Collector's Corner: Weathervanes

Once practical instruments for predicting storms, weathervanes have become precious pieces of folk art.

Weathervanes are as much a symbol of New England as covered bridges, lobster and lighthouses. While you can spot them atop farmhouses, public markets and churches throughout the region, you’ll need to visit Faneuil Hall to see one of America’s most famous weathervanes—the grasshopper designed by Shem Drowne and placed there in 1742. The ornamentation, however large or small on public markets or private farmhouses, has found much attention from folk art collectors.

“Weathervanes became popular in America because weather forecasting was so critical to seafaring and farming,” says Jean Burks, senior curator of decorative arts at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont. “An approaching weather system could be anticipated by the direction of wind.”

The weathervane was a status symbol, too. “In the Middle Ages, a weather cock, which was a symbol of vigilance, was placed on top of European churches,” says Burks. Nobles also carried metal flags called fanes as they traveled. “They were a sort of medieval license plate,” she says. Eventually these two symbols merged and, in 19th-century America, the popularity of weathervanes skyrocketed. They became a symbol of the common man, says Burks: “Any person could put this elaborate metal banner on their house.”

In coastal towns, weathervanes doubled as trade signs; compass pointers were added to weathervanes to determine which direction the wind blew. A vane with the date 1673 cut into it is now in the collection of the Concord Free Public Library. And the Paul Revere House in Boston now displays the codfish vane that once topped his shop.

While the earliest weathervanes found in Boston in the 17th century were individually handcrafted of wood, tin and copper, mass production wasn’t far behind. Companies including Harris & Co. and J. Harris and Sons in Boston, A.L. Jewell & Co. and Cushing & White Co. in Waltham, J. Howard & Co. in Bridgewater, and Rochester Iron Works in Rochester, New Hampshire, ran small factories that crafted vanes for the public.

“Many weathervanes made in this area were anything but folk art,” says Stephen Fletcher, vice president and director of American furniture and decorative arts for Skinner, an auction house and fine arts and antiques appraiser in Boston. “They were manufactured by the thousands. But as they aged and were exposed to the elements, they took on very different qualities than the manufacturers might have imagined.”

Animal images are among the most common designs appealing to today’s weathervane collectors. Sculptors first carved horses, roosters and other animals from wood, then switched to copper, which was hammered into iron molds cast from hand-carved wooden models.

The vanes became more detailed. Sometimes manufacturers added zinc or lead to define parts of the animals or to add weight, and they often added gold leaf to the final form.

Local Color
Early New Englanders drew their inspiration for weathervane styles from their surroundings. Farm and native animals—sheep, cows, dogs and squirrels—were popular designs. Horse vanes, another common weathervane subject, often bear the names of living steeds for whom they’re modeled, such as Black Hawk, Col. Patchen and Mountain Boy. Many collectors clamor for the horse designs today. A collector in Lancaster was first attracted to horse weathervanes because as a child she owned a horse. Seven years ago, she began scouring antiques depots, flea markets and auctions, filling the wall space between her fireplace and cathedral ceiling with weathervanes. “They all have different forms and different colors in the patina. Fortunately, there are no bullet holes on the side I have displayed,” she says. Because of a weathervane’s placement atop farmhouses and country homes, it was not unusual for them to be the focus for target practice—a well-placed shot could send a weathervane spinning. These days, most collectors display their antique weathervanes indoors, using cheaper replicas outside.

The Price Is Right
Depending on design and condition, prices for weathervanes may start at $1,000 and grow. “A full-bodied type, together with a ball and bar, and maybe an arrow and directionals, would have sold for $35 or $40 new,” says Martin Jacobs, co-owner of the Splendid Peasant in Bristol, Rhode Island. “Today, it might be worth $4,000, $20,000, $80,000.”
This year, a weathervane called the “Goddess of Liberty” broke the $1 million dollar mark at auction, the highest price paid to date for an American-made weather vane. Stephen Score, a Boston antiques dealer who purchased the weathervane for a client, calls it “a wonderful image with great flow, design, presence, integrity and color.” Placed atop a barn in Tyringham in the 1870s and removed decades later before the barn collapsed, the goddess, draped in long, flowing robes, points forward as she carries an American flag.

The weathervanes that command the highest prices have not been restored. They have a patina—often noticeably different on one side thanks in part to prevailing winds and decades of exposure to sun, sleet, rain, snow and birds.
Knowing the difference between fine collectibles and mass-produced weathervanes can mean a big difference in dollars.
“Collectors want to be aware of reproductions and restored surfaces. They’re worth a fraction of the value of the same item in original condition,” says David Hillier, founder and owner of Antique Associates at West Townsend.

A weathervane’s worth is only one part of the equation for a collector. If you decide to enhance your decor with an authentic weathervane, do your homework and choose something you love. Since most weathervanes are large, they require plenty of space. “The weathervane I think I like the most is a horse called Patchen,” one collector says. “There’s something about this horse and the form. And where I have it in the house, it’s the first thing I see when I wake up.”