As the star of the hit show American Pickers and the owner of the vintage store Antique Archaeology, Mike Wolfe has uncovered his share of folk art treasures across the United States. Ahead of Sotheby's Americana Week auctions, we spoke with him about the unique beauty of weathervanes and jugs, his favourite artists and the advice new collectors should keep in mind.
What is the ongoing appeal of Americana and folk art? Why are people drawn to these categories – is it the connection to history? The homemade quality?
We’re all looking for ways to express ourselves – to give voice to our emotional, psychological, cultural, political or spiritual selves. One of the defining characteristics of folk art is that it’s totally unstudied, unfiltered, unpolished. So when we look at the jug or the painting or the weathervane, we have a visceral reaction – we know we’re seeing something utterly authentic and we’re drawn as much to what we imagine the artist’s story to be as to the piece itself. We hear the voice and we can’t help ourselves.
RALPH FASANELLA, SCHOOLYARD LINE UP. ESTIMATE $15,000–25,000.
What are some of the coolest collections of American folk art that you’ve come across?
I’ve seen some amazing pieces. I’ve been lost in the paintings of the Southern minister Howard Finster. The homemade books and sketches by James Castle celebrate the ordinary, and in his hands and through his eyes they become extraordinary. And then of course there’s Homer Tate. I own a couple of his pieces and yes, they’re bizarre, but they bring light to some very dark places – how great is that?
THE EXORCISM OF A SMALL CHILD. ESTIMATE $80,000–120,000.
Are there any pieces you’ve been on the hunt for?
Ah, I’m a picker. And one of the best ways to pick is to stay open. If you’re focused on finding something specific, you may miss real treasures all around you. So no, I’m not on the hunt for any one thing … I’m just hoping to find a thing that speaks to me, that has a story to tell.
Have you noticed any trends in Americana? Is a certain niche or category really popular now?
Good stuff is good stuff and it’ll always be good. It’s also hard to find. But the really great trend now is toward making spaces reflect individual taste, so you find pieces of folk art unexpectedly in traditional rooms, or in industrial design, and they change the whole feel of the room. Folk art is really personal, and that in itself is a trend. But if you’re asking about specifics, I’d say pottery. It’s the hot thing right now.
STAFFORDSHIRE CREAMWARE TRANSFER-PRINTED AND ENAMELLED JUG, 1804. ESTIMATE $1,500–2,500.
For someone who has an interest in Americana and folk art but is starting totally from scratch, how would you suggest beginning their collection?
Begin by being open. If something calls out to you, try to figure out what it is that you’re hearing, what it is that you love about the piece. If you can be open to that, you’ll be able to feel it in other pieces. That’s a good place to start. If you love a certain artist, or the work of a certain region, go to the local church, talk to people. Most folk artists were really prolific. Their work may be in museums and collections, but there’s a good chance a lot of it may still be in their hometowns, in the cellars and attics and front rooms of friends, cousins and neighbours. Go visit. Ask around. Keep your eyes open.