How we define antique American Folk Art

Folk art? What in the world is it? Where can I find it? How do I know what it is worth when I do find it? This is, in fact, what I deal with every day in my line of work. Work? Yes, Mother. After almost 20 years I still have close friends who can’t figure out what it is I do when I get up in the morning! By accident or choice, I’ve become a dealer in early and vintage folk art, almost exclusively American.

This seemingly ambiguous material in the world of antiques captivated my wife and me early on in my dawning desire to become an antiques dealer in the late 1980s. My wife, Charline, is equally attracted to folk art. She shares many of the duties of the business with me, but she will also be the first to tell you it’s “Tim’s business,” and a business it is. So, as in any other business, a working knowledge is needed to perform to the best of one’s ability. Whether in the business of buying and selling folk art, which I am, or in the “business” of collecting folk art, the rules remain the same. We should gather as much information about our interests in order to be more educated. The more knowledge and understanding of the task at hand, the greater the confidence we have in our pursuits. The satisfaction we derive from a job well done only adds to our enjoyment in doing what we like!

American folk art carved lady liberty
This patriotic carved wood figure of the “Goddess of Liberty” dates to the last quarter of the 19th century. Carved and polychrome painted, she is depicted standing erect wearing a soft peaked “Liberty” cap, dressed in a full-length white tunic with rolled sleeves, draped in a red robe trimmed in gold. In her right hand she holds a sword, in her left a laurel wreath and federal shield, her sandaled feet showing beneath her robe. It stands 53 inches high of statue, 71 inches tall overall, on a 25 inch square base. This figure was originally discovered by Helena Penrose of New York City, who was a friend and colleague of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller in the pursuit of folk art during the 1930s and ‘40s. The stunning statue was sold for $143,750.

Folk art as a classification of antiques very likely offers more opportunity to express our individuality based on the pieces we purchase. The almost endless variety of material that falls under the category of folk art makes this possible. Experts have a difficult time agreeing on a conclusive definition of what constitutes folk art, but can agree on the attraction to be found in its many forms. For example, two items commonly referred to as folk art today are early manufactured weathervanes, as well as handmade weathervanes, which were created in more humble circumstances. What is important to note are the similarities in such diverse objects and not their obvious differences. Consider a horse weathervane of finely molded copper by one of America’s commercial makers around the turn of the 20th century. The other a simpler but well conceived silhouette of a horse made of sheet iron or wood by a capable farmer. In either case the objects were intended for a utilitarian purpose, but a sense of beauty is found in both. It is that beauty which they have in common. An awareness of this link between two such dissimilar objects is of utmost importance when it comes to an understanding of folk art. It is an appreciation of this innate beauty that must be achieved by collectors and dealers to develop the skills needed to recognize a great piece of folk art.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Regarding folk art, this old cliché is probably as accurate and to the point as anything I could write. Simply put, we are most inclined to pursue an object we’re drawn to. That beauty we’re beholding in any piece of folk art must resonate on a personal level. This is one of the great attractions folk art offers for the dealer and the collector: the freedom to follow one’s own interests. If we’re going to acquire folk art that pleases us, this is perhaps one of the most important aspects to be understood. Even as a dealer, it is my experience that when it comes to folk art, my customers expect me to be passionate about the piece. If I’m not passionate, then the chances are my customer won’t be either. At that point it becomes very difficult to make a sale! Likewise, if you’re buying for your collection, isn’t it logical to surround yourself with pieces for which you have great affection? Buy what you like!

Don’t know what you like? Let’s see if we can work on that! Due to the vast array of categories that fall under the heading of folk art, perhaps the most important first step is to simply look at some. This may sound incredibly naïve, but it really is the best way to begin forming your own opinions, likes, and dislikes. When you’ve looked at enough, trust me, you will know what I mean.

There are any number of ways this can be accomplished. Without a doubt the very best approach is to see and touch pieces firsthand. Go to an antiques show. These venues offer the chance to see a broad selection of pieces from a wide variety of dealers. My wife and I participate in about 15 antiques shows a year, from California to Connecticut. I can tell you plainly that nothing makes us happier than to have someone interested in learning about a piece we have in our display. The majority of dealers I know enjoy sharing information concerning the material they have for sale. It is this constant dialogue that provides the ongoing education in folk art for collectors and dealers alike. The point is, if you have real interest in something, engage the dealer in conversation regarding your interests. What you learn can become groundwork for the future. From a dealer’s perspective I can tell you it is time well spent for both my customer and myself. Such conversations may not result in a sale at that time, but every effort is made to see that the customer leaves my space knowing more about the item of interest than when they entered. Even if it ultimately turns out to be something that would never interested them to the point of purchase, they leave with a greater insight and more information to add to a growing knowledge of folk art.

Single-owner shops also offer excellent opportunities. Besides the same hands on shopping that a show provides, a single-owner shop can be especially helpful from a regional stand point. Often the inventory found in a local shop is just that, local. The shop owner may be able to provide more details as to the maker and origin of a given piece. It is always a bonus to get the history along with the object. This may also increase the object’s value.

