The Lessons of ‘Old Jake’

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

Standing more than six feet tall with a bugle in hand and leaning heavily on his bent left knee, the weathervane depicting a fireman named “Old Jake” points forward with a particular sense of urgency.  As the star lot of Sotheby’s recent Americana sale, which took place on January 23 and 24, when Old Jake failed to sell it set off a wave of commentary in the antiques community.  The initial reaction has been that the $3 to 5 million dollar estimate was too high, and indeed in today’s economy that was surely a factor. On the other hand, Old Jake’s unique merits may, paradoxically, have played a role in his fate at auction.

But first a little background. Last year, the Charley Rouss Fire Company (formerly the Union Fire Company) of Winchester, Virginia, decided to sell Old Jake to raise funds for new equipment and for the possible construction of a new firehouse. The weathervane had stood atop the company’s present firehouse for more than one hundred years. The story in Winchester is that it was the work of George Barnhart, a local carriage maker, who named the weathervane for his son Jacob. It was installed atop the Union Fire Hall around 1860 and later moved to the present building at Boscawen and Braddock Streets in 1895.

In the world of weathervanes, Old Jake is a bit of an anomaly. While the three-dimensional copper weathervanes that most collectors prize were mass produced in the Northeast during the mid- to late nineteenth century, Old Jake was, as we have seen, probably a custom piece made at a southern foundry before the Civil War. So he’s really in a category of his own.

Old Jake’s enormous size also makes him atypical. (Most weathervanes that come on the market measure about thirty inches high.) The folk art dealer Fred Giampietro speculates that “Old Jake” was too large for most collectors, who need to consider space and proportion in their purchases.

Auction records for weathervanes both support and refute size as a decisive factor here. In 2006 Jerry Lauren purchased a massive sixty-two-inch tall Indian Chief for $5.8 million. Widely considered the masterpiece of its genre, that weathervane was only eleven inches shorter than the seventy-three-inch Old Jake so size was not necessarily a factor in Jake’s failure to sell.  For comparison’s sake, other top selling weathervanes have included a Goddess of Liberty (30 inches high, Christie’s, 2006, $1.08 million), a locomotive (61 inches long, Northeast Auctions, 2006, $1.2 million), and a rare grasshopper (41 inches long, Christie’s, 2007, $520,000).  

These benchmark figures help to situate Old Jake and his presale estimate, but also suggest a gap between 1 million and 6 million dollar weathervanes, which this one was predicted to fill.

In addition to measurements and sales figures, Old Jake presents an interesting dilemma in attaching a value to an object’s history or historical context.  Laura Pass Barry, an associate curator at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg and co-curator of the recently opened exhibit, From Sidewalks to Rooftops: Outdoor Folk Art observes that Old Jake has an outstanding context and history. His stance and costume, for instance, closely resemble that of a heroic volunteer fireman in Rushing to the Conflict, one of four prints in the popular American Fireman series by the artist Louis Maurer, issued by Currier & Ives in 1858.

Then, too, archival photographs and newspaper accounts of Old Jake attest to his importance in his community, all of which adds to an ineffable appeal that is hard to quantify in dollars. Nancy Druckman, Director of Sotheby’s American Folk Art Department, observes that “Old Jake” possesses “something extra that was maybe not intended by the artist but that takes something static and makes it inspired.”

Finally, a discussion of Old Jake must mention his surface, which was repainted a silver-gray in 1936, a common practice for preserving weathervanes at the time but a possible drawback for collectors who prize original patina. For now, Old Jake with all his virtues, is staying with Sotheby’s while research is conducted to evaluate the surface underneath the paint.