Buying a Piece of The Kingdom

While other traditional collecting sectors seem stuck in the doldrums, American folk art is running hot.

In the field of American folk art, no work is more beloved than Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom. The sign painter and Quaker preacher from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, did more than 60 versions of the subject between 1820 and his death in 1849. In the paintings, wild animals mingle with apple-cheeked children in a bucolic landscape, while William Penn, the prominent Quaker and founder of the artist's home state, negotiates a treaty with Indians in the distance.

The imagery in the foreground was inspired by a passage in the Book of Isaiah prophesying a world of peace and harmony in which "the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid...and a little child shall lead them." For David Wheatcroft, a folk art dealer in Westborough, Massachusetts, "it's a resonant theme, the innocent children portrayed amid the wild beasts. But it's more than that. The composition has a crispness and clarity; it has a rhythmic order."

As many of the Peaceable Kingdoms are owned by museums, it's an event when one comes on the market. This month buyers get a crack at one of Hicks's last versions, painted in 1847, when it goes on the block at Sotheby's. The auction house expects the painting to fetch $2 million to $3 million. Peter Tillou, a dealer in Litchfield, Connecticut, had been planning to make another example, from 1830-32, the centerpiece of his booth at this month's Winter Antiques Show, but an insistent collector snapped it up beforehand for an undisclosed sum. Tillou's asking price: more than $3 million.

Such hefty sums, more often associated with marquee names in modern and contemporary art, underscore the jump in prices for the best 18th- and 19th-century folk paintings. After a dip in the first half of the nineties, folk art has been on the rise. When the September 11 terrorist attacks prompted an inward-turning, patriotic surge in demand for homegrown art, the field got a little extra boost. And a few years later, while other traditional collecting sectors are stuck in the doldrums, American folk art is running hot.

Despite its brand appeal, folk painting is a small field with a finite supply of great pictures. Hicks belongs to a coterie of the most sought-after folk painters that also includes John Brewster Jr., Ammi Phillips, Sheldon Peck, William Matthew Prior, and Ruth and Samuel Shute. "These artists are the makers of the money pictures," explains Fred Giampietro, a dealer in New Haven, Connecticut. "They each have a uniqueness of image and an easily identifiable style."

Most of these artists specialized in portraiture. As a result, portraits account for the bulk of folk paintings on the market today, although landscapes, still lifes, and domestic or historical scenes can be found, too. Middling works will go for a few thousand dollars, but major names can run well into the six figures—or, as with Hicks, even higher.

Condition is key, and collectors like paintings that are as close to their original state as possible. Overcleaning or poor restoration can seriously diminish a work's value. When it comes to portraits, says Stephen Fletcher, an expert at Skinner auction house in Boston, it helps if the sitter is "attractive, youngish, colorful, and eye-catching." He adds, "No one wants 'Yankee crankies.'"

The star of Giampietro's stand at the Winter Antiques Show is a rare Brewster portrait of Mary Coffin, from around 1810, which is priced at $185,000. The little girl's bulging blue eyes, flaxen hair, and white dress are rendered in a flat, strikingly modern manner emphasized by a monochrome brown backdrop.

"You can see why postwar art collectors who like Picasso like folk art," says Christie's Americana expert John Hays. "It's stylized, fun, and without shade and shadow. It's not trying to be modeled in an academic sense."

Boston dealer Stephen Score says he sees a lot of interest from contemporary art collectors. "What attracts them to folk art is the aesthetic shorthand that places a high value on line and color and unfussy directness," he explains. "Folk artists dispensed with correct anatomy, the exact texture of cloth, the requirements of perspective in exchange for beautiful designs and the depiction of character that's often penetrating in the simplest, most economical way."

While there are certain basic qualities folk collectors look for—spontaneity, whimsy, optimism—specialists tend to define a good example the way the Supreme Court once defined pornography: You know it when you see it. Nancy Druckman of Sotheby's sums it up this way: "It's got to have visual zip."

This month Christie's is selling a trio of late-18th century folk portraits depicting the son and two grandchildren of Roger Sherman, a signer of the Declaration of Inde pendence and the Constitution. "So many portraits of the well-to-do mimic English style, but these have a character that is distinctly American," says Christie's folk art head Margot Rosenberg, noting their homespun quality. The paintings are expected to fetch $100,000 to $250,000 each.

