The Siegmund Collection of American folk art: ‘We remember the story behind each piece’

For Joanne and Fred Siegmund, collecting Americana — paintings, sculpture, furniture — was about ‘salvaging American history’. Diverse treasures from their collection are offered in New York on 22 January

Works offered in the Siegmund Collection of American folk art

In the upper reaches of the art market, ‘wall power’ denotes an artwork’s capacity to impress, project authority, signal success. The art and objects in the Siegmund Collection of American Folk Art subvert this notion. Most are diminutive, anonymous; their intention often prosaic, unintentionally poetic or obscure. Some were made, it seems, for nothing more than the pleasure of making.

They do have remarkable presence, though. ‘There’s a direct communication between the artist and the viewer,’ said Joanne Siegmund, who assembled the extraordinary collection with her husband Frederick. ‘There’s no artifice.’

What began as a way of furnishing the couple’s apartment in Manhattan evolved into a life-long intellectual and cultural adventure — with the couple’s second home in Litchfield County, Connecticut, serving as a base for exploring New England’s legacy of art and antiques.

On 22 January, more than 80 lots from the collection will be offered in In Praise of America: Important American Furniture, Folk Art, Silver, Prints and Broadsides, part of Americana Week at Christie’s in New York. Created by people who had ‘artistry running through their veins’, the works illuminate the largely undocumented creative life of Americans from the 18th to the 20th century; in a small way, they also salvage their history.

The folk art phenomenon

In the 20th century, collectors, curators and artists gave a name to the work of self-taught artists — travelling painters, local artisans and anonymous makers — that had found its way into American visual culture. They called it ‘folk art’.

In collecting folk art, the Siegmunds were driven by the pleasure of discovery, befriending dealers along the way. ‘We remember the story behind each piece and the dealer it came from; finding it and buying it really was the best part of the whole story,’ said Joanne. ‘We never bought anything that we didn’t like.’

Samuel Addison Shute (1803-36), possibly in collaboration with Ruth Whittier Shute (1803-82), A Pair of Portraits of Silas and Rebecca Sherman. Watercolour, pen and ink on paper, together in a paint-decorated yellow and red frame. 14 x 10 in each. Sold for $37,500 on 22 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York

Collection highlights

By Joanne and Fred’s own account, the Sherman portraits, above, are a centrepiece of the collection. They were painted by the itinerant New England portraitists Samuel and Ruth Shute, whose work is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Folk Art Museum.

The couple acquired the remarkable frame first. ‘It was done so well that we hung it empty on the wall,’ said Joanne, who found the portraits in East Lyme, Connecticut, three years later.

‘I have a good eye for size and said, “That pair will fit in my frame”. They didn’t need a hair shaved off to fit. Everyone who has seen them since believes that we restored them to their original frame.’

A carved white marble recumbent lion, probably from Philadelphia, 1933. Initialed ‘HD’ on the front and 33 on the reverse. 13½ in high, 27 in long, 5¼ in deep. Sold for $50,000 on 22 January 2021 at Christie’s in New York

A white marble lion

‘We have one of the better marble collections in folk art,’ Fred attested. This stately lion is a masterpiece. Dating from the 1930s, the work is signed ‘HD’ by a mysterious Philadelphia carver, probably a stone mason made jobless during the Great Depression.

Painted wood carving

Another carving, in painted wood, is a mysterious heart-in-hand symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Similar carvings have been found mounted on ceremonial staffs. Decontextualised, this one is both enigmatic and figuratively assertive, like a cryptic piece of pop ephemera.

Portraits by John Usher Parsons

As the Siegmunds’ apartment filled with early Americana, first-time visitors would often enquire about the commanding John Usher Parsons portraits that greeted them in the foyer, asking which of the two — Joanne or Fred — had such austere-looking ancestors.

The flat, stylised composition of a Massachusetts minister and his wife, previously in the Vincent Price art collection, exemplifies the couple’s appreciation for the self-taught artistry that brought everyday lives into focus.

Painted pine furniture

The painted furniture in the collection had a particular poignancy for Joanne. She noted the effort that craftsmen put into ‘decorating plain wood to mimic what they couldn’t afford’. Elegant striations and whorls were painted on pine — as exemplified by the early 19th-century dressing table above — so that it might resemble mahogany or walnut.

Portrait of a Gentleman with The New-Yorker, 1834-37

American School (19th century), Portrait of a Gentleman with The New-Yorker, 1834-37. Oil on canvas

A portrait of a gentleman

Fred’s interest in the stories behind the works bore fruit after the couple came across a painting of a man holding a newspaper. He assumed that its masthead — The New Yorker — was painted in later, as the picture pre-dated The New Yorker magazine.

‘A year later I found a pile of newspapers in an archive labelled The New-Yorker,’ Fred remembered. ‘It was published by the legendary editor Horace Greeley [founder of the New-York Tribune] from 1834 until 1837, giving an approximate date to the work.’

‘The bicycle man’

The enjoyment Fred took in researching the collection uncovered another fragment of New York history in the figure the couple called the ‘bicycle man’. Exhibited in 2019 at New York’s American Folk Art Museum, it is thought to depict a participant in the Six Days of New York endurance bicycle race at Madison Square Garden.

‘We learned he was probably one of eight that adorned the rotunda of the old Madison Square Garden before it was torn down,’ Fred said. ‘There’s only one other known.’

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The Siegmunds were also conscious of the importance of folk art as a witness to the nation’s cultural heritage. As Joanne said, the couple felt they were ‘making a contribution — salvaging American history’.

Their commitment was widely recognised: Joanne was invited to serve on the acquisitions committee and then to join the board of trustees at the American Folk Art Museum.

‘These folk have left the work of their hands, and the love they put into it,’ she said. ‘I feel about the collection in a way I feel about our lives. Collecting is our self-expression.’

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