Gardens | Past Masters

American weather vanes

Weather vanes reached their artistic peak in the US, where exquisite examples can now fetch millions. Pernilla Holmes knows which way the wind is blowing.

November 10 2011
Pernilla Holmes

In October 2006 an antique copper weather vane, cast in the form of an American Indian, dating to 1900 and once the crown on a Ford family home in Michigan, sold for $5.84m. Tilted back in proud profile, 6ft tall, arrow poised to shoot, and covered by a mottled patina flecked with traces of gilding, the vane is a superlative example of its kind and a clear symbol of a thriving niche market in American folk art.

Bought by Jerry Lauren (brother to Ralph and executive vice-president at Ralph Lauren) and his late wife Susan, it now perches in front of a vast mirror in his Park Avenue apartment, showing off both its sides, the superstar in a stellar collection. “Susan and I only collected the very best – and when I saw this vane I knew I just had to have it. After the sale, people kept saying to me, ‘5.84 million! Sorry you didn’t get it, Jerry...’ and I had to keep explaining that it was me who bid that high,” recalls Lauren, wincing slightly at having to discuss money with art. “But its movement, its line, its patina… It’s hard to put words to, but it is just a wonderful piece of art.”

It’s the most anyone has ever paid for a weather vane. According to Nancy Druckman, senior vice-president and director of the American Folk Art department at Sotheby’s, prices for quality antique weather vanes usually range from $3,500 to $350,000, though back in 1990 a moulded copper horse and rider sold to Boston collector and antiques dealer Stephen Score for $770,000, and some have broken the $1m mark. Other prominent collectors include New Jersey-based management consultant David Teiger and chairman of Citigroup Dick Parsons and his wife Laura.

Charming examples can sell for four- to five-digit figures – such as the c1900 moulded and gilt copper and zinc cow that fetched $8,750 at Christie’s NY in 2010. But to the uninitiated, such outlays can seem outlandish. “To really understand this market you have to look at weather vanes’ place in American history and the art of the objects themselves,” explains Druckman. “It was a nascent nation dependent on agriculture and merchant trade, and few other forms of three-dimensional art had such visibility. Americans prize their history.”

The earliest recorded vane dates back to about 50BC. Shaped as the god Triton, it was placed atop the Tower of the Winds in Athens. The history of vanes in Europe also includes a ninth-century papal decree that all churches should be topped by a cockerel weather vane.

But it took the Americans, mainly New Englanders, to really elevate and transform these simple wind indicators into something more playful, artistic and integral to life. Picture a traveller passing by a town in the 19th century, reading the inhabitants’ lives through their vanes. A pig might denote a butcher, a steed a stable, a cow a dairy.

Private enterprises often chose more esoteric vanes, such as the monumental silhouette Hudsonian Curlew weather vane (c1874) in the American Folk Art Museum in New York, made for a New Jersey shooting club, or the horse and rider probably commissioned by a polo club in about 1875 (now owned by Jerry Lauren), the horse with its rear feet flicked joyously up in the air.

Cherished pets might also be commemorated on private homes. Ever the innovator, Thomas Jefferson made one with a shaft that went through a ceiling in his house so that the wind direction could be checked from inside.

Another of Lauren’s vanes is a buoyant flying horse made by AL Jewell Co, from Massachusetts, c1870. Just below its ear is a big bullet-hole. “Many of them have these,” says Lauren, smiling. “People would use them as target practice.”

There is more to vanes than their practical function and colourful social histories. According to Stacy Hollander, senior curator at the American Folk Art Museum, “Weather vanes were always considered for their artistic qualities, otherwise so much care would not have gone into them. But it was the vanes that became famous, rather than the artists.”

Indeed, while certain companies, such as LW Cushing, JW Fiske, Harris & Co, AL Jewell Co and EG Washburne & Co, are known as quality producers of 19th-century vanes, the individual makers are almost always unknown. “There is no Picasso syndrome here,” Druckman says. “This is vernacular, functional sculpture and it’s almost always about the object itself.”

Though important, age isn’t necessarily the decisive factor in making an object more sought after. Some 18th- and early-19th-century works, made before Cushing et al began mass production, are less ornate and made from wood. But the words “mass produced” are perhaps misleading in this context. “It’s not like there were factories,” Hollander says. “A company would offer a number of designs, and a mould would be made to cast them in, but each had to be hand-hammered. Each one is, in that sense, unique.”

All of which raises an obvious question: what determines their value now? Druckman says, “It’s the same criteria that apply to any art: form, condition, surface – and great provenance is the icing on the cake. Probably most prized is a virgin surface – an untouched patina that shows its age without being too damaged.”

A prized criterion in sculpture is a sense of movement. It’s here that Lauren’s Indian excels. The thrust of his stance and the tension in his about-to-be-released arrow captures an ineffable feeling of motion that rivals even the greatest artists’ efforts. As Lauren says, “It’s not about weather vanes, and it’s not really even about history. To me, it’s all about the art.”