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Scherenschnitte cuts no corners on folk art

NEW YORK – Literally translated as scissors (scheren) and cuttings (schnitte), scherenschnitte came to America with German-speaking immigrants (most from Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in the 1700s. While it was concentrated in Pennsylvania, especially Lancaster County, it spread to Virginia and other states. Typically, scherenschnitte is made by cutting a single sheet of paper, with all parts connected, into designs. These elaborate cut work pieces, including love letters, birth and family lineage records and valentines, are highly collectible.

Signed antique and vintage examples can bring over well $10,000 and private collectors as well as museums appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that goes into these works.

An important Shenandoah Valley of Virginia folk art cutwork/scherenschnitte valentine, made by Sarah Weaver of Rockingham County, Va., in 1856 sold for $19,000 + buyer’s premium in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

“The focus isn’t necessarily on the motif or the decoration, but rather on the skill of the artist and the intricacy of the cuts, the addition of other cut pieces: Did they include watercolor, pin pricks, layers, etc. … ?” said Christina Westenberger, assistant manager, museum education, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Decorative elements were limited only by the artist’s imagination but certain motifs were common such as birds, hearts and flowers with fantastic beasts and creatures sometimes seen. Similar decoration styles often appear in fraktur and painted furniture, she said.

“Scherenschnitte has its roots in Germany, but it’s really important to note that the Germans weren’t the first to start cutting paper, you can find evidence of cutting paper in histories all over the world,” Westenberger said. “The Chinese invented paper and they were the first to start cutting it up. You can also find amazing cut paper coming from Poland and Mexico, and it has deep traditions in the Jewish community.  It’s really interesting to compare and contrast scissors cutting from around the world.”

In 1854, Sarah Weaver made this Shenandoah Valley of Virginia folk art cutwork/scherenschnitte valentine, which brought $11,000 in November 2016. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates and LiveAuctioneers

The Guild of American Papercutters, which has a museum in Somerset, Pa., has fine examples in its collection as well as members who practice this craft today, several of whom learned the craft from grandparents. Kathy Trexel Reed, the guild’s museum coordinator, explains in an article she wrote in April for the guild’s Laurel Arts Art Link that this art form shared by German-speaking immigrants was a popular method, pre-Industrial Revolution, to commemorate births, baptisms, and marriage certificates. “Lovingly cut, these often included nature references, painted accents and evolved into ‘lacy’ paper Valentines,” she wrote. While similar in nature overall, scherenschnitte has stylistic differences based on country of origin. “Symmetry was often an important design element in Swiss work, achieved by cutting the paper while folded,” she said. “Intricate borders and themes depicting landscapes and local traditions also characterized Swiss paper cuttings. Germanic and Dutch designs tended to be more surreal personalized and romanticized.” Examples of these influences are in the guild’s permanent collection and can be viewed in regular exhibitions at Laurel Arts, where the GAP museum and home office are located.

An elaborate example, circa 1850, attributed to Beckman V. Huffman, New York, for the Milliken family, realized $1,200 in January 2017. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The trajectory of scherenschnitte is specifically apparent in Bethlehem, Pa., due to the city’s roots in Germanic culture and craft, notes Lindsey Jancay, director of collections and programming at Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. “The content, materials and approach are a direct reflection of the person who created them, the intended purpose and the time period in which they were made,” she said. “At Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, we have the unique opportunity to exhibit Colonial scherenschnitte silhouettes, alongside ornate Victorian valentines, next to contemporary paper-cut artworks that take the craft to a new level with custom patterns, watercolor and text. Regardless of its iteration, technique remains the heart of the art form and joins these works across centuries.”

Jeffrey Evans, co-owner of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates in Mount Crawford, Va., said collectors are attracted to the artistic appeal and whimsical nature of scherenschnitte. Desirable decoration on these includes “folk art motifs, especially Germanic ones like distelfinks (birds), hearts, fylfots and tulips. Bright watercolor decoration adds tremendously to value, and a nicely written verse with the maker’s and recipient’s names are a big plus,” he said.

