Weather vanes that once gracefully silhouetted against city and rural skies are going under cover. These objects, which have served as functional weather indicators as well as architectural ornaments from Colonial times to the present , have found a new value as American folk art. They are now displayed in interiors as choice examples of earlier American sculpture.
An exhibition called "The Art of the heltathervane" at the Museum of American Folk Art, 49 West 53rd Street, is stirring additional interest in the weather vane as a work of artistic creation. Adele Earnest, an art historian who assembled the 50 historic vanes for the museum show (which will be open through Feb. 24), recently explained the fine points of craft and techniques used in making the vintage vanes to hundreds of New Yorkers at the Sotheby Parke Bernet auction gallery.
Weather vanes first came to America with the European settlers, and the earliest example in America is thought to be the weathercock on a church in Albany, N.Y., which was brought from Holland in 1656. The original is now inside and a replica on the outside.
Vanes were designed by Thomas Jefferson and can still be seen at his home, Monticello, and on buildings at the University of Virginia. And vanes designed by Benjamin Franklin can still be seen on churches and public buildings in Massachusetts and Vermont.
Probably the most famous one in the United States is the copper grasshopper fashioned by Shem Drowne in 1749 for Faneuil Hall in Boston, where it is still installed. Mr. Drowne, who lived in Boston from 1683 to 1774, also made the weather vane that continues to adorn Boston's Old North Church. The early metalsmith's famous 53-inch-high bronze and gilded vane, shaped like an Indian archer, was made in 1716 for the Peter-Sargent mansion in Boston. It is being shown in the museum exhibition here, on loan from the Massachusetts Historical society.
While the latter half of the 19th century is considered the golden age of weather vanes in America, one company, Kenneth Lynch & Sons of Wilton, Conn., survives and is still producing weather vanes in the old manner. Kenneth Lynch says his family business goes back 150 years. He joined the firm in 1917, and he and his craftsmen have continued to produce vanes all through the years. They sell today at from $105 to more than $10,000.
Mr. Lynch is a master ironworker, armorer, and weather-vane maker, and there aren't too many of his kind left. His company is unique today, although individual craftsmen in various areas continued to make and sell weather vanes. One New York store, Hammacher Schlemmer, says it has been doing a lively business in handcrafted, wroughtcopper weather vanes listed at $595 each in the store's winter catalog.
Genuine old weather vanes are becoming more scarce and more expensive. According to Russell Carrell, who manages antique shows across the country, the lowest price today for antique vanes would be about $500, and many are available in the $2,000-to-$3,000 range.
Gerald Kornblau, a New York dealer, recently showed an 1860 rooster vane made of sheet metal with its original gilding for $2,800, and Marguerite Riordan, a dealer from Stonington, Conn., displayed vanes ranging from a sheet iron rooster for $450 to a weathered and rusty galloping horse almost seven feet long, tagged at $3,500. A three-dimensional yellow horse vane offered by James and Nancy Glazer of Philadelphia is in prime condition and priced at $17,000.
Last year at Sotheby's, a handmade, one- of-a-kind weather-vane figure of an Indian standing on a large arrow brought $25,000, a world record.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century weather vanes are carved from wooden boards or fashioned of plain sheet iron, copper, zinc, tin, and brass. Early vanes were made by hand, although about the middle of the 19th century handcrafting and mechanized methods were combined. Numerous manufacturers flourished during the latter part of the 19th century in New England and New York State.
As motifs these companies used eagles and roosters, barnyard animals, fish and ships, mythological and religious figures, and, later, trains, airplanes, fire engines, arrows, bannerets, scrolls, figures of people, and patriotic figures such as the "goddess of liberty."
Weather vanes are collected for their qualities of good design and craftsmanship. their vigor and orginality place them among the best of this country's artistic achievements, says Charles Klamkin, author of the book "Weather Vanes."
Both Mr. Klamkin and Nancy Druckner, curator of Americana at Sotheby's, warn buyers to beware of fakes and forgeries. Mr. Klamkin says, "Unless there is adequate documentation as to who made the primitive weather vane, when it was made, and where it was situated, as well as the circumstances of its removal, buying these vanes involves a certain degree of risk." They are, he says, difficult to authenticate, but often simple to duplicate.