Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Folk Art Deception

I have written often in this blog about pieces in our collection that were overlooked until a knowledgeable outsider recognized them as singularly important. It is really great when that happens (our scrimshaw cane is just one example) but sometimes, just like on the Antiques Road Show, you have to face bad news. Such was the case a few years ago with our Revolutionary War Soldier Whirligig.

This piece is one of two major whirligigs from the 19th century in the Fenimore Art Museum collection, the other being a figure of a Quaker. It stands 38”high, and is a well carved figure of soldier with a tricorne hat (hence the title) and the requisite paddles extending from his arms. These sculptures were fairly common in the 1800s, and were generally meant for amusement. A strong wind would make the figure paddle madly as it pivoted in the breeze.

I always admired this whirligig for its realistic carving in the face and costume details, and we have exhibited it on numerous occasions with our folk art collection. That is, until an expert on early American Sculpture from the collectors’ group The American Folk Art Society took a closer look at the piece. Of particular interest to him was the area where the paddles joined the hands. Something about that just didn’t seem right.

Take a look at the photographs here. The paddles extend straight down from the arms, while the hands are clearly shaped to hold something at more of an angle. His conclusion? The expert felt pretty strongly that the figure was meant to hold (no drumroll – the pun would be too obvious) drumsticks!

Our Revolutionary War veteran was actually most likely a band organ figure carved in Europe, possibly France. We do not know how or when he acquired his paddles and entered the market as an American folk sculpture, but I would guess that the change coincided with the emergence of a folk art market in the 1940s.

At any rate, our figure is now officially demoted from Important Folk Sculpture to Interesting Study Piece. I think that now, as a piece documenting the popularity of folk art in mid-20th-century America, it might be an even rarer example of its kind. But for now it will have to get used to life behind the scenes, rather than in our galleries.


  1. This modification actually makes the piece more interesting to me, which probably means it's a good think I'm not in charge of your exhibits. I'm impressed by the expert's ability to figure this out though.

  2. A fascinating exhibition would be folk art created to deceive, with explanations of how the deceptions were uncovered. That was one sharp-eyed observer who unmasked your whirligig. I had no idea old whirligigs were popular enough in the 1940s to spawn forgeries.

  3. Wow. Weirdly, that face looks just like relatives of mine...!!

  4. You've given me an interesting idea for a small exhibit of fakes. Do you really think the public would be interested? We do have a few and they are all good stories. Let me do some more posts like this in the coming weeks.

  5. Don't know why, but it made think of napoleon ...

  6. Juxtaposing fakes and authentic similar examples in an exhibition would be most interesting.

  7. Napolean. Hmmm. You may have something there. He's about as tall Napolean too.

    Kevin, the idea of juxtaposing fakes and authentic items of the same type is great, and would be the most enlightening for a general audience. Thanks!

  8. Great idea. Love it all for the visionary eye candy.
    Juxtaposing real and fake together is twice the fun.
    Just found your blog and happy I did. I've become a follower!


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