Fraktur bid sets record

November 18, 1990|By Lita Solis-Cohen

A small watercolor of a colonial lady on horseback and brandishing a tulip set another Americana record on Oct. 20, when a collector paid $110,000 for this Pennsylvania German fraktur. (Fraktur refers to the watercolor drawings that decorate Pennsylvania German copy books and documents.)

Sotheby's auctioneer William Stahl hammered down the 8-by-6 1/2 -inch watercolor drawing inscribed "Laedy Waschington" (sic) to a New York collector, who always requests anonymity, bidding from the wings of the salesroom. The underbidder was on the phone.

One of a small group of frakturs said to have been painted in Bethel Township, Berks County, Pa., during the last decades of the 18th century, the record fraktur is similar to one about the same size in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collection at Colonial Williamsburg. That one has two figures, a man and a woman, and is labeled in script "Ledy Waschington and his exselenc georg general Waschington." The Museum bought it for $3,800 in October 1958 at the estate sale of Philadelphia antiques dealer Arthur Sussel at Parke-Bernet in New York. They paid a big price at the time. At the same sale another fraktur birth certificate by the same artist sold for $825 and a fine drake-foot Philadelphia walnut lowboy sold for $3,250.

The Sussel sale gave the name "Washington-Sussel Artist" to the painter of these "bee-bonnet" ladies and gents wearing britches and waistcoats.

When still another fraktur by the same hand came up at a small auction in Lancaster County on May 30, 1980, it sold for $28,000, a record that stood for eight years. It was broken when the same Lancaster County auctioneer, Glenn Horst, sold a 300-page ledger book illustrated with fraktur drawings for $67,500 at his annual Memorial Day sale in 1988.

According to New York dealer David Schorsch, a fraktur has sold privately for more than $110,000. "I sold it," said Mr. Schorsch. "It's the Schwenkfelder fraktur drawing shown in "The Flowering of American Folk Art," the 1975 exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and it's illustrated in the show's catalog. It was in the collection of the late Fred Wichmann. I bought it from Gerry Kornblau at the Winter Antiques Show two years ago where it was priced $125,000, and then I sold it to a collector."

Both Sotheby's and Christie's got good prices for several other pieces of American folk art last month, in sales that were generally weak, with 30 percent of the items not selling and many selling at their low estimates or below, reflecting a selective market not much different from the sales in June.

Christie's touted a copper and zinc horse and rider weather vane stamped "Howard and Co., W. Bridgewater, Mass.," similar to, but about a third the size of, the famous Howard Horse and Rider vane that sold for a record $770,000 at the Barenholtz sale at Sotheby's last January. The horse on the smaller vane is cantering, not trotting.

Christie's estimated the smaller vane would bring $200,000 to $400,000; it sold for $104,500 to a phone bidder who turned out to be David Schorsch. Mr. Schorsch said he bought the vane in partnership with Joel and Kate Kopp who call their Madison Avenue gallery America Hurrah.

The weather vane was consigned to the sale by Howard Blackie, a Massachusetts man who grew up with it on his grandfather's farm in Chelmsford. When the farm was sold, he took the weather vane off the barn and put it in his office where it has tTC been for the last 30 years. "When I read about the big price paid for the Howard Horse and Rider vane at Sotheby's in January, I decided to sell my vane and called Christie's. I had hoped it would bring more," he said, "but last June when I consigned it the economy was better and of course I didn't know another vane just like it would turn up."

Mr. Blackie was referring to a similar vane Sotheby's offered the next day. Also stamped by the Howard Co., in exactly the same place, it carried an estimate of $60,000 to $90,000. The vane at Sotheby's was not in as good condition as the one at Christie's; there were some repairs to the reins and it had been cleaned with a steel wool pad at one time.

Two things determine the value of a weather vane -- form and surface. The richer the surface patina, the more valuable. The Horse and Rider vane at Sotheby's sold for $66,000.

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