A finely executed German marriage scherenschnitte, dated 1830, with painted flowers, tulips and angels, fetched $1,000 in June 2017. Photo courtesy of Wiederseim Associates Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“The most desirable and popular forms are the valentines. Once in a while a birth/marriage record or bookplate with a cutwork border will turn up,” he said. “You also see a good number of pictures of various types, most of which are left white with no colored embellishments. Some of these can be extremely intricate and do draw collector’s interest, many are of New England origin. But most are fairly simple and if not signed by the maker don’t bring much money.”

Buyers will seek out examples with strong folk art appeal, and which are brightly colored, signed with presentations, family provenance, and in excellent condition with no fading or missing elements, Evans said. “Collectors are especially seeking out documented Southern examples. Most of the valentines that come to market are of Pennsylvania origin. The tradition did travel with the 19th century German immigrants into the Shenandoah Valley but surviving examples from here are extremely rare and desirable.”

Jamie Shearer, vice president of Pook & Pook, Inc. in Downingtown, Penn., noted that subject, style, quality are all factors that contribute to a piece’s appeal. “Like all artwork and different mediums, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Buyers may be looking for just a certain theme, such as hearts or eagles,” he said. “As with all antiques the three most important things are condition, condition and condition. Next would be how well it is executed, the small and more refined cuttings would produce higher sales. The final thing would be bells and whistles that are added. Pen and ink accents, a date, name of artist or of a place they were from.”

A patriotic ‘Liberty 1851’ scherenschnitte sold for $1,200 in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Copake Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Steve Woodbury, a founding member and the first president of the Guild of American Papercutters, said buyers should be aware that in the 1920s and 1930s, many die-cut papercuts were produced in Germany, and sold widely. “While often referred to as ‘scherenschnitte,’ these are not ‘scissor cuts.’ They were mass-produced with a die-cut process, similar to paper doilies today. Even if ‘signed,’ they are not original scissor-cuts,” he said. Today’s laser technology can also create laser-cut “paper cuttings.”

Many early and authentic scherenschnitte works are signed and among sought after artists is Martha Ann Honeywell, Westenberger noted. “Here’s an artist who is creating tiny, intricate, multiple cuttings, with the inclusion of silk embroidery and woven paper objects to create one piece of art,” she said. “Not only is the piece brilliantly cut, but then you realize she was born without arms and cut with her teeth and her toes. And it’s not Valentines that she is cutting, she’s cutting silhouettes and biblical verses and what one might consider very traditional scherenschnitte designs such as birds and trees. If you haven’t seen her work … Wow!”

Mexican retablos: divine folk art

NEW YORK – When Spain colonized Mexico (which included parts of the American West) in the 1500s, they not only expanded their empire and reaped riches. They also introduced Roman Catholicism to the native population.

Along with crosses and rosaries, Franciscan friars imported santos retablos (sacred tablets) hand- painted devotional panels featuring sacred images. Small ones adorned portable altars, for use in travels. Larger, lavishly gilded ones backed permanent church altars.

Finely painted retablo on heavy gauge tin depicting the Christ Child as El Nino de Atocha, set in a beautifully worked tin nicho presenting a rosette in repousse on the scalloped pediment with cut and repousse adorned tendril-shaped attachments to either side, as well as hand-painted glass panels depicting leafy festoons of blossoming flowers in the frame and over the image. Sheets of patterned gold foil were placed behind the glass frame panels. The tradition of the child may be traced back to Atocha, a suburb of Madrid, following the Moors’ invasion, where pious prisoners were said to have been visited and nourished by a young boy dressed as a wandering pilgrim. Because of the miraculous nature of the child’s appearance and bountiful offerings, it is accepted that he was a manifestation of the Child Jesus. He is shown in his traditional capelet and brimmed hat, with a traveler’s staff in his left hand and a basket of bread in his right. Size: 13¼in x 6 7/8in, 19th century Mexico. Realized $500 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Within a century, retablos evolved into small, personal sacred paintings, reflecting humankind’s age-old desire to communicate directly with the Divine. According to Gloria Fraser Giffords in Mexican Folk Retablos, early ones, executed on canvas or copper, usually featured refined images worked by academically trained artists. Depictions of the Virgin Mary, God the Father, Christ, the apostles, martyred saints, and archangels were most common. These are highly valued by collectors and museums alike.

