Big money in auction of Littles' collection heralds new interest FERTILE FOLK: ART of the people

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Earlier this year the Maryland Historical Society paid $28,750 for a late 19th-century carved wooden figure of a woman that once adorned the masthead of a Chesapeake Bay schooner.

This piece of Maryland folk art brought that much money -- more than twice the pre-sale estimate -- because it's rare, but also because it was in the auction of the collection of the late Bertram K. and Nina Fletcher Little, legendary folk-art collectors.

The Little sale as a whole brought $7.4 million, also more than twice its pre-sale estimate.

People in the field think the Little sale may spur new interest in folk art. It will "attract new collectors and encourage people who have bought in the past to buy again," says John Newcomer, a major dealer in folk art and other aspects of Americana, who is based in Funkstown, outside of Hagerstown.

For those thinking of becoming collectors, the Middle Atlantic region is a good place to be. "This area is blessed with a ton of stuff," says collector Howard Wolfe. Baltimore is close to the fertile field of Pennsylvania, local museums have folk art, and there are major collectors and dealers here.

The definition of folk art is elusive, but Newcomer calls it, "art of the people, usually in imitation of fine art." It ranges from pottery to duck decoys, from quilts and needlework to hooked rugs, from weather vanes to furniture, from boxes to metalwork hinges and locks.

Collecting folk art has not been a long-term major interest in local museums, but Gregory Weidman, curator at the Maryland Historical Society, says that has changed in recent years. "We have new areas of interest in things that perhaps if they had been offered a generation ago we wouldn't have followed up on."

The historical society's collection ranges from ceramics, paintings and maritime items to shop signs, cigar-store Indians and textiles. Looking to diversify ethnically, the society recently acquired two samplers made by young girls in a Baltimore school for free blacks in the 1830s. And the masthead figure is thought to have been carved by a West Indian black man named Cook from St. Mary's County.

Both the historical society and the Baltimore Museum of Art have major holdings in what was perhaps the greatest manifestation of Maryland folk art, the colorful Baltimore album quilt made here for a brief period between 1845 and 1855. The MHS has 26 examples, the largest collection anywhere, and is putting them on view in two stages in its current exhibit of album quilts. The BMA has another 22.

The BMA's folk-art collection has benefited from two main sources in recent decades. The late Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch amassed a major collection of folk art at their farm, Pokety, on the Eastern Shore. Much of their collection went to the National Gallery in Washington, but they also gave a number of pieces to the BMA, which now owns about 20 paintings and 40 works on paper.

Among them is the delightful "Child in Red Dress with Dog and Cat" (1830-1835) by Erastus Salisbury Field, the now-famous 19th-century Massachusetts folk painter, and high-hatted "Lucy Winsor" (about 1794) by Rufus Hathaway, another Massachusetts painter. Both of these can be seen in the museum's Jill and Austin Fine Gallery.

The centerpiece of this folk-art gallery is a real piece of Baltimoreana: the cigar-store Indian with tobacco leaf-apron and headdress that used to stand at the entrance to Hopper McGaw, the former specialty-food store that operated for many years at Charles and Mulberry streets.

It was bought for the museum by the gallery's namesake, M. Austin Fine. From the 1960s until his death nine years ago, Fine amassed a remarkable collection of folk art, including paintings, works on paper, ceramics and furniture. He bestowed a number of items on the museum.

For a modern house

After Fine's death, his widow sold most of the collection, but kept enough to furnish the modern house she added on the couple's property. Among the house's exceptional beauties are a pair of portraits of Mrs. Jesse Stedman and Jesse Stedman (1833) by Vermont painter Asahel Powers, and a red-ground, vine-and flower-decorated blanket chest (about 1750) from Guilford, Conn.

The former Mrs. Fine, who has remarried, recalls that "the collection started when I wanted a bowl for the dining-room table, and we went looking outside of Middleburg, Va., and Austin, who loved to talk to people, enjoyed talking to the dealers. We bought a bowl for $45, and eventually somebody offered us $100 for it, and Austin thought there was something in this."

Another local collector has a house that testifies to the sometimes compulsive nature of collecting. It contains everything from paintings and watercolors to cake molds, painted boxes in the form of books, Pennsylvania redware pottery, wrought-iron door hinges and implements, and such oddities as Moravian three-dimensional textile stars, a barber pole from Iowa, a collection of pincushions and another of ice-fishing decoys.

