Original folk Art Copied
Reproductions of American carved and painted wood folk art from Indonesia are available in large quantities. While early Indonesian reproductions simply imitated general styles, many of the newer objects copy very specific well known pieces.
Two of the pieces shown in this article, Figs. 1 and 3 for example, are taken from well documented originals. Fig. 1 copies a figure from a 19th century ship's mast; Fig. 3 is a reproduction of a mid-19th century slaughterhouse sign. The originals appear in respected books on American folk art and design such as American Folk Sculpture by Robert Bishop and Index of American Design by the National Gallery of Art.
Many of the new pieces can be identified by simple logic. The new piece in Fig. 3, for example, is a copy of a figural trade sign. Yet the item is only 14 inches across. How could anybody possibly see such a small sign? Original trade signs are generally a minimum of 30 inches and larger and built tough to withstand rain, wind and changes in temperature.
New whirligigs can also be identified by their construction. Authentic whirligigs were a type of an outdoor wind toy or novelty. The most common shape was a human figure whose arms were shaped like blades designed to catch the breeze. Originals were many sizes, anywhere from 12 inches up to 4 to 6 feet.
The single feature common to virtually all originals is that blades are linked together so they rotate on a central axle. Blades on the great majority of new whirligigs are not joined into a single assembly which rotates on a central axle. New blades are generally two entirely separate pieces simply pinned into each side of the new figure. Since the new blades are not joined, most new blades can be moved independently of the other. Move one old blade and the entire blade assembly moves (Figs. 7 and 8).
Most new pieces are artificially distressed to imitate natural weathering and aging. There were obvious tool marks on our samples that resemble marks on vintage pieces. Most of the new painted pieces have a primer or filling coat that is visible under chips in the top coat of paint. Vintage folk art rarely has such primers or fillers.
New pieces shown in this article range from $10 to $19 from reproduction wholesalers. The only marks on the new pieces were "Made In The Philippines" paper labels.
Fig. 1 New 14-inch woman with raised sword in carved and painted wood made in Indonesia. A direct copy the 19th century original in Fig. 2 including the colors of paint.
Fig. 2 The original 19th century carved and painted wood mast figure 18½ inches tall from the ship Lottie L. Thomas. Shown and documented in American Folk Sculpture by Robert Bishop.
Fig. 3 Reproduction of the original slaughterhouse trade sign shown in Fig. 4. The reproduction is only 14 inches across, obviously too small to be a practical outdoor sign. Three dimensional in cross section, made of soldered and painted sheet metal with a wood handle on the knife.
Fig. 4 Original full-sized 19th century three dimensional outdoor slaughterhouse sign. The original is made entirely of carved and painted wood. This is a well known sign in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
Figs. 5-6 New whirligig figure of carved and painted wood, 14 inches to top of hat. The arms, or blades, are two separate unconnected pieces. The blades can be posed, but cannot spin as a functional whirligig would (Figs. 7-8).
Figs. 7-8 Blades on authentic functional whirligigs are joined by a connecting rod or axle as shown in Fig. 8. Each blade is positioned 180 degrees from the other. Turning one blade turns the opposite blade. Unlike originals, many reproduction whirligigs are made with two separate unconnected blades which are independently moveable as shown in Fig. 7. New blades are usually attached to the body with a short rod, a pin or simple nail.
Figs. 9-10 New 12-inch man in carved and painted wood. Jointed at shoulders and elbows. Very distressed surface. Detail of head shown in Fig. 9.
Fig. 11 Carved and painted wood pig hinged box, 9 × 5 inches. Solid body is hollowed out; legs and ears are attached.
Fig. 12 New mechanical box, 5 × 4 inches. Pressing the cat's tail raises the lid. The jointed cat's body is cast resin (plastic); the box is wood.
Fig. 13 Most of the new carvings from Indonesia have a thick layer of filler or primer underneath the top coat of paint. This primer layer is white as shown in the example above, or red. The primer coat fills in the pitted surface of the Philippine mahogany used for the new carvings. Chips in the top coat of paint reveal the primer below. Very few genuine pieces of home-made American folk art have primer or filler coats.
Fig. 14 Almost all the new carvings show numerous tool marks like this example. Tool marks alone are not a guarantee of age.
Fig. 15 A few new carvings, like this example, do not have primer coats. Paint chips in artificially worn surface of new pieces without primer coats reveal bare wood underneath.