By the early 1800s, however, devout, untrained, provincial artists painted holy images on small, inexpensive, tin-plated iron sheets. Their humble works, commissioned or made in bulk, were beloved by the poor. They not only figured publicly in prayers for abundant harvests and healings, but were also displayed in churches, shrines and private homes.

These bright, simple, stylized designs were likely copied from imported engravings, woodcuts, and church artwork. Since most of the poor could not read, holy images are characterized by what they traditionally wore, what they carried, as well as tools of their trade.

San Mateo (Saint Matthew), patron saint of accountants, tax collectors and bankers, for instance, often appears with open ledgers, quill and ink wells. Archangel Michael, patron saint of soldiers, mariners, police officers and paratroopers, battles evil with a fiery sword. Archangel Rafael, patron saint of travelers, the blind and the ailing, along with a vial of healing balm, clasps a walking staff.

A polychrome retablo, San Rafael, circa 1885, oil on tin, framed. Some rust and oxidation to the surface. Scattered minor paint loss and surface abrasions throughout. Nail holes along the upper center and lower edge, 14in x 11in. Realized $2,500 + buyer’s premium in 2013. Image courtesy John Moran Auctioneers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

As most santo retablos were derived from copies and copies-of-copies, many eventually lost original detail or became solely decorative in nature. Few were signed. Yet certain shared technical or artistic styles suggest creation by particular families, workshops or individuals. Those primed with reddish clay or burnt-sienna paint, featuring figures with heavy-lidded eyes and finely shaped hands, for example, are known as “red bole” retablos. Those depicting simply designed Virgins in minimal pastels are commonly attributed to the anonymous “Skimpy Painter.”

This Mexican tin retablo depicting San Mateo (St. Matthew) is attributed to Agustin Barajas, also known as the ‘Skimpy Painter,’ who also embellished the beautiful composition with the saint’s name, circa 1885. Size: framed 15¼in x 12¼in. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Those depicting saints with pouty, “bee-stung lips” are commonly attributed to “Bee-Sting Lips Painter.”

Fine 19th-century Mexican folk retablo created by Concepcion Avila, also known as the Bee- Sting Lips Painter, portraying the Archangel Michael fighting the forces of evil. The retablo is fitted to a custom wood mount and wired for suspension, 10.25in x 7.125in. Realized $950 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

(Some now believe these artists were, respectively, Agustin Barajas and Concepcion Avila.)

Ex-voto folk retablos, like santos retablos, were also drawn on small tin sheets. Some, depicting soldiers, matadors or circus performers, for instance, request heavenly protection from danger. Others request specific blessings like safe stagecoach travel, healthy chickens or rain in the dry season.

Ex-votos were also commissioned by survivors who overcame life’s tribulations – anything from morning hangovers, lost love, broken farm machinery and sewing machine mishaps, to dramatic injuries or illnesses – through Divine Intervention.

Sewing Machine Mishap Ex-voto, Mexico, 1931. The narrative of this ex- apparently a bit too curious, unfortunately experienced on Nov. 4, 1931. See the central image of Ofelia getting pricked by a needle while using the sewing machine. Her mother Eulalia D. Villagomes, in a prayerful attitude on the left, invoked Our Lady of Guadalupe, depicted in detail on the right, to come to the church of Cerrito del Coatepe Harinas and bring her child to a healthy state without any suffering. In gratitude for this miracle, she dedicated this retablo. The inclusion of the sewing machine is charming and reflects the introduction of the early modern Machine Age to Mexico. Size: 12½in x 8¼in. Realized $475 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Each portrays the heavenly being who performed the miracle, hovering above a depiction of that event. A short narrative, often penned in regional, tricky-to-translate Spanish, follows. These unique, public tokens of gratitude were generally placed near shrines or in churches.

