Lightning rods, weather vanes once a crowning glory are making a comeback as decorative collectibles
Weather vane collector Hardin Cox (left). This grasshopper is one of Hardin Cox's original creations. More than 20 years ago, he carved a weather vane in the shape of a peanut for Jimmy Carter. That vane was featured in "Tokens and Treasures: Gifts to Twelve Presidents," an exhibition at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and in a catalog accompanying the exhibition.
Those who own ornate lightning rods and weather vanes know the collectibles are both artistic and functional. But some are also historical, telling a story about the place and what the owners did or produced.
Collectors continue hot after old rooftop items, so values continue to increase. Proof of that is the large number of fakes and reproductions on the market.
One rod I particularly remember was in Greene County, Iowa, adorned with a vertical, fat ear of corn complete with kernels and shucks. I hope the fancy barn it topped also remains there. Besides protecting the barn from lightning, the rod showed that the original owner likely got big yields from the fields behind the barn.
Similar lightning rods with colored-glass balls, pendants and other wind vanes were often mounted on new buildings erected during times of prosperity. In many areas, that would include roughly the years from 1875 to 1916 (excluding the recession of 1893).
Top quality decorative collectibles often were made of hammered sheet copper, using molds, while some vanes had weighted zinc heads to balance a longer arrow's weight. Flat, sheet-iron vanes are most common, with many of those being decorated lightning rods. Seed companies occasionally gave gilded animal-motif vanes, such as roosters or pigs, as premiums. Values of those often run into several hundred dollars, especially if they are unrestored and unpainted.
Lightning rods range from plain ones to those with copper tips, ornamental glass balls or pendants, and weather vanes. The balls were decorative, but they also had a practical side: if broken, they served notice of possible lightning damage.
Phil Steiner, Wanatah, Ind., avidly collects and deals in rooftop objects. Ever-higher prices have been the rule recently, he says, especially for the scarcer genuine items. One example he gives is a gray Moon and Star ball worth up to $9,000 recently, and climbing. But more common balls - like the plain whites and blues - can still be bought for $10 to $50, he adds.
Phil has seen balls sell in the $500-$ 1,500 range, especially if they're the "hard to get" colors: gold, silver, root beer, pink, slag, some cobalts and reds. The more valuable ones were never mounted since being produced in the late 1870s. He recalls a neon yellow Plain and a cobalt Moon and Star each bringing $3,500 a few years ago, and an orange Moon and Stars fetching $5,000.
He considers balls or vanes of questionable origin of little worth.
"Without some reliable means to document or provide assurance of the source of a lightning rod ball and its authenticity," he says, "we will no longer sell, buy or trade for any light amber balls or pendants, including Maher, Mast, RHF, JFG or several others."
Solid facts are your only protection, he says.
"Have some knowledge before you buy, and knowledge of the dealer you buy from," he says. "Before you got there, someone could have traded something newer for something else old, with you and the dealer both being unaware. With some experience, you can better tell age by the newness and texture of the glass. Older amber is darker, for example, not the color of fresh straw never rained on."
Finally, Phil says, you're less likely these days to find additions to your collection while on a jaunt into the countryside. But shows like three he attended in Iowa last summer were very successful.
"All over the U.S., there's a lot of interest, with many collectors now venturing into Canada," he says.
Missouri collector Hardin Cox owns about 35 vanes, balls and related items. Amassing a collection of that size, he's learned to have an eye for detail.
"You learn to tell how weathering affects the genuine items," he says. "But some people use acids on new fakes, and even shoot bullets into vanes to make them look more authentic. You can pay many times the price you should if you don't pay attention to things like that."
If you're looking to become a serious collector, the number of types and colors of balls alone can be fairly astounding at first. Study - and talking with experienced collectors - is highly recommended. But even experienced collectors are thinking twice these days.
"The rods and ornaments I've bought are usually from owners of abandoned property that didn't know they were there," Hardin says. "Because of the sharply rising cost and scarcity of original vanes, I recently chose to slow down collecting, and enjoy what I have.
"I recall a very ordinary horse vane, which a farmer had painted, which takes away from the price," he says. "When I found it had brought $125 at an auction, sold to an antique dealer – who intends to make a profit on it – I knew I was practically out of the business."
Hardin keeps his hand in, through a creative turn.
"I still carve a few," he says.
Many very early vanes were carved from pine, he says.
"Books on the subject told me that the best carver of the household would carve an arrow to put on the barn for the vane," he explains.
His collection includes a homemade, hand-carved propeller with a rudder made from a tin-can lid; a touring car with driver (about 30 inches long); various arrow designs (one with the glass still in it); and pieces with horses, pigs, a cow, and even a homemade bear which was added after the original ornament had come off.
"Most of the pieces in my collection are actual used vanes," Hardin says.
In today's market, aluminum vanes have replaced earlier models made from tin and tin alloys. Hardin has only one cast aluminum vane.
"I don't collect things I can't enjoy along the way, be it pictures, toys, guns or whatever," he says. "I certainly have enjoyed what I have, and hope others have, too." FC
For a newsletter/catalog featuring rare balls, send $10 to Phil Steiner, Weather or Knot Antiques, PO Box 321, Wanatah, IN 46390; (219) 733-2530.