"I've always been a history buff, and this kind of thing connects you with history," says the collector, who asks to be anonymous. "But I don't look at it and say, 'That's folk art, I'd better buy it.' "

Surveying the folk-art scene, he notes a few trends: "Quilts are down a little, I think, because they're hard to take care of and tTC vulnerable to light. Pennsylvania redware is very strong and has been. Wood carvings are strong. Top-quality paintings do not often come up, but when they do they bring a lot of money. And I think boxes will be a trend. They were strong at the Little sale."

Impulsive collecting

Collector Howard Wolfe testifies to the impulsive nature of collecting. "My collection is totally eclectic and totally impulsive," he says. He got the bug growing up in Connecticut, where a family friend was Stewart Gregory, one of the legendary collectors of folk art.

Today the family-room wing he has built onto his house, using wood from an old barn in St. Mary's County, shows off baskets, furniture, pottery, hooked rugs, decoys, game boards and weather vanes, which are a particular love.

These weather vanes were not stamped out in factories and sold through catalogs. They are hand-made ones with real character, such as an Indian with a headdress typical of the upstate New York area, or the dynamic running horse that came from a firehouse in Maine.

Both vanes are from the 19th century, but Mr. Wolfe emphasizes that folk art is not confined to things made long ago. "There is no age criterion," he says. "There are things 20 to 30 years old, and people are doing things today." As an example, he points out the family room's painted mantelpiece and the pair of candlesticks on it, both done recently for him by Lancaster woodworker Steve Cherry and painter Peter Deen. "Folk art is a present-tense thing," Mr. Wolfe says.

His advice: "Just get out and start looking for a specific thing, such as baskets or weather vanes. Don't get too eclectic at the beginning. Read up on material before you go antiquing -- there are excellent books on any specialty. Get to know people ahead of you. Collectors by and large love to talk about their collections to people who are interested, and it's a terrific way to sharpen your eye.

"Let your eye be the final judge of your collection. If it gives you pleasure, then buy it. There are a lot of pleasurable things for which you don't have to pay too much money.

"Over time, you will get to know good dealers."

One he mentions locally is Milly McGehee, partner in Colwill-McGehee Antique Decorative and Fine Arts, with showrooms on Charles Street.

Individualistic items

A leading folk-art dealer, Ms. McGehee turned to the field two decades ago when she got "bored" with formal furniture: "I found folk art more spontaneous and individualistic." For that reason, she delights in one-of-a-kind pieces.

She prefers such individualistic items as the painted dome-top box of about 1800, attributed to Pennsylvanian Heinrich Bucher, which is for sale for S14,000. Or the 1863 Pennsylvania hooked rug with a surprisingly modern-looking depiction of a house and a tree, with a price tag of $8,500.

Ms. McGehee often bids at auctions for both private collectors and major public collections such as the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Williamsburg, Va. So, of course, she was at the Little sale. "The prices were astounding to me," she says. "I went into the sale with about 22 bids for clients, and got four of them. That is not my usual percentage.

"With the exception of the few truly great pieces, I think the rest of the prices are an aberration, such as the nest of Nantucket lighthouse baskets that went for more than $100,000."

Recession antidote

If the sale helps to boost the folk-art market, it will be an antidote to the recent recession, says John Newcomer. "We've needed a boost in the antiques market in general and the folk-art market in particular," he says. "The last recession cut more deeply into the art and antiques market than any previous recession I remember."

As an example, he cites quilts: "In our area we noticed a drop in price for really good Pennsylvania and Maryland applique quilts from $1,800 to $2,200 down to $1,000 to $1,200, and they are not easy to sell."

Mr. Newcomer carries many works from the Maryland area, including pottery, textiles and carvings such as decoys -- a favorite with many Marylanders. The late brothers Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield became so famous for their decoy carvings that there is a museum of wildfowl carving named for them in Salisbury.

Mr. Newcomer notes that there is a wide range of prices in many areas of folk art, from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands -- depending on such things as quality, condition, history and the maker, if known. An ordinary decoy can go for $100 or less; the record price for one is over $300,000.

The best collectors don't do it primarily for investment, says Mr. Newcomer. "People who do best in collecting are people who buy with passion, knowledge and care. Those are the ones that make great collections, like the Little collection. People who collect on a whim or want to make money on something because it's in and popular are usually the ones who get hurt."

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