An unusual example, dated 1883, reveals how a man (in an impeccable gray suit), while falling from a hot air balloon 170 meters above the earth, was saved through his wife’s prayer, “invoked with true heart,” to Our Señora of San Juan (Blessed Mother Mary).

Woman at Gunpoint ex-voto, Mexico. A particularly dramatic ex-voto painted on heavy gauge tin. The composition presents a finely dressed man pointing a pistol at a woman. The ex-voto is dedicated to Santo Nino de Atocha depicted in his traditional pilgrim attire at the upper right. Size: 12¼in x 7½in. Realized $950 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Another, roughly translated, reads, “I dedicate this little retablo to Santo Nino de Atocha (Christ Child) who saved me from my husband who wanted to kill me, because evil tongues had told him gossip about me. Erminia Romero Mexico 1912.”

Since ex-votos were created by the thousands, many were traditionally discarded to make room for more. Yet scores survived. Artemis Gallery, explains Sydelle Rubin-Dienstfrey, fine art specialist and manager of its research department, currently sources them from galleries, art dealers, and private collections across the country and abroad.

“Many find their religious iconography or their folk art aesthetic appealing,” she adds. “Others find their narratives of family tragedies or expressions of gratitude for cures or good fortune intriguing. Collectors always love it when a piece has a fabulous story to tell.”

Thornton Dial watercolors noted in online auction Dec. 19

Three watercolor paintings by African American artist Thornton Dial are among the highlights of a 500-lot auction of Americana, folk art and outsider art that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Thursday, Dec. 19. Handcrafted tramp art boxes, vintage signage, baskets and quilts are just a few of the added attractions in this expansive sale.

Thornton Dial (1928-2016), ‘Lady Holds the Long Neck Bird,’ watercolor, charcoal and pencil on rag paper, 1991, 30 x 22 in. Estimate: $6,000-$7,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

’41 Harley Knucklehead revs up Jasper52 auction Oct. 10

Americana comes in many forms, from unique homemade objects to mass-produced commercial items from cultural icons. The Jasper52 Americana and Folk Art auction on Thursday, Oct. 10, will have a generous mix of both. The auction opens with an early 20th century cast-iron doorstop in the form of a monkey and quickly accelerates to an “iron hog” – a scarce 1941 Harley Davidson FL motorcycle.

1941 Harley Davidson FL, 74-cubic-inch Knucklehead OHV engine, in running order. Estimate: $70,000-$100,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Getting hooked on folky rugs

NEW YORK – Hooked rugs have been described as the comfort food of antiques with collectors coveting them for their artistic qualities and homespun nature. Rug hooking dates back several centuries and ranges from simple rugs hooked out of fabric scraps by thrifty crafters or elegant designs.

Hooked rugs come in all sorts of designs from abstract and geometric to whimsical and floral. Karen Swager, decorative arts and textile specialist at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, N.C., says that elaborate floral wreaths and bouquets, farm scenes, cats and dogs are common motifs in the designs of hooked and sewn rugs.

A rare hooked and shirred floral rug, circa 1860-80, possibly Maine, made $25,000 in March 2010 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Lions became a popular theme with hooked rugs due to the peddler Edward Sands Frost (1843-1894) who created an industry of stenciled rugs patterns,” she says. “There are few examples of people on 19th and early 20th century rugs. The most well-known hooked rugs with people were designed by James and Mercedes Hutchinson in the mid 20th century.”

Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Va., said rug-hooking techniques originated in North America, specifically Maine, and grew from their 19th century origins to become a national pastime. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, part of Colonial Williamsburg, presents the 2018-20 exhibition “Folk Art Underfoot: American Hooked Rugs”  surveying the art of hooking and sewing rugs, featuring some 20 hooked and sewn rugs.

