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Weathercock rescued from New York

03/26/2014
This wooden weathercock stood atop the Cumberland County Court house in Portland, Maine from 1788 to 1981

This wooden weathercock stood atop the Cumberland County Court house and later the First National Bank building in Portland, Maine from 1788 to 1981. (Photo from “Portland’s Famed Weathercock.”

Digging through the curbside bins outside the Strand Bookstore on a chilly March day in New York City, I discovered the history of a “famed” weathercock  from Portland, Maine.

Now I’ve learned, it’s really an obituary.

The 36-page black and white booklet documents the life of a wooden weathercock carved and installed atop the second Cumberland County Courthouse in 1788. The weathercock survived almost 200 years exposed to the elements and became the oldest working weather vane in the country.

Then some rich folks decided it was time to “retire” the bird and remove it from public view. After all, there’s money to be made in architectural antiques.

“Portland’s Famed Weathercock” was published by stockbroker David C. Morse in 1981. It was the same year Morse took the 80-pound bird down off its perch, and five years before he tried to sell it for more than $250,000.

So what’s a weathercock and why is it so valuable?

A weathercock is a specific style of weather vane, an old-fashioned measuring tool installed on top of buildings to show wind direction — a sort of 19th century Doppler radar with a big tail.

It turns out old weather vanes have become extremely valuable. Hand made weather vanes are considered folk art.  Jen and I recently saw several on exhibit at the wonderful Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. They are beautiful and charming, something shaped by both man and nature, a symbol of our endless fascination with weather.

Morse was either an earlier connoisseur of folk art or a shrewd businessman. His booklet indicates he may be both.

It seems Morse published the weathercock booklet for historical purposes. It’s museum quality work. Researched and well-written by William B. Jordan Jr. from Westbrook College with professional photographs by John Glinert-Cole. It even has a Library of Congress catalog number.

But it could also have been put together for advertising purposes — or out of guilt for removing such an amazing artifact from public view.

After serving atop the courthouse, the weathercock was relocated to the First National Bank building on Exchange Street in 1884. The grand First National Bank clock tower burned in 1945 but the weathercock escaped unharmed. A smaller, nondescript tower replaced the clock at some point and today the building has a more or less flat roof line.

And no weathercock.

The First National Bank building circa 1884 (Photo from "Portland's Famed Weathercock")

The First National Bank building circa 1884 (Photo from “Portland’s Famed Weathercock”)

That’s because Morse purchased the weathercock from an unnamed building owner and placed it in “pampered retirement.”

It’s strange Morse tells us nothing about the circumstances of his purchase in the booklet. Wouldn’t a historian and preservationists thoroughly document his actions involving a beloved city icon?

Five years after the Morse purchase, a United Press International article, supplies some answers.

In July of 1986, Morse put his  massive folk art collection up for sale. In the article, he said he bought the “famed weathercock” for $50,000 and expected sell it for more than $250,000.

“If people understand the history of that bird, and how

The old First National Bank Building today at 57 Exchange Street in Portland, ME

The old First National Bank Building today at 57 Exchange Street in Portland, ME

well carved he is, it will be amazing,” he said. “(The famed weathercock) existed in the weather for 190 years. Exposed wood usually doesn’t  last more than 50 years.”

Yes, the weathercock survived nearly two centuries of Maine winters but it couldn’t survive a stockbroker with dollar signs in his eyes.

Newspapers reported Morse actually got $110,000 for the weathercock, far below his greedy dream, but more than doubling his money in five years.

Now, that’s the kind of  investment Wall Street likes. After all, the only losers are the folks down on Exchange Street today, who don’t know their city history was plucked by an insidious, Antiques Roadshow rascal.

It’s strange Morse titled his booklet “Portland’s Famed Weathercock.”

Because after he cashed in, the bird took up roost in private collections.

A state historian told me recently he saw a picture of the weathercock in a glossy antiques magazine. The magazine featured an article on a wealthy collector. And where was the private art collection located?

In New York City.

 

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