Buying and Selling Collectibles: Folk Art

About the hobby of collecting, buying, and selling old and used items for fun and profit, in this case folk art

Folk Art. In the later 1700s and through most of the 1800s, before photography put them out of business, folk painters roamed America. Itinerants working from donkey carts and knapsacks, they went from door to door offering to paint portraits. Most folk artists had no art training of any kind. They rose from the ranks of house painters, sign painters, and general handymen. But some had real talent and versatility. And they worked everywhere. Average cost for group portraits (all members of a family, plus dogs and cats) was $3 to $25. These were full-sized canvases. Small portraits and miniatures on ivory or wood sold for as little as 25cent.

Large and small, these items followed a pretty standard route. For one or 2 generations they hung proudly on the owner's wall. Then, when the age of photography came along, photos of current family members went up on the walls, sending these old oils to the attic. At that time nobody gave a moment's thought to the possibility of their having any value--and they hadn't. But as they sat in those attics, folk art gradually got discovered. Even the gawkiest, most 2-dimensional canvases have enflamed the passions of art lovers. Folk portraits aren't yet on the Rembrandt level, but they can bring thousands of dollars in the salesrooms. Works by known artists who signed their canvases are especially sought. The "old masters" of American folk art are: Winthrop Chandler; Erastus Field; William Prior; John Brewster; James Sanford Ellsworth; and the celebrated Ammi Phillips.

If any of your distant ancestors had their portraits painted, and the portraits are now in your attic, you might own something valuable.

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