“By the early 19th century, sewn rug work was among the special sewing projects a young schoolgirl could create while attending one of the many day or boarding schools that specialized in sampler making, wool embroidery and other female accomplishments,” she said. Jan Whitlock, in her 2012 book American Sewn Rugs: Their History with Exceptional Examples, notes that 40 schools advertising rug work had been identified. Several schools as far south as Virginia also included rug work in their curriculum.

This early 20th century ice skating hooked rug sold for $7,000 in January 2019 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among notable areas known for hooked rugs is the distinct style of hooked rug that originated in Waldoboro, Maine, a shipbuilding community originally settled by German immigrants.

“The rugs are characterized by a deep pile that is clipped and sculptured creating a design that stands out from the background,” Smith Ivey said. “The finest Waldoboro rugs were crafted between 1860 and 1880 and were intended as decorative showpieces rather than floor coverings to be walked upon. Today, hooked rugs with raised motifs are referred to as Waldoboro-types, whether they are actually made in Waldoboro or not.”

Hooked rug attributed to Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896), Dixfield, Maine, circa 1850; wool and cotton on linen. Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

The most desirable rugs are ones that showcase the inventiveness and artistry of the maker, Swager says, noting that whimsical designs featuring animals are very sought after. In March 2010, Brunk Auctions sold the collection of prominent collector Tom Gray, including a number of fine hooked and sewn rugs. Among them was a bias shirred rug with a whimsical farm animal scene that hammered at $30,000.

“Some collectors also seek rugs made with a distinct technique. For example, bias shirring, where fabric strips are cut on the bias and stitched to the foundation lengthwise in the center of the strip, is one of the most time consuming and difficult techniques of rug making. This technique also allows for subtle shading and the incorporation of wavy designs that can enhance the artistry of the rug.”

A folk art pictorial hooked rug depicting a portrait of lamb amid geometric designs earned $10,000 in January 2017 at Hyde Park Country Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hyde Park Country Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Smith Ivey explains that designs for early sewn and hooked rugs echo motifs found in other home furnishings including woven rugs and quilts.

“Rug makers found inspiration in published sources as well as in the details of everyday life,” she says. “Houses, birds, floral arrangements, and animal motifs, especially household pets, were the most popular designs. During this period, house cats were a major family pet and the most popular design for hooked rugs. Geometric patterns, which are the easiest designs to draw and produce in a rug, are also common.”

She said four hooked rugs created by Lucy Trask Barnard (1800-1896) in Dixfield, Maine, between 1850 to 1860 are some of the best and most striking forms of hooked rug work for a number of reasons.

“First, it is rare to find a rug with a known maker. Four hooked rugs attributed to Lucy Barnard feature a large white house on a hill with attached outbuildings,” she said. “Her rugs display an unusual sophisticated awareness of perspective through the use of oversized flowers in the foreground and two-sided buildings. Landscapes such as these require greater skill and appear less frequently than floral and geometric patterns.”

Hooked rug, New England, 1875-1925, wool and cotton on burlap (jute). Photo courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/Joseph and Linda Caputo Collection

Highly collectible today are Grenfell hooked mats, which became a cottage industry in Newfoundland and Labrador in the first half of the 20th century. Dr. William Grenfell established “the industrial” to help provide a source of income for the local women, Swager says. “Designs for the mats were inspired by regional scenes and animals. Polar bears, owls and winter landscapes are found on a number of Grenfell mats.”

While the market for hooked rugs has softened a bit in recent years, the best and most artistic examples continue to bring strong prices while the beginning collector still has the opportunity to enter the field at affordable prices.

Some of the attributes that collectors should consider, Smith Ivey says, include:

  • Condition: Does it have its original binding? Are the colors bright or faded?
  • Materials: Is it worked on burlap, which degrades easily and indicates a later date? Is it worked on cotton or linen, which are more stable ground fabrics and indicates an earlier date? Are there mixtures of fibers in the pile that create interesting textures?
  • Design: Is the design original to the maker, and if so, is it an important expression of American imagination and ingenuity? Is the pattern derived from a published design? Did the maker customize the publish pattern to express some of her personality?
  • Maker: Is the maker of the rug identified? Does the rug have a known provenance? Is it dated or signed in any way?
  • Technique: Is it hooked or is it an example of a sewn rug, such as yarn-sewn, bias shirred; chenille shirred, or patch? Are different hues of one color used to create a shading effect?

