If you believe hipster contemporary art is the only niche collectible making the market roar with unprecedented ferocity, think again. Right now, folk art -- 19th-century Americana crafted by anonymous, self-taught artists, reflecting a simpler time -- is soaring to new price levels. This new development is readily apparent at the 53rd annual Winter Antiques Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, Jan. 19-28, 2007.
The 75-dealer-strong show is filled with more folk art than ever, and a flock of examples bear hefty prices. "Billionaires have changed the landscape of American folk art in the same way the dot-com generation made inroads into contemporary art market," says dealer James Glazer of Bailey Island, Me. The price tags on his stand bear out the new sea change in market values.
These days, rural pottery of the Pennsylvania German kind is practically the new silver. Glazer points to a group of red slipware plates, each priced in the $70,000 to $220,000 range. The most expensive plate is dated in four places and bears a robust scratched design. "In just three years, the prices have jumped from $45,000 to $150,000 for a single example," says Glazer of those ceramics.
Painted tavern signs also seem to have reached lofty price heights. So figure on plunking down $750,000 for a single sign at David Schorsch and Eileen M. Smiles of Woodbury, Conn. His prize example, which dates from 1825, features a portrait of a man in vest and brown topcoat, and originally came from a tavern in rural Parsonfield, Me. "Itís the first time the sign has ever been on the market," says Schorsch, emphasizing its uniqueness. Also in the booth is a trade figure of a dancing minstrel, which commands $675,000.
Need a desk? Well, count on spending $295,000 for an elaborately carved example dating from 1870, in original condition with coffee mug rings and scads of dust bunnies, at the booth of New York private dealer Leigh Keno. From a Mississippi plantation, the desk was made by a freed slave. With a raised carved relief of tools, chisels, a compass, cutlery and even a washboard on its drop-front and sides, the desk is a bit like folk art channeled through Louise Nevelson. "Itís never been exhibited before," says Keno.
Even Hirschl & Adler, whose booth features fancy 19th-century antiques and fine paintings, is sporting a folk chair right alongside its selection of gleaming mahogany Empire furniture. The chair back consists of three carved owls with yellow glass eyes (long a favored creature of old line WASPs), while the rail beneath its seat sports two dogs (also emblematic of the Old Guard). Made in 1875 and attributed to Henry Leach, the chair costs $45,000.
Weathervanes now command major league attention. New Haven dealer Fred Giampietro has moved front and center in this area, and the clutch of weathervanes, galloping horses and placid cows in his booth clearly situates vanes as the new sculpture. After all, Jerry Lauren (brother of fashion titan Ralph) paid a stupendous $5.3 million for a vane this past September at Sothebyís, and in so doing squashed the prior record by $4 million.
Even English and continental dealer Dillingham & Company, whose antiques are of the glittering country house look with oodles of gilt, is showing a vane for the very first time, indicating the growing fashion for these items. It is a 1680 lion pawing a ball and, as itís French, the price is $16,000. Other dealers with vanes include David Wheatcroft, Suzanne Courcier and Robert W. Wilkins, as well as Olde Hope Antiques.
Bargains can be had in the vernacular area. The only thing is, however, that theyíre either English or European. London dealer Robert Young has non-sticker-shock-priced wares of country oak furniture. Prominent is a 54-drawer pigment case with traces of original gilt and paint, which dates from 1870. Its price is only $35,000. "The buyer will put CDs in it and give the cupboard a new life," says Young, who finds he now sells much country furniture to both young clients and the decorating trade, all of whom are doing up lofts in a contemporary design vein.
With U.S. sources of home-grown folk art drying up, Young is seeing more Americana collectors take on his Swedish tankards and English chests. He has the ultimate price chart -- a 19th-century toll bridge tariff board, and itís American, with crossing fees listed in dollars and cents. †The cost is $55,000.
Really ritzy furniture, the kind favored by William Henry Vanderbilt (self-declared "richest man in the world" in the mid-19th-century), is hugely expensive. Associated Artists from Southport, Conn., has the perfect chair for high-rolling traders. Done in gilt with mother-of-pearl medallions and snakes twisting through its back, the 1880 chair is by the Herter Brothers and was a commission for the grand Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue, where Rockefeller Center is now located. The price is $1.2 million for the single chair, which has surprisingly dainty hoof feet on its front two legs. "The number of collectors spending $100,000 annually on antiques has doubled," says David Parker, who heads up the Connecticut firm. He also has a fire fender by Thomas Jekyll for $225,000.
Of course, there are many things on the floor that cost far less. A survey of this fairís roster says much about the waning of a generation of dealers. Sadly, the Dutch dealer David Aronson, a founder of the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, died only weeks ago, and his stand space has been taken by the Philadelphia-based Arts and Crafts specialist John Alexander. And veteran dealers Taylor Williams and Betsy Trace have both passed away, though their firms live on and are present at the fair. Changes like these are just another way in which the Winter Antiques Show is a barometer of the fast-paced business in fine old things.
BROOK S. MASON is chief correspondent for Art & Antiques.