Antiques: Eyeing Eagles

Although renowned for his wit and wisdom, founding father Benjamin Franklin was wrong about at least one thing: The turkey would have been a terrible choice for America’s national symbol. Since 1782, when the bald eagle was included in the country’s official seal, artists have depicted the bird spreading its wings, soaring alongside the American flag, or clutching the arrows of war and the olive branch of peace in its talons. When viewing the most stirring of these eagle-themed artworks, it is difficult to imagine the turkey eliciting a similar response.

While significant events such as the 1876 centennial drove artists to produce and collectors to seek images of eagles, experts in the Americana field agree that demand has been steady throughout the country’s history. The finest examples transcend patriotic sentiment, they say, and are valued for their artistic merit.

Because of the generally anonymous nature of folk art and the classification into which many of the eagle-oriented and other patriotic pieces fall, the authors of many of these items never achieve any acclaim, but occasionally some are discovered, albeit posthumously. One artist, George Stapf, arrived on the scene dramatically last fall when a descendant of his, G. Craig Caba, produced evidence proving Stapf had carved an eagle attributed to John Haley Bellamy, a New Englander who specialized in eagles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Stapf, a Pennsylvanian whose eagle-carving career overlapped Bellamy’s, previously was known for building spiral staircases. Caba’s revelation prompted a reevaluation of pieces credited to Bellamy, and several notable ones have since been reassigned to Stapf. Among them is a plaque, described as a Bellamy at the time, that caused a commotion in 1980 when it sold at Sotheby’s New York for $42,900 (equaling about $108,950 today). Sotheby’s sold another eagle plaque, identified as “New England c. 1860,” for $13,000 in January 1981 and then sold it again this past May, when it was attributed to Stapf, with a presale estimate from $20,000 to $30,000.

Leigh Keno, a Manhattan antiques dealer who specializes in Americana, is intrigued by Caba’s findings. “It’s exciting, it’s a good thing, and it makes sense, [because] we couldn’t figure out why [these Bellamys] were different,” says Keno, explaining that Bellamy’s works appear more stylized than those of Stapf, which feature wavy flags with individually applied wooden stars. Keno displayed a recently reattributed Stapf plaque in his booth at the January 2005 Winter Antiques Show in New York, where it sold for $105,000.

Though scholars of Stapf continue to reduce Bellamy’s output, his eagles remain highly prized. Alan Granby of Hyland Granby Antiques, a nautical antiques gallery in Massachusetts, owns one of the finer Bellamys, a plaque that depicts a golden eagle flanked by half-furled American flags. Granby says that it is “100 percent original, 100 percent intact,” and that he offered it for sale briefly in 2002 for $325,000, but no buyers met his price. “I don’t know what it’s worth now,” he says, but mentions that he recently received another Bellamy eagle—a carving made for a ship—that he expects to sell for $85,000.

Hyland Granby Antiques, 508.771.3070, www.hylandgranby.com
Leigh Keno American Antiques, 212.734.2381, www.leighkeno.com

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