“You who travel with the wind, what weather vane shall direct your course?” --Khalil Gibran
Picasso called American weathervanes great works of art. Because they were designed as functional objects their rise to art form was gradual and unintentional.
But anyone lifting their gaze in an early American city, farm or town could not miss the decorative weathervanes turning in the wind on top of high buildings. They were instant weather reports. For the farmer and seaman weather was everything. They predicted storms and the rough weather ahead.
The earliest American settlers from professionals to the everyday Joe created furniture, kitchen utensils, shop sign, doorstops, hitching posts and weathervanes with whatever materials they had on hand at the time. Think of folk art as the art of the everyday man.
Sitting atop large buildings these simple, bold weathervanes were status symbols as well as weather predictors. The ravages of time and harsh elements make these three-dimensional sculptures all the more beautiful.
When George Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1783 he ordered his architect Joseph Rakestraw to make a copper, peaceful dove with an olive branch in its mouth for one of his buildings instead of a traditional rooster vane. The vane still sits in Mount Vernon covered in gold leaf to protect it from harsh weather.
Thomas Jefferson also had a vane at his Monticello home. It had a pointer that extended to a compass rose on the ceiling in the room below so he could see the wind direction from inside his home.
Why so many rooster vanes worldwide? The story goes that in the 9th century A.D., the Pope decided the rooster or cock should be used on church steeples, probably as a symbol of Christianity. It reflects on Jesus’ prophecy that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crows the morning after the Last Supper.
Not all weathervanes are art objects. Many more would be better labeled artifacts because their form like in any bad sculpture lacks quality.
With a weathervane battered looking is also often better. It adds a delectable patina to the piece collectors appreciate.
The more common shapes are horses, cows, roosters, arrows and banners. Serious collectors are often more interested in the form of a vane rather than if the vane came from a factory or what sort of animal or object it represents.
Unfortunately, not much is known about the artists who designed and carved the original models for the vanes made in factories. Companies’ often copied one another so it’s impossible sometimes to attribute the makers.
Vanes can sometimes be attributed to a maker by comparing design, construction and their finish to existing signed examples. Why some vanes were signed and other were not is open to speculation. When they sold directly to a consumer, they may have signed their work. When they sold through a distributor they were often not signed.
On October 10, 2019, Sotheby’s featured a selection of weathervanes from the Stephen & Petra Levin Folk Art collection sale.
Here are some current values.
Native American; molded full-bodied sheet copper and zinc; circa 1920; 44 ½ inches high; $18,750.
Hackney Horse; molded; full-bodied gilt sheet copper and zinc; circa 1880; 34 inches long; $18,750.
Grasshopper; full-bodied; sheet copper and zinc; circa 1915; 39 inches long; $22,500.
Archer Centaur; molded gilt sheet copper and zinc; circa 1865; 36 inches long; $25,000.
Whale and Sea Captain; pine and sheet copper; circa 1850; 104 inches high; $35,000.
Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller. For 27 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column. Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles. Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser. Visit the website at www.liveauctiontalk.com.