Weathervanes - Part I
Just as yesterday's ladies and gentlemen gowned themselves with hats, so too were their homes, sheds, and barns attired up top. In fact, towards the end of the 19th century, it was an exception to encounter a handsome building that was not adorned with a weathervane on its roof. Seafarers, landlopers, and farmers, consulted their vanes regularly as an indicator of the wind and weather. Today, these valuable old objects fashioned out of copper, zinc, iron, and wood are being removed from roofs where they are at risk from bandits with ladders, and even helicopters, and being sold for big prices. Currently, it is the most coveted category of folk art sculpture.
The first thing you should understand about weathervanes is you don't have to dealing them, or collect them, to enjoy them. I am no bird watcher. I am a weathervane spotter. Birds are small and fast and hard to spot, especially from a moving car. Old weathervanes however, can make the most repetitious of country rides, or city walks, a fresh new journey. Next time you pay a visit to Cape Cod-photograph vanes. Beach pictures don't come out anyway. On your next visit to Boston, look atop the building called, The Cradle of American Liberty, Faneuil Hall. There, you'll spot the most famous of all American weathervanes, the copper grasshopper with green glass eyes made in 1749 by the pioneer of American weathervane makers, Shem Drowne. When you look up at that gilded grasshopper, imagine what he's seen with those green eyes; the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, perhaps he even spotted two lanterns burning in the steeple at the Old North Church, April 18, 1775.
Although weathervanes have been made and used throughout the world, probably for thousands of years, America is said to be the place where the form reached its sculptural zenith. Prior to 1850 weathervanes were fashioned by woodcarvers, blacksmiths and other artisans from material at hand. Beginning around 1850, and especially in the years following the Civil War, when metal-smiths had to adapt to a peace time economy, great weathervane industries sprouted around Boston and New York. Most of these mass-produced vanes were fashioned out of molded copper and zinc. Thousands of varying forms were made; horses, cows, stags, pigs, cocks, fish, Indians, patriotic symbols, banners, fire wagons, trains, etc.. Weathervanes were available in stores and by illustrated mail-order catalog. Some of these catalogs containing dimensions, dates, and original prices, published by leading makers like J.W. Fiske, A.L. Jewel, Cushing & White, and J Harris & Son are available today at major libraries.
Authentic antique weathervanes can vary in price today several hundred to over $100,000 depending on condition, form, size, and rarity. Here's a few hints.
- Weathervanes designed with drama, movement, and interesting subject matter are coveted by collectors. A horse is nice, a prancing stallion is better, a team of galloping stallions pulling a fire wagon is better still!
- The most desirable pieces are those in good condition, with traces of original paint, gilding, or rich undisturbed patina (verdigris).
- Few weathervanes were marked by the maker. Those found today can bring premium prices.
- Other things being equal, the older and bigger the better.
Weathervanes are one of trickiest, yet one of the most decorative, of all antique categories. It's 3-D art! Next week, I'll give you a few hints in distinguishing authentic antique vanes from fakes.