Sotheby's has a few high-quality folk paintings, among them a late-19th-century canvas attributed to Henry Dousa depicting an Ohio farmhouse (estimate: $60,000 to $80,000). But the auction house's biggest highlight by far is the Hicks Peaceable Kingdom. The painting is from the collection of the late Philadelphia dealer Robert Carlen, who kept only this one out of the 35 Peaceable Kingdoms he handled over the years. Sotheby's Druckman calls it the "most psychologically insightful" version that Hicks painted. Still, few expect it to challenge the record for a Peaceable Kingdom, the $4. 7 million paid (reportedly by Richard Mellon Scaife) at Christie's in 1999.

Sotheby's is counting on the work's undeniable iconic appeal, which extends well beyond the folk art world. "It is the quintessential evocation of our country's best values," Druckman says."The subject matter strikes a responsive chord in any kind of American collector."


On the Market

If you're serious about American folk art, New York City is the place to be in late January. Both CHRISTIE'S and SOTHEBY'S offer important folk works as part of their multiday auctions of Ameri-can furniture, paintings, and decorative arts. These are the field's biggest annual sales, when the Big Two houses put their finest property on the block, all the major players are in town, and records are smashed.

Equally important are two overlapping fairs. Lasting ten days, the WINTER ANTIQUES SHOW, a New York fixture for five decades, features more European material than it once did, but the 74 exhibiting dealers include 28 Americana specialists. The smaller, less glamorous four-day AMERICAN ANTIQUES SHOW, started five years ago to benefit Manhattan's American Folk Art Museum, attracts serious collectors, as all 43 exhibitors focus only on American antiques and folk art.

SOTHEBY'S AMERICANA SALES From January 20 to 22. www.sothebys.com

CHRISTIE'S AMERICANA SALES January 20 and 21. www.christies.com

WINTER ANTIQUES SHOW From January 20 to 29. 718-292-7392; www.winterantiquesshow.com

THE AMERICAN ANTIQUES SHOW From January 19 to 22. 212-977-7170, ext. 319; www.folkartmuseum.org


Dealers to Know

FRED GIAMPIETRO An intellectual, business-savvy veteran with an unfaltering eye, he's better known for sculpture than for paintings. New Haven, CT; 203-787-3851; www.fredgiampietro.com

JAMES AND NANCY GLAZER Connoisseurs with a competitive edge, the couple bring an almost scholarly approach to every thing they deal in. Bailey Island, ME; 207-8336973; www.glazerantiques.com

OLDE HOPE ANTIQUES Patrick Bell and Edwin Hild sell eye-popping pieces—at prices to match—from an appointment-only shop on Peaceable Farm. New Hope, PA; 215297-0200; www.oldehope.com

BARBARA POLLACK The dealership she founded with her late husband is the clear leader in the Midwest, thanks to her impeccable taste and top-quality offerings. Highland Park, IL; 847-433-2213

MARGUERITE RIORDAN A doyenne of the folk field, she's a ramrod-straight purist with the highest standards. Having her name on a provenance can add value to a work. Stonington, CT; 860-535-2511

DAVID SCHORSCH The son of a dealer, he grew up around the business and is admired for his first-rate eye, fiery intensity, and encyclopedic knowledge. Woodbury, CT; 203-263-3131

STEPHEN SCORE Charming and sharp as a razor, he's the consummate salesman. He has high-quality pieces and he gets top prices. Boston; 617-227-9192

PETER TILLOU An avuncular elder statesman for the field, he has wide-ranging tastes and a great personal collection that runs from folk art to Old Masters paintings. He's always a source for hidden treasures. Litchfield, CT; 860-567-5706

DAVID WHEATCROFT Knowledgeable, passionate, and a pleasure to work with, he advises some of the biggest collectors in the folk art world yet remains very down-to-earth. Westborough, MA, 508-366-1723, www.davidwheatcroft.com


Different Strokes

What defines folk art and distinguishes it from fine art is the fact that it was created by an artist without academic training. While some of the best-known folk painters made their living with a paintbrush, they were never taught the tricks of the schooled artist's trade: how to model human features in a naturalistic manner with light and shading, or how to render perspective to create a sense of spatial depth. Consider one of this season's auction gems, a portrait of George Washington, which is expected to bring $10 million to $15 million when it goes on sale at Christie's on January 21. Painted in 1779 by Charles Willson Peale in the grand, heroic style of European military portraits, it depicts the future first president with Nassau Hall in the background and Hessian flags near his feet—references to pivotal victories at Trenton and Princeton. The work is the epitome of academic convention. The folk artist, by contrast, "was much more inclined toward spontaneity and stylizing things, says Christie's expert John Hays. Of course, those are the very qualities that contemporary viewers admire in folk art. Boston dealer Stephen Score notes, "Many of the collectors I sell to can afford Copleys, Gilbert Stuarts, Sargents, but they want the simplicity and directness of great folk art.