A weathervane is a device used for indicating wind direction, and typically features a unique ornament at the top of the device, as well as a small or large globe attached to a long rod, and a “North” and “South” directional guide. The origins of the weathervane date back to 48 BC in Athens where a weather vane honored the Greek god Triton and adorned the Tower of the Winds, which was built by the astronomer Andronicus in 48 B.C. The figure, which is believed to have been 4 to 8 feet long, had the head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish. To the ancients, the winds had divine powers. In Greece and pre-Christian Rome, weather vanes depicting the gods Boreas, Aeolus, Hermes and Mercury decorated the villas of wealthy landowners. Starting the in 9th century, weathervanes were more commonly used and were found on Viking ships and Scandinavian churches.
Weathervanes first became mass-produced during the 19th century, and some of the many famous weathervane manufacturers during the 19th century included L. W. Cushing, J. W. Fiske, Harris & Co., A. L. Jewell & Co. and E. G. Washburne & Co. Many weathervanes from this time period depict animals such as roosters, horses, birds, grasshoppers, dragons or deer, as well as other popular animals and are typically made out of copper or bronze.
Some antique weathervanes may include a “Stanford Arrow,” also known as a church scroll, a banner, a swell or full-bodied sillhoutte.
Copper weathervanes are considered to be the most valuable, but not necessarily the rarest. Weathervanes that were built during the 17th century (or earlier) are considered to be the rarest, as well as weathervanes that were designed by famous manufacturers like Cushing, Fiske or Washburne & Co.
Restoration of an antique weathervane is recommended, but only if there is noticeable damage. However, restoring an antique weathervane may decrease its value.
Weathervane Auction Sales
Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio sold:
A molded copper leaping stag weathervane (circa 1880) for $26,000 in October of 2006.
A copper hollow-bodied grasshopper weathervane (circa late 19th century) for $37,500 in May of 2005.
Sotheby’s in New York sold a fine gilded copper rooster weathervane by J.W. Fiske (circa 1885) for $20,400 in January of 2005.
Kamelot Auctions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania sold a Wilhelm Hunt Diederich sheet iron weathervane featuring polo players for $32,000 in February of 2009.
Wooden Nickel Antiques in Cincinnati, Ohio sold an Equestrian weathervane featuring a racing horse and carriage for $14,500 in July of 2007.
Folk Art Weathervanes
When you see a nice rooster or running horse weathervane with great original surface, you might comment, “What fabulous folk art!”
In reality, most antique weathervanes that collectors buy and sell were actually manufactured in large quantities and marketed to the general public. These weathervanes do not fit the traditional definition of folk art or objects made by a person who wasn’t academically trained working in an isolated area.
Weathervanes were manufactured and gilded with gold to be displayed on the roofs of barns and carriage houses. A weathervane served a clear purpose- to tell the direction the wind was blowing- but it was also a “cherry on the sundae,” one might say. It was meant to look impressive. The weathervane was the pinnacle of a house, the final architectural element to adorn a building.
But not everyone bought their weathervane out of a catalogue. Some vanes are true folk art, fashioned by the homeowner or farmer who needed one but for whatever reason didn’t buy, or couldn’t afford, an expensive gilded weathervane.
Steve Miller says in his book, The Art of the Weathervane, “Beauty is many things to many different people, and one should look upon a weathervane as one looks at any sculpture.” In some cases, true folk art weathervanes almost look like modern art because they suggest a form without a lot of realistic detail.
Whether an antique weathervane is handmade folk art or a company-produced product, the beauty of its form, its condition, and the evidence of age on its surface are the most important factors to consider before a purchase.