Powder horns show passion for collecting the offbeat

June 06, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

The most successful collectors aren't trendy. They seek no approval except their own and keep quiet about what they're buying to have the field all to themselves. Then, a decade or

more later, when they show off their accumulated treasures, latecomers gaze enviously. "Why didn't I think of collecting that way back when it was cheap and plentiful?" is the common refrain.

One trick to building a collection that can be savored privately, exhibited publicly or, if you're lucky, sold for a handsome profit, is to find a neglected field. Then go bananas. Devote waking -- and even dreaming -- hours to pursuing your objects and information about them. Become the expert. It's easier if they were made over a short period of time and in one geographic location.

For nearly 40 years, William H. Guthman of Westport, Conn., has focused his energies and keen eyes on engraved powder horns used by 18th-century American militiamen. "The carved powder horn represents a true art form, unmistakably identifiable and indigenous to North America," he observes. Thanks to Mr. Guthman, they're now heralded as an important folk art form, but when he started buying horns at lawn sales and in shops along sleepy country roads, they were overlooked as offbeat military accouterments. They "represent to me the last vestige of an unspoiled era when American antiques were available in the marketplace in 'as found, unspoiled' condition," he notes.

A very public role

Mr. Guthman's efforts and scholarship have earned him accolades.

"I'd be scared stiff to buy a really important powder horn that didn't have Mr. Guthman's blessing," said Russ Pritchard, an arms collector and executive director of the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.

The man who has been privately trumpeting the glories of powder horns for over a generation (an exception is an illustrated article he contributed to the Magazine Antiques in 1978) is now the very public guest curator of the new exhibition "Drums A' Beating, Trumpets Sounding: Artistically Carved Powder Horns in the Provincial Manner, 1746-1781." It opened recently at the Heritage Plantation of Sandwich in Sandwich, Mass., where it's on view through Oct. 24. Thereafter, it moves to the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford (which organized the exhibition) and then to the Concord Museum in Concord, Mass. (For information, call [203] 236-5621.)

Mr. Guthman also produced a profusely illustrated catalog with thesame title as the exhibit, ensuring these military accouterments a solid place in the folk art firmament. "It's a landmark book that brings great material before the public," claims Norman Flayderman of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., dean of American arms dealers. Mr. Guthman's book is $78 postpaid from its publisher, the Connecticut Historical Society, Department B, 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford, Conn. 06105.

From long arms to horns

Soon after he began collecting American long arms, Mr. Guthman discovered powder horns. In 1967 he became so involved with collecting and research he left his job as a purchasing agent to become a full-time Americana dealer and went on to amass the largest collection of engraved powder horns. Through their intricately carved designs and engraved inscriptions, they reflect the fantasies and feelings of soldiers on the frontier and front lines over two centuries ago.

Mr. Guthman has identified and classified by period and "school" the horn carvers who worked on the stretch of frontier comprising northern New England, Upper New York, the Great Lakes and Canada from 1746 to 1781. The finest engraving was done near Lake George, N.Y., during the French and Indian War (1755-1763). Those carved during the siege of Boston in 1775 and 1776 vibrantly express American patriotism.

"Drums A' Beating, Trumpets Sounding," the title of the exhibition and book, comes from a verse on a powder horn carved at Fort No. 4 at Charlestown, N.H., on March 15, 1758, for Nathaniel Selkrig of Connecticut and incised with soldiers marching in formation. The unidentified carver copied the style of John Bush, a free black farmer from Shrewsbury, Mass., captured by Indians in 1757 and never heard from again. Mr. Guthman regards Bush as a founder of this entire tradition of American folk art. Bush's calligraphic style and format became the basis for the "Lake George School" of carvers in the 1750s. It's an elaborate style for inscriptions that includes the owner's // name and military rank, the place and date of carving, and often rhymes and captions. The letters sometimes are incorporated in pictorial devices.

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