Virginia Department's Weather Vane May Sell for Millions

Posted: 08-01-2008
Updated: 08-01-2008 11:16:45 AM

Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

A 6-foot-tall copper weather vane, which has sat atop a Winchester volunteer fire company station for at least 137 years, may be worth up to $5 million.

The Rouss Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company has turned over the piece to Sotheby's, the famous New York auction house, to be restored and appraised.

Sotheby's preliminary estimate places its value between $3 million and $5 million. It's to be sold in Sotheby's sale of "Important Americana" in January.

"Something like this doesn't come up often," said Nancy Druckman, a Sotheby's spokeswoman. "It's a great piece with great provenance. And the market has gone crazy for these things."

In 2006, Sotheby's sold an Indian chief weather vane for $5.84 million.

"It's like hitting the lottery," said Winchester attorney Benjamin M. Butler, who represents the fire station. "It's called folk art."

The weather vane depicts a firefighter pointing into the wind. Sotheby's picked it up in June in an armored car with an armed guard, said Butler.

The 30 or so volunteer firemen who are members of the fire station are conflicted about selling it, said Tim Clark, chief of the Rouss fire station.

The volunteer company could use the money -- possibly to help build a new fire station -- but the weather vane is part of the company's history and a long-time city landmark.

But if the weather vane is appraised for millions, the fire station could never afford the insurance, which Clark estimated as high as $40,000 a year.

And it would be risky to place the valuable piece of folk art back on the fire-station roof. Butler said Sotheby's officials told him that thousands of valuable weather vanes are stolen each year in the United States.

The weather vane was given to the fire company by its founder, Winchester native Charles Broadway Rouss, an entrepreneur who owned department stores in the 1950s. Sotheby's said the weather vane was created after 1840.

The piece is in very good condition, though it was painted with silver radiator paint in the 1950s and sports several bullet holes.

Martha Bartlett, Rouss' great-granddaughter, is paying for two reproductions of the weather vane that could cost up to $20,000 each, Butler said. One would be placed on the existing fire house and the other atop the proposed new fire house.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service