NHADA presents Americana, folk art auction March 28

More than 300 lots of outstanding Americana, vintage objects made and used in America, are offered in a Jasper52 online auction on Thursday, March 28. This exciting auction will feature items exclusively from the prestigious New Hampshire Antique Dealers Association. Rounding out the catalog are many lots of folk art, artistic works created by untrained artists in cultural isolation.

Carved wood heart in hand finial, 1930, 12in. high x 5in. wide, Maine origin, Estimate: $3,000-$3,200. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

What is folk art?

Artists of museum masterpieces created for the ages. Whether it is Michaelangelo’s marble David, paintings by da Vinci, Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog, or intricate Faberge eggs for a tsar, the beauty and power behind these works were part and parcel of creating objects that would last for the ages.

In the world of folk art, however, individuals painted, whittled or carved, drew, quilted, framed or otherwise created distinctive artistic expressions on a whim. It was simply an inspiration and it was immediate. At times, folk art made a cultural statement about what it meant to be within a community, to hold certain beliefs, to be genuine. It was only recognized as art later on.

Folk art is definitely the most inclusive of the visual arts. Unlike the trained artists behind museum masterpieces, who followed guidelines of proportion, light, space, continuity and perspective, folk artists required no particular knowledge or training. Whittling a doll for your daughter from a tree branch, for example, was a personal expression to satisfy the child’s wish – a convenient alternative if a person couldn’t afford a store-bought one. Yet, the doll was just as loved and became, by accident, just as artistically and aesthetically pleasing as any museum-worthy creation.

Embroidered flowers and animals including a lion, chickens and dogs, each block-stitched with initials of the maker, wool embroidery on wool and printed cotton; winner at the Rockingham County Fair [Virginia]. Circa 1900. Sold for $400. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Brunk Auctions

There are two distinct categories of folk art: antique and contemporary. Both are comprised of materials such as wood, clay, metal, stone, paper, cloth and whatever else might be available. Many folk art items are utilitarian in nature, such as doorstops, picture frames, business signage, or even weathervanes. They were everyday items not generally considered to be “art” at the time of their creation. The differences one may note among folk art items in general are usually connected to the time periods during which they were created.

Antique Folk Art

Early American folk art came about as the result of the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. As urban and industrial areas grew, people developed an interest in the more rural and agrarian traditions, including primitive or “naïve” artifacts.

A circa-1860s hand-carved walnut mirror with eagle and patriotic motif throughout is an example of folk art that sold for $2,800. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and New Orleans Auction Galleries

These artifacts were made by itinerant craftsman, which “…led to a consideration of ‘folk art’ as anything non-elitist, primitive or homemade – art that preserved some kind of cultural heritage,” says an entry in the Art Encyclopedia. They were also made in relatively small batches, not in large commercialized lots. For example, a circa-1860s walnut mirror frame featuring a patriotic motif, hand-carved around the Civil War period, was probably a response to the war in general. It sold at auction for $2,800.

All manner of “…weathervanes, old store signs and carved figures, itinerant portraits, carousel horses, fire buckets, painted game boards, cast-iron doorstops and many other similar lines of highly collectible ‘whimsical’ antiques…” are the general categories of folk art, says Wikipedia.

Antique dealers will tell you, however, that what collectors of vintage folk art look for is the subject matter – upbeat themes such as a barber shop or fruit vendor are more desirable than funerals or sawmills, for example). Color, condition, and size are all factors as well. However, buying folk art is quite subjective. What appeals to you is the only real criterion.

An example of a simple folk art painting with hand-carved frame that sold for $50. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers Archives and Roland New York.

Contemporary Folk Art

After the introduction of Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, mechanization and assembly lines became the business model that persisted through most of the 20th century. Folk art itself became less about the creation of individualized utilitarian artifacts and more focused on handmade but more consistent products intended for resale as opposed to items created for personal expression.

