Artists without formal art training have been producing folk art for
centuries. But it wasn't until 1924 that the first American folk art
exhibition was held at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art (then
called the Whitney Studio Club). The genre has been growing in popularity
since the 1920s, and now interest in American folk art is at an all time high.
Some dealers and artists are cashing in by passing off newer pieces as century old folk art.
Here we highlight five questions to ask about folk art, to ensure what you're paying for:
Is it signed?
Most folk art
isn't, so be cautious if the painting has a signature. Signatures from
well-known folk artists, such as Ammi Phillips or Joseph Whiting
Stock, are often forged. Use a reference book to compare the signature
on the painting to a real one.
What's the back look like?
It's difficult to
estimate the age of an unsigned and undated painting. For a clue, take
the painting off the wall and inspect the back. The stretcher, lining,
and other physical materials are good indicators of age. Some
paintings that appear to be folk art were manufactured within the last
30 to 40 years. New-looking materials are a good tipoff.
Where was it made?
Stylistic characteristics of a painting
can indicate where it was created. Some regional styles — the Prior-Hamblin
school of Fall River, Massachusetts for example — are more
recognizable and sell for higher prices.
How old is the subject?
Many folk art paintings are
portraits, and those of children are more sought after than images of
the elderly. Often a child is depicted holding a toy or flower, which
can be a symbol of innocence or the child's death. Portraits of
children are generally considered more charming than those of adults,
and charm is what sells folk art. Because the artist is often
difficult to identify, folk art is appreciated mainly for its
What's the price?
Folk art has become so popular in
recent years that it's difficult to find a "sleeper."
Underpriced paintings are rare, and a buyer is hard pressed to find a
painting in good condition for less than $1,000 to $2,000.