Whimsical whirligigs caught in the winds of folk art collectors

By Anne Gilbert
For Coastal Antiques & Art

To folk art collectors they are known as “whirligigs,” while museums may also refer to them as windmills. The more complicated or unusual the subject, the higher the value. When 19th century whirligigs make one of their rare auction appearances prices can be in the thousands of dollars.

At a February auction of folk art at Skinner Galleries a 19th-century polychrome carved pine and copper band figure whirligig sold for $10,925. What brought in the big bucks was the good condition of the paint, combined with copper hat, bowtie and buttons, along with glass eyes. At the same auction, an early 20th-century bike rider of painted wood and sheet metal sold for $3,450.

They can still be found in out-of-the-way towns, especially in North Carolina, often by contemporary folk artists who may have been discovered by art galleries. Some artists make them simply because they enjoy the craft.

There is a lawn, just off N.C. 125 in Williamston, N.C., that is literally sprouting whirligigs. Figures of birds and men in a Ferris wheel carved in painted plywood whirl when the wind blows. These whirligigs are the creation and retirement hobby of Andrew Paul Mobley, a true outsider artist.

I stumbled upon his yard of whirligigs a couple of years ago when visiting a relative in this remote North Carolina town. There were birds, bees and Uncle Sam moving in the breeze. I thought I had died and gone to folk art heaven. His prices were $15 to $25. Even the mass-designed whirligigs that are all over North Carolina were more than that. I stuffed three large whirligigs with propellers into the back seat and vowed to return.

Like most outsider art, the whirligigs were made of plywood and materials from dumps and building supply stores. Mobley drew whatever came to mind on scraps of paper then transferred the patterns onto the plywood. And, he signed them. I doubt that he thought of himself as a folk artist, following an American art form dating to the early 19th century. Now they twist and turn on my mountain yard.

Amateurs made the early whirligigs in a primitive style that collectors love. Subjects, then as now, were everything from soldiers to farmers at work. There were two types. A single-figure whirligig had rotating paddle-like arms – usually mounted on a wooden or metal rod that passed through the shoulders of the figure.

Multi-figure whirligigs move by a propeller that turns gears and rods that make the figures move. I see many of these in mountain yards with propellers of plastic fan blades. The figures can be silhouette-type or three-dimensional. Since most have lived their lives outside the paint is often faded, if it has survived at all. When these early examples show up at Americana auctions they sell for thousands of dollars. Even good 20th-century examples fetch hundreds of dollars. As an almost forgotten art form, prices for the most unusual examples just keep going up.

The origins of whirligigs aren’t clear. However, in 19th century Pennsylvania-German communities, religious beliefs forbid children to play with toys on Sunday. The whirligig was one way to keep the children amused. Few whirligigs made in the early 19th century have survived the weather over the years.

Originally brightly colored, whirligig mechanisms were often complicated. Most desirable are those that still work and combine many figures. Those with metal mechanisms should be oiled.

Never mind if the paint has faded. Heavy-handed restoration is a no-no unless done by a professional restorer.

There are plenty of fake whirligigs around. When you see one you like first check to see if it still works or in fact ever did. Fakers often haven’t been able to duplicate the mechanisms. Next, try and determine the age. Since they were originally meant to be outdoors, there should be signs of weathering and wear marks where moveable parts rub against the body. Metal elements should be rusted or corroded. Many contemporary whirligig makers copy old designs that are easily aged when exposed to the elements.

Some contemporary whirligig makers are highly collectible, and have created whirligigs using modern scenes. One, Joe McFall, does amusing and intricate whirligigs and is in the Art Cellar Gallery in Banner Elk, N.C.

One of his creations depicts a girl in a bikini, with a dog, fishing on a pier. When the propeller whirls a giant orange fish moves up and down, along with her fishing pole. It is titled, “Virginia Goes fishing.”

Many serious collectors wouldn’t dream of putting their whirligigs outside where they could be stolen or damaged by the weather. Instead they mount them on metal stands and display them indoors. And, when nobody is looking, they spin the propellers…with care.