Whether for resale or not, contemporary folk art still follows the basic principle of what folk art is, mainly that it be something that appeals to the collector, not necessarily a discipline of the fine arts. Certainly local customs, heritage and values still play a part in its creation, but the final product is intended more for display or resale than its earlier utilitarian use.

Contemporary folk art includes some handmade and hand-painted artworks, such as duck decoys, hand-stitched quilts, beadwork, jewelry, baskets, cutlery, picture frames, paintings, game boards, bird cages, tribal masks, totem poles, and smaller wooden crafts. They are distinguished by their strikingly bold colors, unique designs and personal style of craftsmanship.

Chip-carved tramp art cigar box with round decorations. Sold for $950. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Slotin Folk Art

Tramp art:

Just a word about tramp art and its meaning… At one time, homeless or itinerant people once were described as “hobos” or “tramps,” especially during the period of the Great Depression. They were of all ages, sometimes family men who wandered the country looking for any kind of work. Along the way, they were known to take pocketknives to pieces of available wood – even cigar boxes – and fashion picture frames, canes, furniture, fanciful sculpture and other objects. Many even filed down general coinage and carved elaborate images in them as well.

Curiously, tramp art is a more modern term for any type of hand-carved item that seems within the genre of “tramp art,” even if made by artisans at home. The period of “tramps” lasted only from about 1870 to 1940 or so, yet this subset is still considered within the folk art tradition even in the contemporary era.

In summary:

Folk art is an all-inclusive term that identifies visual arts that are created outside the traditions of fine art. When you hear of tramp art, naïve art and even outsider art, you are essentially within the folk art community.

So, folk art is local. It is expressive, quite colorful, without pretense and yet still reflects how we feel about the world around us. We might say that folk art is us.

Jasper52 pitches ‘Mad Men’-style painting Jan. 9

An original oil on board painting depicting workplace scenes from a 1950s ad agency is one of the unique items in a Jasper52 online auction taking place Tuesday, Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. The painting, which is reminiscent of a storyboard that pitches an idea to potential clients, was done as a gift to a retiring executive. It is expected to sell for up to $1,000.

‘Mad Men’ oil on board of advertising agency by Kelley, 1957, painting is 24 in. x 30 in., frame is 29 in. x 35 in. Estimate: $900-$1,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

An Ark Full of Americana Gems

Americana and folk art go hand-in-hand in this week’s curated Americana auction, much like the pairs of animals in a circa-1850 Noah’s Ark play set.

The finely made set, one of the few toys many children knew in the 19th century, consists of the 15 1/2-inch-long ark, seven members of Noah’s family, eight pairs of animals, 17 single animals, 18 pairs of birds and 10 single birds; a total of 86 figures. The figures are top-quality and retain their original colors. Other than having some small repairs, the set is in excellent condition. It is expected to sell for $2,200-$2,500.

Noah’s Ark set, circa 1850, total of 86 figures. The ark on its stand is 15 1/5 in. long x 10 in high. long. Estimate: $2,200-$2,500. Jasper52 image

 

Several gaming wheels are included in this sale. A rather curious example is a spinner arrow on a board with the names of automobile models. It appears to date to the 1940s. This whimsical game has a $500-$600 estimate.

Game board with car names – some abbreviated, from the 1940s – Nash, Cad’c, Bui’k, Pack, Chevy, 23 in. x 23 in. x 2.5 in . Estimate: $500-$600. Jasper52 image

 

Also having an automotive theme is a wooden whirligig that depicts an early motorist cranking to start his tin lizzie. The whirligig, in old weathered paint, has an estimate of $200-$300.

Whirligig, circa 1920, 18 1/4 in. high (on museum stand) x 20 in. wide x 15 in. deep. Estimate: $200-$300. Jasper52 image

 

A half dozen handmade generic signs are offered, with messages ranging from “fresh eggs” to possibly noting the location of a men’s room.

