FOLK art on the horizon; rooftop sculpture that splinters the sky. Weather vanes are Americana - faithful monitors of the fickle breeze, shifting at its every whim. Dutifully, they show the direction of the wind, predict the weather, beautify the landscape.
And they fetch a handsome price.
As examples of American folk art, vanes are breezing into top spots at antiques auctions. Three months ago, an 1860s weather vane of a horse and rider sold for a record $770,000 at Sotheby's in New York City.
``They're finally being recognized as art, as folk sculpture,'' says Elizabeth Warren, curator of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. The most valuable vanes, she says, are one-of-a-kind designs made before 1920.
Weather vanes have dotted the North American horizon since European settlers first arrived, but use of a device to determine wind direction goes back to ancient Greece.
The weather vane, Ms. Warren says, is a combination of the weathercock, a religious symbol that sat atop churches in Europe, and the wind fane, used to show wind direction. Vanes are considered American, she notes, because this is where they reached their greatest development.
Early vanes often indicated the owner's trade or occupation: a cow atop a dairy barn; a whale on a fishing house; a fire engine above the village firehouse. Vanes were seldom put on houses, but on barns, out buildings, and garages where homeowners could see them.
The design is simple: The copper work of art, either cut from flat sheet-metal or a swell-bodied, is perched on a pole. Below is the vane, usually an arrow with a broad fin that catches movement of the air evenly from both sides and forces the point to face into the wind. Beneath this arrow is the four-direction compass.
Purists call them wind vanes. But Bud Tinkham, who has made weather vanes in his shop in Seabrook, N.H., for more than 36 years, calls them weather vanes because they help forecast the weather. ``If the wind goes out northeast,'' he says with an old-timer's wisdom, ``you know you're going to get a storm.''
Mr. Tinkham takes pride in showing visitors around his shop, the Golden Eagle Coppersmiths. One smith, David Fairbanks, is finishing a replica of a 1740s figure of Indian chief Massasoit from Cape Cod. The vane will adorn the top of the town hall in nearby Rowley, Mass.
Most vanes take about three days to finish; retail prices range from $75 to $1,000, although vanes gilded with gold leaf may cost up to $3,000. Tinkham says the most popular design in California is a witch riding a broom; in New England, it's the eagle. His shop has made hundreds of designs: pineapples, lobsters, bears, sea horses, sulkies, owls, judges' gavels, and beavers. Many customers like the aged look, he says, so he turns the copper figures blue by dipping them into a sulfur solution.
To ensure that a design will ``vane'' properly, Tinkham straps it to the back of his pickup truck and speeds down the highway. ``That thing better be pointin' straight ahead!'' he says with a chuckle.
Tinkham's business is slow. He blames a sluggish economy and cheap (machine-made) imports. But his repair business is flourishing. Tinkham notes the irony that a broken antique vane is worth more in its original condition than if it's poorly restored. Most old vanes are in good shape, he says, except for occasional damage like a few bullet holes, which can actually add value. ``A hundred years is nothing for a weather vane!'' he says.
But perhaps no longer: Acid rain is quickly corroding the artistic copper constructions. Shaking his head Tinkham says, ``I've seen more damage done by acid rain in two years than from a hundred years of wind.''
Meanwhile, in Holliston, Mass., the Crowley family has just inherited an 75-year-old weather vane. The vane - a sulky behind a horse - used to sit on Mr. Crowley's great-uncle's barn in Whatley, Mass. Crowley plans to have it appraised, but the real value is sentimental. ``I don't know if I could sell it,'' he says. ``It's a pretty good link with the family. My mother used to spend a lot of time on that farm when she was little.''
If the vane is worth a lot, suggests museum curator Warren, perhaps the owners should keep it inside. The crime of late, she says, is weather vane theft by helicopter, right off the rooftops.