Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Recognizing Originality in Early Wagons

In last week’s blog, I featured a number of visual highlights from Tom and Betty Watt’s antique vehicle auction in Colorado.  It was a great experience to be surrounded by such a strong collection and good folks from all parts of the country.  What I didn’t have time to mention last week were the numerous wagon questions posed to me while at the sale.  It’s a scenario that’s always a welcome exchange.  I enjoy seeing strong interest in these wheels as well as the opportunity to pass along early vehicle insights.  In truth, the questions also have a way of making me stronger in the subject.  They help keep me on task and more studied.  That said, if I don’t know something, I’ll say so.  After all, even after intensely researching this subject for the better part of a quarter century, there’s one thing I definitely do know – I don’t know it all.  The subject is so large that there will always be more waiting to be discovered and understood.  That said, if I’m stumped on a point, the curiosity factor tends to bug me until I’ve dug deep enough to learn more. 

One of the most commonly-asked questions I receive goes along the lines of, “How do you know what’s original on an old wagon?”  It’s a great inquiry that can be answered quickly or with a much more detailed reply – depending on the level of interest.  Simply put, we recognize originality by continually and meticulously studying originality.  While that may sound like a frivolous play on words, the reality is that it’s dead-on accurate.  Consider this – how do U.S. Treasury officials come to understand whether a piece of currency is counterfeit or the genuine article?  A significant part of the answer is that the agents become so close to and familiar with the original that anything less is immediately recognized as suspect.  That’s the exact focus I’ve had for decades.  It’s also the reason I’ve backed away from some purchases for our collection.  There were just too many elements in the vehicle’s fit, finish, and features that weren’t right.  

From the start, this subject has prodded me to always want to know more.  In fact, it can still absorb the vast majority of my extracurricular time.  It was the same story in those early days as I concentrated on soaking up as much knowledge as possible.  Simultaneously, the collecting efforts grew with first one, then two, then dozens, then hundreds, and now literally thousands of period artifacts.  Along the way, something began to happen.  All those original catalogs, flyers, ledgers, photos, and other promotional pieces were getting stored in my recall.  It became easier to recognize more and more of the distinctive design features promoted by early builders.  The old makers were tutoring me and the seeds of brand identification were taking root.  As the historic images and literature began to accumulate, I started noticing industry trends as well as the implementation of patents and the evolutionary changes in brands.  Likewise, these revelations were pointing to who did what and when – all of it being vital to the process of determining timeframes of manufacture and additional provenance.  Ultimately, it’s important to remember that every wooden wagon and western vehicle is unique.  Even if two vehicles of the same brand are side by side, there will be differences.  Some of those variations will be reflected in different ages and use patterns while others may be indicative of a regional style of vehicle, a different set of features and accessories, or some other attribute.

Most of these points will be of minimal importance if all someone is only looking for is a good, solid set of wheels for driving or, perhaps, a static display.  That said, if you’re looking for something that has the best chance of truly standing out in a crowd and growing in value over the years, you will have to consider the subject of originality.  The best way to learn is to dive in.  Ask questions.  Be discerning.  Be thorough.  Be patient and learn to recognize what distinguishes the scarcest pieces – those high quality, brand-central survivors that seldom come along.  A word of caution... this is not a subject that can be mastered overnight.  So, settle in and start the learning process.  Dissect every piece you see, observing differences and noting anything that appears to be a modern addition.  At the end of the day, it’s hard for buyer’s remorse to creep into our thoughts if we’ve done our homework, avoid getting in a hurry, and understand exactly what we want to acquire. 

As for me, when I look at these old transports in an auction or private setting, I automatically go into evaluation mode; looking for anything that doesn’t measure up.  It might be a missing part, amalgamation of parts, contemporary adaptation, veiled weakness, or some other flaw.  Finding rolling works of art with the fewest imperfections and strongest documented provenance is a priority in my quest.  Oh, and by the way, you’ll never find a totally perfect piece.  Most of these vehicles are either near or over a century in age.  Things happen over the decades that make it hard to remain pristine.  Every time I look in the mirror at my thinning head of hair, I recognize that truth.  Reinforcing that point... one of the prized pieces in our collection is a nineteenth century Cooper brand wagon.  It’s far from being perfect, has a lot of wear issues, and even a few sad-looking felloes.  All in all, though, those details are pretty common among many survivors.  What’s attractive to me is not only the legendary brand but the age of the piece and the design features shown.  This Cooper is a significant find from a time when the West was still wild.  As such, it’s a scarce set of wheels to find in any condition.      

