Artists in the clink: Antique folk art made by prisoners

Prisoner Folk Art
Various Auctioneers

If you think fine design is only for the rich, take a look at some of the work done by humble prison inmates during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even among the wayward, there is still an urge to create.


Prisoner folk art bone carvingPrisoner folk art



Bone carving from Napoleonic wars prisoner. Intricately carved automaton to depict a woman using a sewing machine. Early 19th century. Includes fitted wooden base. Measures 4 inches high plus 1/4-inch base height. Sold by Elite Decorative Arts Jan. 14, 2012, for $950.




prisoner folk art carvingLot of three items related to Civil War Prisoner of War Vernon W. Thorp of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, including a wooden folk art club (shown here), 12 3/4 inches long, with relief-carved inscription, starting with the top panel, with Thorp’s initials, capture date and location [V.W.T./ Cap.d June 17 1864./ at/ Petersburg, VA]; the middle panel tells of the prison camps where he was held [Andersonville, GA./ Millen (GA)/ Savannah (GA)/ Florence (SC)/ and/ Charleston (SC)]; and the bottom panel, includes his release date and location [Released/ Dec. 10/ at/ Charleston], plus his regiment [I/ Mich/ SS]. The club is carved with his corps emblem, a Bible, vines, arrows, a checkered-pattern and a star. The club is accompanied by a vignetted cartes des visite portrait of Thorp in uniform and a novel, “Andersonville,” by MacKinlay Kantor. Inside cover inscribed by Thorp’s descendant, Jay Thorp. Sold by Cowan’s Auctions, Dec. 2, 2011, for $2,000.


Prisoner folk artThis 14-inch long example comes with a handwritten letter stating that it is a model of a French cannon made by a soldier taken prisoner on the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow in the winter of 1812. On the exchange and release of prisoners, it came into the hands of Thomas Hazzard Barker in Brussels. No longer retains cannon, ammo cart is complete including original slots for shot in trunk. Well made and detailed model with loss to original painted finish.
Sold Nov. 12, 2011, by Mosby & Co. Auctions for $350.


Prisoner folk art carving


Burley Auction Group sold this 1920s folk art “Texas Prison” figure, 3 1/4 inches high, for $225 Jan. 15, 2011.








Prisoner folk art carving


Prisoner-carved man, probably made in the 1940s or early 1950s. Given by a prisoner in Cincinnati area to Bud Smith, a jailer at the Ohio Penitentiary and taken to his family home in West Virginia. The carved man stands 10 inches tall and is 3 1/2 inches wide. He has carved and jointed arms that are pegged into the shoulders but can be removed; fingers stiffly carved out, eyes carved and painted. The folk art man was painted white with a creamy face and brown hair, tan boots. Honest wear to all of the extremities of the figure.
Sold by John Coker Ltd., Oct. 30, 2010, for $200.






Prisoner folk art carvingCarved and painted wood folk art steam locomotive, original black paint with gold trim, 27 inches long, 10 inches high, on an original 30-inch section of wooden display track painted the same gold as the trim on the locomotive. Metal fittings in various areas throughout. Tradition says this was made by a State of Maine prisoner around 1900. Sold by William Bunch Auctions & Appraisals, Sep. 21, 2010, for $1,100.

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