Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Originality in Early Western Vehicles

You might want to grab a cup of coffee and sit a spell as this week’s blog is a bit longer than the norm.  It relates to a subject important to all stewards of early vehicles, so I’ve given you a bit more fodder to chew on.  There’s a lot more that can be shared on this subject but, this blog should provide a good start…
One of the things I enjoy doing is evaluating early western vehicles.  Whether you realize it or not, every time you view a set of wheels, you’re also making similar assessments.  As enthusiasts, we all look at different designs, forming conclusions as to their intrigue and desirability.     
So, anytime we’re reviewing one of these wooden workhorses, there are a number of basic questions that can come to mind. Thoughts like... How old is it?  Who made it?  Where was it used?  What was it used for?  Is anything broken, weakened, damaged, or missing?  And, just as critical for collectors – How ‘original’ is it?  Each of these questions can be helpful when determining a vehicle’s provenance, personality, and price point. 
From my experience, some of the most common references to wooden vehicles seem bent on attaching extreme originality to the piece.  In fact, I believe the catchphrase, “All-Original,” is so frequently misapplied that it often carries only a partial vein of truth.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love all-original vehicles and there are some nice surviving examples.  However, it’s a tough description to live up to and many simply do not.  The reason for that is that most extant, wood-wheeled western vehicles are going to be 75 years or more in age.  A lot has likely happened to a vehicle that’s been around for at least three-quarters of a century and many of those occurrences can leave the old transport in far less than ‘all-original’ condition.  Numerous parts of the whole are regularly lost, replaced, or have deteriorated to the point they are no longer salvageable.
It should be noted that if a vehicle is deemed to be less than ‘all-original,’ that does not necessarily mean that it has suffered any loss in resale value, desirability, or importance.  Truth is, early vehicle values and historical significance are contingent on a host of qualifications and any tendency to place unbounded importance on a single trait can lead to missed opportunities as well as misunderstandings. 
Clearly, there are different levels (amounts) of originality in most early vehicles we see.  For example, a piece may be fortunate to still contain all of its original components but it may have been repainted at some point.  Even if this was done 80 years ago by the farmer using the wagon, the term ‘all-original’ cannot legitimately be applied to a vehicle carrying a finish that was applied well after its initial production.  Terms such as ‘authentic,’ ‘period correct,’ or even ‘historically accurate’ might be more suitable – depending on the piece and its makeup. 

The term, “All-Original,” tends to infer that the vehicle is still comprised of the same pieces that came from the factory/shop that built it or the retailer that initially sold it.  To that point, I regularly receive questions asking if wagon running gears and boxes could have been mixed from the start of their lives together.  In other words, can a piece be ‘original’ if it is made up of one brand of running gear mated to a box from a different brand?  Yes, this did happen and, yes, I have evidence of it occurring.  There are multiple ways that it took place.  In one scenario, a dealer may have put different pieces together and sold it to a consumer not particularly swayed by one brand over another – they just needed a good box and gear.  Many early dealers sold multiple brands of wagons, making this a very understandable occurrence.  In another situation, a customer may have had a good box and needed a replacement gear (or vice versa).  It reminds me of the time our washing machine went out.  The dryer was still good so we kept it but when we went to buy a new washer, we ended up getting a different brand than what had previously accompanied the washer (Economics sometimes win out over brand consistency).  Most can relate to an end user not spending unnecessary monies just to keep things perfectly aligned by brand.  In both cases I've mentioned, the collective grouping is represented as it was acquired by the consumer. 
I’ll extend a friendly word of advice here… The occasional mixing of brands by some in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is is not a license for modern-day collectors to mismatch pieces willy-nilly.  Likewise, I would counsel strong caution to anyone attempting to elevate vehicle perceptions and values by misrepresenting pieces in a similar fashion.  There are numerous ways to confirm originality of multi-brand parts making up a single vehicle.  Fraud can always be spotted by those who know what to look for and, as part of our Authentication Services, I have pointed out such circumstances to clients in the past.
Normal wear and tear (including paint fading & loss) is typically part of a vehicle’s originality but some additions and deletions are not.  For example… while a crack in the original wood floor is part of the wagon’s use, age, and character, a replaced floor is just that – a replacement.  Again, it is not necessarily a negative element for the wagon.  It merely requires us to be mindful of how we refer to the piece.  Likewise, a wagon is not “all-original” if it has had its wheels cut down, end gates replaced, or even had something as small as new bow staples recently installed.  Again, these points are not meant to declare something as a negative but rather cause us to think twice about how we use and think of the terms such as ‘all-original.’ 
As a collector, I typically like a piece to be as original as possible but I certainly won’t shy away from an exceptional piece just because it has had a few repairs or is missing some of its parts.  In fact, if you’re looking for a piece that is 100% perfect, you will likely grow gray-headed and toothless waiting for what may be the fulfillment of unrealistic and unwarranted expectations.   
Ultimately, there are a number of considerations that go into any evaluation focused on originality levels of a particular vehicle.  Start to finish, it’s not a process that should be taken lightly or approached with personal agendas. 

Coming Soon... We'll look at early vehicle "Authenticity" and examine how it relates to "Originality".  Have a great week! 

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