by David Moore of Waterman Antiques
Everyone I talk with has their own interpretation as to what great Folk Art is. Wikipedia states “In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.” Collectors tend to divide Folk Art into categories such as; American, Outsider, Utilitarian, Eclectic, Pioneer, Advertising, etc.
Whatever your definition and no matter how you categorize it, Folk Art is truly hot on the market these days. It is so sought after that many uneducated or unscrupulous sellers are calling anything and everything Folk Art including mass made factory items. Such items suddenly appear for any collectible when pricing reaches a zenith. For example, in the past, Cigar Store Indians appeared to be more numerous than originally thought, only to discover many were recently created and not what they were portrayed to be. Buyer beware, but do not let this deter your search for that one of a kind Folk Art treasure. The more you see and gain knowledge of true originals, the better off you will be when buying a piece for your home or collection.
I got my start in Antiques in the early 1960s and as a boy of 7 years old, when I spent every free minute running with my Grandfather who was an Antiques Dealer and the greatest influence on my life. My Grandfather told me that, “Folk Art is homemade art that has meaning and gives feeling to whoever looks at it.”
Here are 7 of my personal favorite Folk Art items that I have come into contact with in the past 3 years. I believe these are truly great pieces, and gave me a good feeling the instant I spotted them. They all presently reside in private collections.
Folk Art Owl
This wonderful utilitarian folk art wooden barn owl is an old duck decoy body turned into an owl that was used to keep mice and birds out of the hay stored in the barn. This owl is approximately 18 inches tall and has an old circa 1880s shotgun trigger guard on the back as a hanger or handle. The eyes are brass tacks and the ears are tin with a carved wooden beak. It has painted feathers and is mounted on a stand. It is valued at $250/$325.
Federal Style Eagle
A wonderful federal style Eagle found in Vermont is circa 1820s – 60s and carved out of pine. It still retains a light coating of red wash and is entirely hand carved. It is approximately 22 inches tall and has a beautiful caved beak. Inset eyes, proportionate wings, and feet. The wings are screwed on to the body, and the rest is one carved piece of pine. I have seen folk art Eagles valued at $500 to $5,000+. They are very collectible and desirable as premier American folk art.
Circus Clown Head
Here is a great piece of Circus history. It is entirely hand carved, approximately 12 inches tall with old original paint. It is circa early to mid-1900s. This clown head was found in the attic of an 1880s Victorian house less than one mile from the former site of the Barnum circus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Many times large circuses would house their acts very close to the location of the Circus.
This piece was attributed to being a Barnum Circus Attractor. An Attractor would be an item that sits near a carnival game or sideshow to draw people’s attention to that particular game or sideshow. This clown head circus attractor shows signs of being attached to a pole on the bottom side. A great piece of American folk art. The estimated value is $750/$1,000.
This piece of Advertising Folk Art was collected from Brimfield Massachusetts in the 1970s and was labeled as being circa 1930s – 40s from a Firehouse on the East Coast. It consists of a metal bracket and wire hanger with a handmade wooden fire hydrant. The entire sign is approximately 29 1/2 inches tall and has an old repaint. A great piece of 20th Century Firehouse advertising. The estimated value is $600/$850.
Paddle Tail Duck Decoy
This wonderful little decoy is a prime example of a carver’s rendition of a small Paddle Tail Duck. It is approximately 10 1/2 inches long and has a very nicely carved head, bill, body, and paddle tail. The head is inserted into the body; similar to an attribute of many of the old Maine decoy carvers. It is circa 1880s – 90s, has tack eyes and has a very old overpaint. A wonderful example of utilitarian folk art that was made a tool of the Waterman and never intended for art on a shelf. The etimated value is $275/$375.
Northern Pike Fish Decoy
Here is a fantastic circa 1920s wooden carved Northern Pike fish decoy is approximately 7 inches long. It has inset eyes, a carved mouth, and the original hand-cut tin fins and tail. It is in original gatored paint and has an inset hand-poured lead weight in the bottom and a metal loop line tie on top. It is mounted on a driftwood stand. This Folk Art fish decoy was used as a fish attractor for spear fishermen. It is the essence of utilitarian folk art. A very rare and desirable tool of the Spearman. The estimated value is $275/$325.
Carved Wooden Trim Plane
This great piece of Folk art is a carved wooden trim plane. This plane is circa 1770s and has a patriotic motif. An extraordinarily detailed carving that some say shows an early American flag form on the right end. A heavily gatored varnish covers the entire piece and is framed for display. The value is estimated at $550/625.
Many pieces we consider Folk Art today were actually made out of necessity years ago when they were created. Hand carved wild fowl decoys were made as tools of the water to draw birds into shooting range. Hand carved fish decoys were used by Spearmen to draw fish into spearing range; both wildfowl and fish decoys were used to put food on the table. Handmade Folk Art airplanes, carts, farm animals, and dolls were toys carved or made by parents because they did not have access to stores or could not afford manufactured toys for their children. Occupation signs like carved cows or pigs showing a butcher shop or a wooden carved clock showing a watch and clock maker’s shop. These were all utilitarian Folk Art hand made items. Statues, bird carvings, carved lawn ornaments and handmade wall hangings are examples of decorative folk art.
Whatever folk art you like, get out and find it. There are plenty of pieces in all categories and price ranges to fit any budget.
David Moore is a Certified Antiques Appraiser and the owner of Waterman Antiques. He is a published author with over 50 years experience in research and study of antiques and collectibles. David’s online antiques store began as a duck decoy study and research site about 9 years ago and has grown into a multi-faceted antiques business. The business encompasses his eye for pre-1930 hand-carved wooden Upper Chesapeake Bay and Illinois River duck decoys, pre-1960 working cared wooden fish decoys, American Revolutionary and Civil War Artifacts, Early Americana, mid-19th and 20th century Folk Art and Sporting collectibles. His descriptions of his eclectic mix of items for sale always come from an appraiser’s point of view, including the history of each piece and the story of how the item was found.