Group shops and antiques centers are also helpful in terms of looking at and comparing different items. Although some are not equipped to field a lot of questions concerning the goods they have for sale, they do allow the methodical shopper ample time to peruse the aisles at their own speed. Undoubtedly, museums as well as reference books offer a wealth of information that can be turned to on a regular basis. Collectors themselves can be one of the best sources for information due to their experience over a period of time. Virtual shopping can also be helpful. With the information available on the Internet, anyone with access to a computer has a world of knowledge at their fingertips. Web sites specializing in antiques and folk art are increasing daily.

We are now to the point where I tell you what folk art is. I wish I could. Actually that’s not entirely true. There are many accepted areas of collecting when it comes to folk art. Most of these categories by definition refer to goods made by hand. Countless objects were made down on the farm, up in the city, or somewhere in between. Whether driven by necessity or a desire to create, folks hooked rugs, sewed quilts, painted game boards or constructed a whirligig just to see which way the wind was blowing. Maybe a sign was needed to show the way to the apple orchard. A means was needed to hold an ashtray, so a cutout painted butler extending his arm was created for the job. The list goes on. Children made things at church or school, soldiers made things while in training or on the frontlines. And who can forget the tramps? Look at all the tramp art that exists. (Actually there’s no proof that tramps were that prolific when it came to chip carving.) Frankly, it is human nature to create and most of those objects created fall somewhere in the definition of folk art. What is considered the most desirable in this abundance of choices? That, of course, varies from person to person. However, it is safe to say the best example of anything in its field becomes the standard by which all other examples are judged.

The central questions remains: Why the attraction and what gives folk art value? As I’ve tried to point out, the attraction is and should be personal. It may simply come from an appreciation of the object and the maker’s ability to create it. Folk art often represents a slower, less complicated time, which resonates with many of us. Then there’s just plain old American ingenuity, which can be intriguing. Something was needed and something was made. Just because it was a necessity didn’t mean it couldn’t be artfully accomplished.

Value: If you think it’s hard to completely understand what folk art is, let me tell you, value can be even harder to define. Consider the fact that, by definition, nearly all examples of folk art are essentially one of a kind. Value, on the other hand, is generally determined by comparing two similar objects. One is deemed better than the other and is thus given a higher value. That’s tough to do when there’s only one exactly like this one. That being said, comparison is still the closest means of assigning a value to a piece. This is another example of the importance of looking at as much material as you can to create your own database regarding prices. Like any other field of collecting, there are the basics of age, condition and desirability that come into play. As a dealer, I’m often asked why a piece is priced higher than another piece. I always try to give the simplest answer: “More people want this one. It was that way when I bought it and will be that way when I sell it.”

If you have read this far then you are well aware that you have learned everything there is to know about folk art. Just kidding! I do hope you have a better understanding of the subject. We have discussed what it is and places to look for it. Now let’s get to the fun part and talk about buying some! Let’s say we have $10,000 available to purchase folk art. Where should we spend it? Well, let’s understand a basic principal first. Folk art, and antiques in general for that matter, are very much a “fashion” business. Things rise and fall in popularity/desirability. It’s not quite Seventh Avenue, but there are trends. What’s hot now? Most things of a visual, colorful nature seem to be right at the top of the list. I’m known for painted game boards, having written a book on the subject. I can tell you firsthand the more colorful a game board the more desirable, hence the more expensive, as I explained earlier. To put it another way, I would take some of that $10,000 and purchase one great colorful game board, not four mediocre brown ones (sorry, brown!). A great weathervane is always desirable. Again, the wise buy is the one in the budget in the best condition with wonderful form. Hand-painted trade signs remain at the top of the list. Here are a couple of pointers in making a choice: consider the subject matter and the graphics. A colorful sign advertising strawberries will generally be more desirable than a more colorful sign advertising funerals.

The truth of the matter is, with $10,000 you could absolutely fill a house and have money left over with some types of folk art. On the other hand, $10,000 would not even be a decent down payment on some single pieces. To me this is the beauty of this area of collecting. No matter how deep your pockets, I can promise you one thing. It’s not what it costs you that will bring satisfaction in folk art. It’s what living with it does for you. So far, no one has been able to put a price on that!

I would like to close with some encouraging words. First, for those of us attracted to folk art, it is an endless source of pleasure and we welcome those new to this area of collecting. It is truly an adventure. This material, in all its forms, has been produced all over the world since man’s arrival.

Even as this country was being formed some 400 years ago, folk artists were among the colonists. As the population spread west, so did they. Folk art in one form or another can be found almost anywhere we are. I haven’t really talked about age, but folk art is generally accepted from its earliest origins up to the mid-20th century. That’s a large body of work. Ultimately there is plenty to go around. Now, get out there and find it! And remember, buy what you like!


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