Patina Mania is not enough for describing the dominant theme in the 23rd Street Armory Show. The obsession with surface and paint has already stirred up interest and prices in many folk art areas, such as dower chests or weathervanes; now dealers must prove that collect-ability and bargains can still co-exist, in an antique show.
At the 23rd Street Armory, we found many windmill counterweights. Made of cast iron, they look sturdier, humbler, and more restrained, like the mid-westerners who relied on them for their daily living in the first two decades of the 20th century. Anita Holden of Holden Antiques, from Naples, Florida said they were price-wise more affordable compared to weathervanes from the Northeast, which have gone up in price and out of reach for many collectors. She showed me an unpainted counterweight bull from Fairbury Windmill Company of Nebraska. “There are four types of counterweight bulls made by this company, for their 10 or 12 feet windmills. But this is the only one that has the town’s name on both sides.”
There, perhaps, are fewer windmills from the early part of the 20th century in Nebraska than weathervanes on New England roofs. Their unique forms, either sculptural or whimsical, came with the same bloodline as the latter. And in both cases, the pursuit of decorating in all facets of daily life from the past revives their use through repurposing, a term Anita promptly used in the conversation.
Repurposing is not just for shabby chic, which is notorious for blanketing everything in white. In the Armory show, the beauty of earlier utilitarian objects is re-discovered through a different contextual perspective, while maintaining their original textural appearance. Ted Fuehr of American Spirit Antiques brought in an unusual pair of architecture gable vents of six louvers, from New York or Pennsylvania. They turn out to be purely decorative as there is no gap between louvers. Like windmill counterweights, they have descended, from the top of an unknown barn to the show floor, for an ultimate intimate look. The uniform green patina from oxidized copper looks stunningly fresh. And the lines and curves form a fluid proportion in different dimensions. Stacked against a white wall, they would command attention for their sculptural quality.
“Brown shining stuff may sell well in the south, but here I am for high folk art,” said Frank Kocian of Kocian DePasqua Antiques. Old signs, according to him, have a universal appeal across generations. One of the signs, which says “Catholic Church, Golf Course” was sold online even before the show. But the highlight is an early 19th-century tavern sign. “There were 5,000 taverns in Philadelphia area alone. But they gradually disappeared. By 1910, tavern signs began to see appreciation. Today, early 19th-century tavern signs only come to the market every few years, and when they do, they usually fetch six figures.” The Indian Tavern sign, probably from Massachusetts based on the state seal image of Massachusetts Bay, shows its lineage throughout the surface. Earlier paint is more resilient to fading, yet years of wear through rain, snow and direct sunlight has created preferential weathering so that only the most painted area stands out. The pronounced letterings or figures against rough surface are something revered in the antique sign business. In this particular sign, the Indian figure in ghostly white seems to be floating out of the bare wood.
Had I not talked with Frank, I probably would have missed that faded sign. But I agree that it has the appeal for the second look or the third one. Nature has done its wonder to make antiques tangible and sensual – every crack speaks of a joy of sense (visual and touch) and sensibility (history and provenance). A French polished veneer won’t do.
Not only does surface paint speak of desirability, but also occasionally it sheds light on history. That’s the case of a grandfather clock from Thurston Nichols of Breinigsville, Penna. The clock was originally made by Peter Miller from Leigh Valley around 1790 to 1835. The fancy marble paint was added later, however, around 1845. Some of the original paint (red) can still be seen when the second paint layer falls off. According to Mr. Nichols, it was moved to a tavern owned by Steigerwalt family and hence “re-decorated”.
Oddly enough, my favorite in the show belongs to “brown, shining” category. Baldwin House Antiques showcased a Federal eagle high chest of drawers from the shop of Emanuel Deyer of Manheim, Lancaster County. Made in around 1795, it exudes the exceptional craftsmanship through intricate inlaid and construction. The only other existing example is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was also exhibited at the Winterthur Museum of Art last year. To be fair, cherry with walnut stiles gives the chest a lighter sheen – to some extent; it does not have to be categorized into “brown furniture.” The pair of inlaid eagles is a rare form for high chests. Unlike the tavern signs case, time seems to have stopped for this piece of furniture. The pristine condition must come from generations of care.
It may be true that the high chest may have a hard time in the future to find its place in modern homes with super-sized closets, and I agree that an antique sign can single out the owner’s eccentric, quirky taste; yet it is my impression that patina mania is a whip of human irony that nature’s course plays better than human creativity, and may eventually fall on its own visual fatigue. Between time-honed craftsmanship and time honed weathering, I would like to stick to the former.