‘Gents’ sign, incised letters on thick board with good surface & original carefully worked hangers, Boston, 7 in high x 31 in. h x 31 w x 1 3/4 d c 1940s. Estimate: $300-$400. Jasper52 image

 

Several fine examples of chip-carved tramp art are in the catalog, topped by a large frame with mirror, which is adorned with carved stars and maple leaves. It dates to the turn of the last century and is valued at $700-$900.

Tramp art mirror with carved stars and leaves, circa 1900, 25 in. x 28.5 in. x 3 in. Estimate: $700-$900. Jasper52 image

 

For the fireplace, two cast brass andirons, each in the form of a lighthouse, have a mellow-colored oxidized patina.

Vintage cast brass lighthouse andirons, 13 1/2 in. high x 12 in. deep. Estimate: $600-$700. Jasper52 image

 

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Twirling in the Wind: Folk Art Whirligigs

“A little wooden warrior who, armed with a sword in each hand, was most valiantly fighting the wind on the pinnacle of the barn,” wrote American author Washington Irving in his famous short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820. The writer was describing perfectly the workings of a simple whirligig, sometimes called a wind toy.

In the construction of the figure Irving describes, a shaft runs through the shoulders. When the wind blows, the arms carved in the form of broad paddles spin like propellers.

Folk art, polychrome painted, tin, metal and wood whirligig. Features cyclist that races on high wheel around track. 33″ D., 20″ H. Good condition. Comes with base. Provenance: Richard Roy Estate. Sold to a LiveAuctioneers bidder for $1,800 on April 16, 2016.

When mounted on a free-moving shaft, a whirligig can serve as a weather vane, but most often the whirligig is mounted on a post and serves no other purpose than to amuse those who view it. Having at least one part that spins or whirls, a whirligig is a decorative whimsy that holds great appeal with today’s collectors of Americana.

Flying mallard whirligig by upstate New York maker, early 20th century, 29 inches long, carved and painted wood. From the Linda and Gene Kangas Collection, it sold for more than $1,500 at a Slotin folk art auction in November 2015.

Mentioned in Colonial American times, the wind-driven whirligig probably originated with the immigrant population. “Traditionally, the first American examples were models of Hessian solders and were supposedly made by Pennsylvania settlers of German origin in mockery of the German mercenaries employed by the British during the Revolutionary War,” writes William C. Ketchum Jr., in The New and Revised Catalog of American Antiques (1980: Rutledge Books Inc.).

Ketchum acknowledges there is little support for the Hessian-soldiers story. However, folk artists did take delight in spoofing military officers and lawmen. “Their serious expressions and upright poses are undermined by arms that flail uncontrollably in the wind,” writes Beatrix T. Rumford and Carolyn J. Weekley in the book Treasures of American Folk Art: From the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center (1989: Little Brown & Co.).

Pennsylvania carved and painted pine whirligig, circa 1860-1870, in the form of a policeman, original polychrome decorated surface, 22 inches high. It sold for more than $18,000 at Pook & Pook Inc., in 2012.

Because whirligigs were invariably made of wood – usually pine – and placed outdoors, few early examples have survived the elements of harsh weather over time.

As compared to later productions, whirligigs made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have more moving parts and exhibit more complex movements, e.g., a rooster pecking at an ear of corn, a man sawing a log, or a woman washing clothes.

Whirligig in painted tin and wood depicting a washerwoman bending over her tub, 28 inches long by 21 inches high. It sold for more than $600 at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries on Feb. 11, 2017.

Most whirligigs currently available to collectors date to the 20th century and are considered folk art. Unlike antique weather vanes, which can sell for many thousands of dollars, whirligigs are affordable to the great majority of American buyers.

Found at country auctions, barn sales, and online, whirligigs can sometimes be picked up for bargain prices. However, be aware that whirligigs are easily copied. There are fakes in circulation that are being passed off as old to unsuspecting buyers. If the paint appears to be fresh and there is little sign of weathering, it is possible the object is fairly new. Bottom line: buy from a knowledgable trustworthy source.

Find folk art and whirligig treasures in Jasper52’s weekly Americana sales.