More than walking sticks Cane collection features faces and folk art

June 01, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

People faces, animal faces, pretty faces, ugly or bizarre faces -- Rick Opfer doesn't care, as long as it's "folk art" and sits on the end of a walking stick.

Best known as a toy and antique auctioneer, Mr. Opfer has also made a name for himself in the arcane world of canes -- particularly hand-carved "face canes" of real and imaginary people or animals.

In recent years, he has winnowed his collection from about 1,000 canes to 400 or 500 dating from the late 18th century to the present day. They're now in his Timonium office, piled in corners, on racks and in two large barrels.

"I'm still working on cataloging them," he says.

Canes, staves, wands -- sticks of some kind to be carried or leaned on -- have been around for thousands of years, but Mr. Opfer, 43, said a cane doesn't have to be old to make him happy.

"It has to be interesting," he says.

Among his favorites are those in which the carver has incorporated into the design the unusual shape of the branch from which it was carved, or a knot or the wood grain itself.

"Folk-art canes are carved with different motifs, and they are limited only by the imagination of the carver," he said.

One example is a cane made from a slender stalk with a multi-branch root carved and painted as a Dalmatian standing on its nose. Or maybe it's a spotted leopard.

But what he calls the "epitome" of his collection is a clunky length of wood, splashed with red paint on the hand-grip and with pen-and-ink motifs, including a telephone number, on the shaft.

"It's really crude, but it was that man's cane, and that's why I like it," he says.

Detail alone doesn't make a cane. He holds up three realistically carved canes -- two with dog's heads and the other with a bull's head. "They're nice," he says, "but they're factory-carved, people sitting around all day carving the same thing over and over."

Mr. Opfer prefers one-of-a-kind canes, where the "individualism of the carving" is apparent. A friend in Essex repairs and restores broken canes, and carves such beautiful heads, including men in Gay '90s headgear, that Mr. Opfer added several to his collection.

Also in Mr. Opfer's collection are several examples by the late Frankie Feathers, a Hagerstown craftsman who died in the 1950s and whose work is sought after by collectors.

Some canes have elaborate carvings along their full length. Mr. Opfer particularly likes "story canes" carved with legends or scenes. One tells the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Another memorializes Civil War soldiers and includes the words to "Dixie."

When he attends an auction, flea market or an antiques show, Mr. Opfer says he looks first for well-carved work. He has paid upward of $4,000 for a piece.

His eclectic collection includes "gadget canes" such as those with sword blades, daggers or pistol mechanisms. These command the highest prices among collectors, although the price tag for folk art canes is rising.

He also has fancy walking sticks with ivory, gold or silver handles. Most of these pieces date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was customary for the well-dressed man to carry a walking stick. Agatha Christie's fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, had one.

A Baltimore native, Mr. Opfer originally planned a career in criminology but dropped out of the University of Maryland after 3 1/2 years and a stint teaching algebra to prison inmates.

"I saw how stupid the whole system is. The recidivism rate was ridiculous, and they told me about how common drug use in prison is," he said. "I was in the wrong major but I couldn't afford to switch, so I just stopped."

While watching an auction his parents held at their Baltimore County farm before they moved to the Eastern Shore, Mr. Opfer said he decided "there's money to be made selling old stuff like this."

He started buying old furniture, stripping and reselling it at flea markets and small antiques shows, and continued to attend auctions.

"I thought, these auctioneers have it easy, they just stand up there and sell," he said. "I liked it all, the form of the auction and the style of the auctioneers."

In 1970, he attended a three-week auction school in Decatur, Ind., where he learned the basics of the business and then returned to Baltimore to launch his new career.

He also began collecting old toys, particularly American tinware. Hiscollection, though, is down to about 20 choice pieces. One reason is the price, which started a dramatic climb when a Santa Claus sleigh sold for $105,000. Mr. Opfer said he could have bought it four years earlier for a few thousand dollars.

"That put me out of toy collecting," he said.

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