Mr. Sexton, I got these figures while I was attending the Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1969. They were given to me by a resident of Leavenworth the day I left, and I recently took them out of a trunk where they have been since 1969. I have not shown them to anyone other than the family. They are about 18 inches high.
The figures are unique in many ways, especially the conjoined arms at the elbows, which hold the two figures intact. The arms are not joined to the shoulders because they need glue, and I did not want to put the wrong glue on them.
My questions for you: are they North or South? The hair on the drummer, is that unique to any military unit of that time? I wonder about that because I remember a painting of the soldiers that had the same hairstyle. Do these figures have any historical or monetary value?
I appreciate your time and attention and await your reply.
JS: The carvings you obtained in Leavenworth, Kansas, appear to represent a Civil War-era drummer and fifer in military uniform. The pose of the two figures is similar to the famous Archibald Willard painting, Spirit of ’76, the image of which is now part of American popular culture.
When it comes to folk art carvings, it is often difficult to date them when they are not signed or attributed, but based on the use of aluminum for reinforcing bands on the drum, my guess is these date to about World War I (when aluminum became a prominent metal in manufacture and aluminum “trench art” first appeared).
The figures are wearing kepis which reached their peak of popularity during the Civil War, and there are numerous images of Civil War drummers and fifers with their instruments and this headgear, which the artist could have seen for his model. The drummer in Spirit of ’76 also has long hair like the drummer here, though I have no idea where this artist got his inspiration for that.
It is hard to tell from your photographs if these figures were polychrome as the darker-colored portions all seem dried, modeled and flaked.
Someone must have really cared for these figures as can be seen by the wired repair of the drum sling and the repair of the broken shoe to keep it together. The drumheads are missing too, but could easily be restored, but all in all, the figures are complete, down to fingers and drumsticks, which such small details could easily have been broken off.
It is a good carving still in “as found” condition, with the noted condition issues. Valuing folk art is not my field, but I remember a few old carved “Civil War soldiers” selling in a few local and national auctions, and prices were all over the board. My guess as to an auction presale estimate would be about $750-$1,500, but art “is in the eye of the beholder” and in the eye of the folk art dealer and the collector.
The major New York auction houses have offered polychrome figures in better condition for thousands of dollars that were, at least, similar. Garth's auction house in Delaware, Ohio, sold a fine polychrome pair of 15-inch Civil War soldier and sailor for $14,000+ in 2004. More recently, a 12.5-inch figure of a soldier sold at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, N.H., for just over $500 in August 2010. James Julia’s auction in Fairfield, Me., sold a non-painted Civil War enlisted soldier for $1,380 in February of 2011.
None of these prices realized in auction are truly comparable to your pair of figures. This type of art is so individual, it appeals to very specific collectors and dealers. The only way to ascertain the true value would be to sell them at a prominent Americana auction, and then we would see if my estimate of $750-$1500 is correct. If the condition was better or if these were restored before the sale, I would truly expect them to bring above my high estimate.