Penguins and Other Animal Folk Art March to Collectors
Folk art can take many forms and be made of just about any material. However,
it is the wood carved animals and birds made in America in the 19th century that
rate the big bucks and collector respect.
The majority of American folk art
carvers are unknown. Not so Charles Hart, known as the "penguin carver." Long
before the movie, March Of The Penguins focused on these remarkable creatures,
collectors had discovered the folk art penguins carved by Charles Hart. Hard to
believe, Hart once sold his penguin carvings on the road between Essex and
Gloucestor, Mass. Inspired by Admiral E. Byrd's Polar Expedition in the 1930s,
he carved them in many sizes. These days, when any of his penguins turn up,
prices range from the high hundreds to thousands.
Well known to collectors
is 19th century folk art carver Wilhelm Schimmel from Pennsylvania. Many carved
wood eagles and animals have been attributed to him. The wood carvings are of
several types: whittled, carved, turned or scratch-carved. Schimmel used a
cross-hatched pattern, and polychromed paint finished them off. The most popular
subjects were the barnyard animals and roosters.
Not all animal and bird
figures were of wood. Many were made of whatever materials were at hand. This
included metal and gypsum. Even dippers made of gourds added eye appeal when the
handles were carved in the shape of barnyard animals. No matter how humble the
purpose, untrained American artisans added humor and beauty to the most humble
objects. Everything from tools and kitchen utensils to gravestones and
architectural ornaments used animals and other creatures as motifs.
type of work, brought to America by German settlers who moved to Pennsylvania,
came to be known as Pennsylvania Dutch. However, farmers who lived in other
sections of the country, "prettied up" kitchen items for their wives. Small
kitchen shelves and comb cases that were meant to hang on the kitchen wall were
decorated with animal carvings. Even kraut cutters and knife boxes were topped
with animal and bird motifs.
The woods used depended on the region. When the
pieces weren't carved from a single piece of wood, the woods were mixed. For
instance, maple and holly, ebony and oak creatures were inlaid.
sea used whale ivory to carve what we call scrimshaw. It, too, is a form of folk
art. Even beef and pork bones from their diet of salt beef and pork were turned
Some of the most expensive kitchen gadgets these days are pie
crimpers and "jaggers", costing hundreds of dollars. Handles showed the artistry
in their depiction of animal and other figures.
Whether the mid-19th century
animal forms of metal are a folk art spin-off or another form is up for debate.
After the 1850s when new casting techniques were developed, animals and other
decorative forms were cast into nutcrackers, hitching-post finials and
doorstops. Even the boot-scraper became a work of art when it was made in the
shape of a cat or dog.
Still around, and not true antiques, are dog-shaped
lawn ornaments. Popular from the 1920s to the '40s, they were painted and made
of both metal and pine.
CLUES: Reproductions and outright fakes abound in
this collecting field. Folk art carving from other countries is often passed off
as American. Other items are brand new with faked aging. Know your dealer. Or,
expect the unexpected. Not everybody appreciates the look of folk art.