Western folk art gems were the highlight of Bonhams Skinner’s “American History in Wood.”
All Images Courtesy Bonhams Skinner
America’s folk artists were un-trained, but often skillful, documenters of American life. Sometimes they recorded everyday occurrences, which can be seen in the paintings of Grandma Moses, and sometimes they recorded historic events, like an unknown artist’s wood carving showing a Pony Express rider. Their media ranged from oil paintings and watercolors to wood. Folk art is something that has fascinated me throughout my career, so I was particularly drawn to the Bonhams Skinner online auction held February 12-22, 2023.
Titled “American History in Wood,” and featuring the Levine Folk Art Collection, the auction had 397 pieces of hand-carved folk art depicting people and events in American history. The pieces ranged across history, from a bas-relief carving showing the arrival of the Vikings in the late 10th century to a carved relief commemorating the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Collected throughout North America, the over 40 pieces depicted characters and events from the American West.
Most of the pieces at the auction were carved by anonymous folk artists, as was often the case. If the piece was signed, revealing the identity of the artist, that often increases the value of a piece. The artistic quality of the art and the age of the piece are also factors by which folk art is evaluated. Among the earliest pieces offered at the auction were three bas-relief carvings of American Indians, all dating from the 19th century, skillfully carved and colorfully decorated. Each sold for over $1,000. A rather crudely carved and painted plaque of a Pony Express rider, while it was interesting subject matter, sold for only $102. That piece was made around the same time that a carving of an American Indian was made. The carving of the Indian, more skillfully carved and identified as to its maker, who lived in Quebec, Canada, brought $1,658.
Most collectors of the West are going to be hard-pressed to find a bargain when it comes to acquiring depictions by Western artists like Charles Russell or Frederic Remington, but one can still find folk art gems for an attainable price. That was the case with the Bonhams Skinner auction of folk carvings, with prices ranging from the low $100 to under $2,000. These artists played their part in portraying both the legendary and the true West.
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