Power and beauty sewn into cloth

All kinds of flags are flying high in the world of folk-art collecting


April 14, 2002|By Kate Murphy | By Kate Murphy,NEW YORK TIMES

Twenty years ago, Thomas Connelly's wife, Daniele, wanted a 14th-century French tapestry to hang in their new vacation home in Colorado. He bought her an American flag instead.

Hand sewn in 1876, it had 38 stars (Colorado was the 38th state) and was "a beautiful work of art," he said. It also didn't hurt that it was a fraction of the cost of the tapestry.

So began what Connelly, the retired chief executive of Connelly Container Inc. in Philadelphia, calls his "compulsion" to buy flags. It is an obsession he shares with an increasing number of vexillophiles, as flag fanciers are called.

Collectors' interests cover a broad range, from American flags to Haitian voodoo flags. They say the attraction can be aesthetic, historical, inspirational, or some combination of the three.

In Houston, an exhibition of 30 historic flags related to Texas at the Museum of Fine Arts has drawn large crowds since it opened in January. "The response has been incredible," says Peter C. Marzio, the museum's director. "We had 70,000 the first month and expect at least 250,000 by the time it's over."

The show, which runs through April 28, includes a richly embroidered Mexican flag captured at the Battle of San Jacinto as well as a Lone Star flag made out of a wedding dress that was carried by Texas soldiers in the Confederacy.

"Each flag is like a beautiful painting," Marzio says. And since many are suspended from the museum's ceiling, the show, if looked at in its totality, "is a work of art," he said.

Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass., which publishes scholarly papers and journals, said flags carry inordinate power.

"People fight and die over flags," he says. "They provoke strong emotions."

Largest flag auction

Collector Connelly now has 150 historic American flags, 90 of which Sotheby's will offer for sale on May 23 in New York in its largest flag auction ever. The high volume of calls about the sale indicates the growing popularity of flags as collectibles, says Nancy Druckman, Sotheby's director of American folk art. That is partly the result of patriotic fervor generated by the events of Sept. 11, but "interest in flags has been gathering momentum over the past decade," she says.

The most sought-after flags are American flags made before 1912, when legislation regulated their design and manufacture. Before then, the only stipulation was 13 alternating red and white stripes with a blue canton of stars equal to the number of states.

That left room for interpretation: for instance, arranging the stars to form a star, zigzag or spiral pattern. There were also variations in the shades of blue and red. Experts say flags from this pre-regulation era can sell for $40,000 to $50,000, up from $4,000 to $5,000 in the 1980s.

The demand for and prices of Civil War flags also have skyrocketed, says Howard M. Madaus, chief curator of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pa. Especially popular are battle flags from various Confederate regiments, which can go for as much as $90,000.

"A lot of them are handpainted on silk with exquisite workmanship," Madaus says. The flags' artistry, combined with the history and passion they represent, he says, make them irresistible to collectors. Most people buy just one or two to frame and hang in their home as they would a van Gogh or Cezanne, says Gary Hendershott of Little Rock, Ark., a dealer of artifacts from the early American Revolution and the Civil War.

A matter of taste

As with any kind of art, what appeals to flag collectors is a "matter of taste," says Smith at the Flag Research Center. Some seek antique nautical flags, with their bold patterns and primary colors. Others prefer Haitian voodoo flags, ritual banners made of silk or satin and whimsically embroidered with sequins, seed pearls and beads. The detailed, hand-painted flags of 18th- and 19th-century labor organizations in Europe and the United States have their devotees, as do the more austere municipal flags of the former Soviet Union.

"There's no end to the number of subcategories of flags people collect," says David Martucci, a professional flag appraiser in Washington, Maine.

Ben Zaricor, founder and chief executive of the Good Earth Tea Co. in Santa Cruz, Calif., collects flags of all sorts, sometimes buying entire collections from other people, estates or museums. He has 1,100 flags in 41 categories, ranging from minimalist 19th-century Islamic flags to flamboyantly decorated Mardi Gras banners from New Orleans.

"They are all works of art," Zaricor says. But, he adds, unlike other forms of art, "flags go beyond conjuring emotion and have the power to make people act": to take up arms or follow the party line, for example. He has recently created a catalog of his collection, which he makes available to researchers on a Web site (www.flagcollection. com).

"More people are aware of flags these days and are interested in seeing them as well as learning about their history," Zaricor says.

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