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What Is Folk Art?

Your antiques questions answered by local experts.
By Donald King Cowan |

Antiques 101
Folk Art

Civil War-era checker set

Q: What qualifies as folk art?
 Folk art is art created by individuals with little or no formal training. It brings together numerous cultural traditions in America. Folk art  most in demand today include early 19th-century portraits and landscapes painted by itinerant, self-taught artists; elaborate hand-carved cigar store Indians and barber poles; hand-painted toleware trays and document boxes; intricate textile works such as quilts, coverlets, and samplers; and a vast range of basketry, boxes, and paint-decorated country furniture and accessories. Many experts and collectors limit their definition of folk art to that produced from the American Revolution to the late 19th century. However, with our country’s rich and diverse heritage, folk art has never stopped being made.

Q: I understand that an original piece is always the most desirable, but what effect does restoration have on value?
A: Of course, the desirability of any antique or piece of folk art depends upon its condition. Also, the piece with the most originality remains the most sought after. Only a highly trained specialist should perform restoration, if needed. When properly done, restoration may lower an object’s value by no more than 25 percent compared to a pristine piece. Poorly done alterations can result in a loss of value from 50 to 75 percent. When in doubt, consult an appraiser before any substantial restoration.

One of a pair of 20th-century brass bookends with inset copper

Q: What is the “next big thing” in the world of folk art?
I have felt for several years that Eskimo art, primarily of the Inuit people, has been underappreciated and undervalued in the antiques marketplace. Tracing roots back nearly 2,000 years to the Bering Sea area between Siberia and Alaska as well as parts of Canada, the art of the Eskimo people reflects their lives as hunters and fishermen and the extensive mythology of their culture. Animal sculptures of soapstone and walrus ivory began being produced in the l940s. These carvings have a smooth surface and stylized abstraction that make them readily recognizable to collectors. Specialty auctions are beginning to bring high prices for this genre, as more and more attention is paid to it. Good examples still surface regularly at local estate sales and area antique shops.

Insider tip: Pick up great examples of Eskimo art at bargain prices in antiques malls in smaller towns across Texas.

Guest editor Donald King Cowan, International Society of Appraisers, is a Dallas antiques dealer, appraiser, and estate liquidator specializing in American furniture, folk art, and decorative accessories. Cowan is the owner of New England Antiques.