for its time and place of manufacture? Knowing what materials, tools and techniques were available at what time will tell you about when an object was made or when it was repaired.

From primitive and native paintings to factory-produced weathervanes, to today’s commercial art, folk art reflects people as diverse as the objects themselves. Yet it also reflects a common cultural heritage, community traditions and the enduring importance of patriotism, religion and popular culture in America. Whether the utilitarian, decorative, recreational or ceremonial tools of everyday life, factory-produced goods or outsider art, these categories of American folk art reflect a people as diverse as the objects themselves.

Portions of this article were excerpted from the book Collecting Folk Art, by Helaine Fendelman and Susan Kleckner. It is one in a series of “Instant Expert” guides published by the House of Collectibles (a division of Random House).

Collecting Folk Art is recommended reading for anyone considering getting into folk art as a collectible, or for casual collectors looking to learn more about the genre.

Photos courtesy Skinner; Shelburne Museum & Collecting American Folk Art, by Helaine Fendelman and Susan Kleckner.

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