Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Antique Horse Drawn Wagons

Recently, a friend pointed out a high wheel, wood wagon advertised on the internet.  The description of the vehicle claimed it to be a certain brand.  At first glance, it looked like a decent barn-find at a suitable price.  Upon closer inspection, though, it became clear that the wagon was an assortment of mismatched parts – very likely NOT a true ‘barn-find’ as stated in the ad.  It’s an important observation as the non-original condition negatively affected the collectable value of the piece.  It was another reminder of just how careful collectors need to be as well as how convoluted the evaluation process can be.

I’m often asked to identify, date, and assess the originality of vehicles.  Many times, there is an expectation that the job should be fairly straight-forward and easy.  Done thoroughly, though, there is nothing simple about it.  In a detailed review, every part should be noted and confirmed as a match to both a specific era and brand.  At times, that can be a tall order to fill.  Why?  Because, we’re talking about an industry that lasted over 200 years, included tens of thousands of makers, and produced countless variations in vehicle sizes, styles, technologies, and construction features. 

Original maker photos and catalog images can be extremely helpful when evaluating a surviving wagon from the same builder and era. 

When it comes to making sense of it all, the vast scope of nineteenth and early twentieth century wagon production numbers seem to label this as an impossible subject to get a handle on.  It’s why, for the last two-plus decades, we’ve been heavy collectors of early photos and industry materials.  The sheer volume of data has given us the privilege of studying and recognizing the evolutionary moves of individual brands as well as shifts within the overall industry.  That awareness of specific details continues to assist in our own collecting prowess as well as helping those who have reached out to us for assistance. 

A few cases in point… Years ago, I was told there were no more than a few thousand builders in this industry – maybe 8 or 10 thousand at the very most.  Then, we uncovered multiple, primary source accounts putting the number of nineteenth century vehicle makers well into the tens of thousands.  The details made it clear that the days of this industry were more competitive and complicated than many had originally thought.  In another instance, I was once told that Peter Schuttler is a brand that never changed its wagon construction or designs.  Since then, I’ve heard that statement a number of times and ‘no’ it is not true.  Thimble skeins, according to some, supposedly were not used until the days of the Civil War.  Unfortunately, it’s just one more of the many false perceptions that have been repeated enough that they’re sometimes accepted as non-supported truths.

At the end of the day, digging through these myths and helping set the records straight with primary source documentation is at the core of our mission.  After all, the integrity levels of a vehicle (originality, condition, authenticity, completeness, and notable features) have just as much – and maybe more – to do with the overall value as the brand, age, type, and personal provenance of a set of wheels.    

Like so many others, Peter Schuttler claimed to offer the best wagon a person could buy.  As is the case today, consumers had to do their homework to determine which brand was truly the best fit for their needs.

So, when it comes to collecting early wagons...  Who was the best?  How many were made?  Where were they sold?  When did a particular brand cease building vehicles?  Why were certain designs used by some versus the different configurations of others?  There are countless questions regularly asked.  Some, like the first one in this paragraph, can be subjective.  Others, have a more decisive and historical response.  The more we understand about a particular brand as well as the industry, itself, the easier it is to make solid investment choices. 

Ultimately, every part of these wood-framed vehicles has a story to tell.  If we’re looking at a piece with intent for it to become part of a respected collection, it’s important to slow down and ‘listen’ to what every element is saying.  In the end, a careful and supportable analysis can mean all the difference between acquiring an average versus exceptional piece.  

If all goes as planned, next week, we'll share a unique story highlighting the role of wagons as they helped save a legendary part of the American West!  See ya then!  

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Have a good week!

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