GERMAN FOLK ART: ITS THE FAMILY TREE SPELLED OUT THROUGH HISTORY
Birth & Baptismal certificate, watercolor and ink on paper; by George Burger; $3,346. Photo courtesy of Christie's
Years ago in western New York, I stumbled upon a bible dated 1842 in an antique shop. I bought it right away. It wasn’t the bible so much as what was tucked inside that intrigued me.
Inside was a vintage Pennsylvania German Baptismal certificate. It was a watercolor and ink document on paper bearing a man’s name, his 19th century birth date and a simple heart and hand drawing on each end.
For me it was effortless elegance on a simple piece of paper. It even felt great in my hands.
As long as people marry, bear children, age and die, rites of passage like this have been documented and passed down through history on paper. Religious milestones were an important part of early Pennsylvania German life.
Wave after wave of German settlers arrived on over-crowded ships in the port of Philadelphia in the 17th century. They were lucky. The soil was fertile and they were growers. There was plenty of fieldstone for buildings. There was plenty of clay for roof tiles, lots of wood for furniture making, and just below the soil laid the iron needed for nails, stoves and cooking pots.
It was a land of starting over. It was a land of rebuilding traditions.
Pennsylvania German folk art is often dressed up in hearts, doves, tulips, stars, and angels. Lighthearted and courageously simple, the images have been around for centuries and have an ageless quality.
Everyday objects like grave markers, quilts, painted chests, wall sconces and butter molds carry these decorations. There also show up in the form of huge circular decorations on the walls of the red barns dominating their farms.
Before the mid-19th century, barns went unpainted. But then paint got cheaper and even the most frugal farmer couldn’t resist a coat of Venetian red. Once painted, the flat red barns needed a bit more dressing up.
Massive compass-drawn ornaments in bright red, yellow, green and black were added. It was folk art on a colossal scale that could be seen and enjoyed from near or far.
Even today some of these huge, multicolored barns survive in Pennsylvania counties.
German folk art is about group customs more than individual effort. It’s the family tree spelled out through history in the odds-and-ends that are left behind. Big and small, it’s the spirit of a people. If bold, bright colors are a clue to vim and vigor, then the Pennsylvania Germans had it in spades.
That vitality flowed through all their folk art. That’s what makes it so appealing to collectors today. The value of any individual piece depends on the quality, age, original condition and provenance.
On Jan 17, Christie’s New York featured Pennsylvania German Folk Art at auction from the collection of Rose Anna and John Kolar, two passionate collectors raised in rural Ohio. Here are some current values.
Pennsylvania German Folk Art
Birth and Baptismal certificate; watercolor and ink on paper; for John Zurmdr, Berks County; dated 1795; 12 inches by 15 1/2 inches; $3,346.
Birth and Baptismal certificate; watercolor and ink on paper; for Peter George; attributed to George Gottried Ephraim Burger; dated 1834; 14 3/4 inches by 12 1/2 inches; $3,346.
Gameboard; double-sided; mid-19th century; 16 ¼ inches by 15 ¾ inches; $7,768.
Sampler; Mennonite needlework; Pa., with stylized birds and flowers; signed E.W., dated 1834; $10,755.
Redware loaf dish; glazed oval with coggle wheel rim; Pa., 1775-1800; 11 1/2 inches by 7 ½ inches; $26,290.
Blanket chest; pinwheel motifs against a grained mustard ground, on a green-painted base; York County, Pa., late-18th/early-19th century; 26 3/4 inches by 47 inches; $41,825.
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