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

April 03, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

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.

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