DECORATED manuscripts known as fraktur, made in various parts of America but primarily associated with Pennsylvania’s German communities, are something very little known in Britain, but on the home auction scene they are big money spinners indeed, as the example from an April 24 Americana sale held by Freemans of Philadelphia shows.
A continuation of a European tradition in which a mechanically
printed piece would be enhanced with added illumination, and more
commonly associated with legal or religious documents, these
manuscripts took on a more personal nature in the hands of American
emigrants. The most common documents now found in this field are
the Geburts und Taufschein, birth or baptismal certificates, that
were so important to the Lutheran and Reformed Church families of
Pennsylvania. Much fraktur was the work of 18th and 19th century
schoolmasters in the church-community school setting and many of
the pieces were made as rewards or as an encouragement and
admonition to students in the German-language schools.
The Rev. George Geistweite, the maker of this ink-on-paper example
of the art form, is known to have worked only two frakturs - both
made during the summer of 1801 for the Bower family of Centre
County, Pennsylvania.* These are both very ornate pieces, populated
with human figures, horses, double eagles, hens, chicks, lions and
stylized flowers, and are quite unusual in that their themes are
secular. The example seen at Freemans has in its central panel a
verse from a 'Hymn to the Nightingale', depicted in the "fractured"
or broken German typeface from which the form takes its name.
Bidding in the room opened at $50,000, and three telephone bidders
quickly pushed the price above the previous record for a fraktur of
$180,000, but it was a bidder in the room who finally prevailed at
Pennsylvania redware, much of which came to auction from the
estate of a Reading, (PA) collector - as did the fraktur - brought
some surprising prices. Redware, a coarse, lead-glazed
earthenware made from the mid-18th century onwards, has become one
of the more highly collectable areas in American ceramics, reported
the auct-ioneers, "despite the quite pedestrian origins of the
Leading the Freemans entries was a glazed and slip-decorated
redware jar, dated 1790, that was unusual in having very colourful
painted deco-ration. Estimated at $4000-6000, the jar soared to
$48,000 (£27,120), with the hammer falling to a telephone
The sale also yielded records for redware animal figures. The
record was first broken when a 7 1/4in (18cm) high figure of a dog
with a basket of fruit in its mouth reached $13,000 ($7345), but
was immediately exceeded when the following, a 5 3/4in (14.5cm)
high figure of a cat with black stripes was bid to $15,000 (£8475).
That same price was paid for a large, oblong slip-decorated redware
Among the clocks, a Chippendale style walnut longcase of the third
quarter of the 18th century, the steel chapter ring inscribed by
Duncan Beard of Appo-quinimink, Delaware, was sold at $48,000
* The only other known Geistweite fraktur is in the Titus C.
Geesey Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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