While most folks will tend to look at a vehicle as a whole and ignore the individual parts, my tendency is to go for the jugular.  In other words, I’ve learned to hone in on specific details as well as any inconsistent elements.  Here’s a couple points of reference – do all of the bolster standards match?  What about the end gates?  Are they all there and matching?  How about the front and rear portions of the running gear?  Are they consistent with the brand?  Sometimes a sizeable number of different sections from different vehicles wind up together, creating a jumbled hodgepodge of parts.  Evaluation tips like these and many more are among the details I’m happy to help with.  On other points, I’m less transparent with what becomes public knowledge.  Why?  Well, over the years, I’ve seen a number of attempts to place perception ahead of reality.  In fact, as many of these old wheels have become even more scarce (and valuable), the temptation to misrepresent something is hard for some unscrupulous souls to resist.  How do I know this?  Believe it or not, some of them have been bold enough to tell me they’re confident that they can put one over on anyone.  For some, this game of cat and mouse is just that – a game.  For me, it’s as serious as any effort dedicated to preserving the integrity of authentic history while maintaining trustworthy investments.  Fortunately, most people are honest but, it’s a reminder of the importance of working with quality, well-established folks.
Sometimes it can be difficult to confirm originality without sufficient primary source materials or extensive experience.  Again, it’s why we’ve assembled so much background on these vintage vehicles.   Even so, there are some important general guidelines that can help all of us avoid purchase pitfalls when reviewing a set of wheels... 

Non-Supported Word-of-Mouth Provenance – Like many readers of this blog, I regularly hear stories about how a particular vehicle was used by such and such person or traveled West during a certain time frame.  While the statements might be true, in order for it to have pertinence to collectors, there must be primary source documentation such as a photo, news article, signed affidavit from the period, or some other document bringing clear corroboration and certification to a statement.  This sort of recorded verification is valuable as it helps highlight the distinctive personality and story behind a set of wheels.  To that point, I once told a collector that I possessed the full ownership records of a wagon in his collection.  I had once owned the piece and would have been happy to have given him that information.  Regrettably, he had no interest in where the wagon had been, how it had been used, how much it had sold for at different times in its life, who had owned it, and their associated contact information.  It’s like saying I’m not interested in the personality that separates this vehicle from another.  Truthfully, that kind of detail is hard to come by and important to have – if you can get it.

Non-Supported Statements of Absolutes – We have to be very careful when using words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ to describe what a particular maker did or didn’t do.  When a statement can’t be objectively supported, it can create confusion.  I once heard someone say that the well-known Peter Schuttler farm wagon design was never changed throughout its history.  It’s not a true statement.  There were a number of changes and it’s one more reason to explore every era of a maker’s history.

Brand Identification Based on Minimal Points of Reference – We live in a society that tends to want everything quick.  We don’t want to wait for anything.  When it comes to early vehicle identification, the desire for hasty results is an impetuous temptation that can easily land you in a pool of regret.  Nonetheless, as a researcher, historian, and consultant, I regularly run into folks wanting me to identify a piece based on one or two features.  It’s not something I do because there are too many opportunities to jump to conclusions with an inaccurate assessment.  The individual parts and the resulting sum of the whole will always be the most accurate way to conclusively identify a maker. 

Unsupportable Timeframes of Manufacture – Over the years, I’ve heard countless claims related to dates; an 1870 this, 1880 that, or even a pre-Civil War creation claim.  One of the more prevalent manufacturing date assertions I’ve heard is that of a purportedly 1880’s-era John Deere wagon.  Before getting into the details of why this type of statement is suspect, I have often asked folks how such a date was determined.  In every instance, the date was a ‘best guess’ with no objective use of primary sources in the conclusion.  Many times, these suppositions are innocently made.  Nonetheless, they are far from the truth.  As for John Deere-branded wagons (including John Deere Triumph), they were not marketed until after the purchase of the Moline Wagon Company in 1910.  These types of claims can often be debunked with just a little research to determine when a company started building wagons.  For the record, there were a number of wagon companies with ‘establishment dates’ that do not coincide with the time when their first wagons were built.  Birdsell is a good example.  The company traced its beginnings to 1855 but they didn’t build their first farm wagon until 1887.

Mixed elements within a running gear or box – Not long ago, I was reviewing some wagons in a museum.  One, in particular, caught my eye.  Not because it was an outstanding survivor but, rather, because it was a poor reflection of what it was set up to represent.  It was supposed to be an early emigrant wagon.  Instead, it was a mixture of multiple wagon brands woven into a wide array of modern (non-period) adaptations.  My heart sank as these are the places where genuine history is supposed to be of foremost concern.  It’s our opportunity to reach the masses with reality.  After all, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do our best to get the story right.  If not, what’s the reason for our efforts?    

If I could only emphasize one point in this week’s blog, I’d try to relay how important it is to really get to know a piece before you buy it.  Not only is it good business sense but it can add lasting appreciation for you as well as subsequent owners.   

America’s first transportation industry and the vehicles built during that time are not only the historical backbone of this country’s amazing growth but they also represent tremendous personal struggle, achievement, freedom, and opportunity.  The old master craftsmen were inextricably connected to immigration into this land as well as exportation into others.  Likewise, the subject highlights the study of math, science, geography, forestry, construction, manufacturing efficiencies, free enterprise, marketing, mining, the military, and well, just about any part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries you can imagine.  Talk about a subject with near endless stories!  And they’re all wrapped up in a frame of wood, metal, and paint – just waiting for you to take a closer look.  The American story and the West, in particular, are about as original as you can get.  If originality is not among your priorities when collecting, it will be tough to experience the most that these investments can provide.  So, build your knowledge base, get help when you need it, and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing exactly what surrounds you. 

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