For nearly three centuries, a golden grasshopper weathervane has been perched atop Faneuil Hall, standing guard from its time as a commercial center to its designation as a revolutionary hub and, eventually, a tourist attraction.
It’s likely that anyone who has set foot in Boston has at one time laid eyes on the historic sculpture, which contains a time capsule in its belly and was once nearly smashed in an earthquake and briefly lost in a 1974 robbery.
But did you know that the coppersmith who constructed it in 1742 made a second, similar sculpture? And, like its counterpart, it’s still around to this day?
If you didn’t, you’re not alone — until very recently, historians and collectors were also somewhat in the dark about its existence.
A companion to the iconic piece of American artwork has recently hopped into the limelight, nearly 200 years since it was thought to have vanished. Now, it’s set to go up for auction later this month, where Sotheby’s estimates it could fetch between $300,000 and $500,000 — or perhaps much more.
Erik Gronning, Sotheby’s head of Americana, said he was “amazed” when a seller first approached the antique broker last year with this long-forgotten weathervane.
At first, he was skeptical.
Some experts were aware that there had once been two grasshopper weathervanes in Boston, both made by the famed craftsman Shem Drowne for the Faneuil family.
The designs were inspired by the golden grasshopper vane atop the Royal Exchange in London. One was for the Faneuil Hall building, which was built in 1742, and the other — it may have been produced a few years earlier — adorned a summer house in the backyard garden of the Faneuils’ Boston mansion.
But most assumed that the lesser-known grasshopper on the family’s property was destroyed when their mansion was demolished in 1835, and hadn’t thought much about it since.
“It was just lost to the annals of time,” Gronning said. “No one knew anything about it.”
But Gronning’s research, which included studying historic accounts of the weathervane, determined that this is the real deal.
It’s “almost identical in size and scale” to the one on Faneuil Hall, and has the same whimsical ornamentation, including the glass eyeballs on either side of its head. Its design has a folksy, hand-made feel that he hasn’t seen in weathervanes made in the years that followed, he said.
With help from its most recent owner, who has asked Sotheby’s to remain anonymous, Gronning learned that the weathervane was a cherished heirloom of a New Jersey family for many years. Before it was acquired and passed down through generations, the sculpture spent a lot of time on the roof of a barn in New Hampshire.
It took a bit of a beating out there. While the grasshopper atop Faneuil Hall is still gilded in bright gold leaf, this one has a deep green verdigris coating due to oxidation from the elements. Just a few flecks of its original gilding remain on the grasshopper’s abdomen.
That’s likely to be seen as a valuable sign of authenticity, Gronning said.
“Collectors love to see that it was really used outside,” he said. “They were utilitarian objects as much as they were art.”
The grasshopper also shows some minor damage from rifle bullets. That’s typical, as weathervanes were frequently used as target practice by kids, Gronning said.
“You can see where somebody literally shot a bullet right into the head, just behind the eye,” he said, adding that this is “a telltale sign of a wonderful vane.”
The discovery makes this the sixth-known Shem Drowne weathervane still in existence.
The others can be found decorating the peaks of Old North Church and the First Church of Cambridge, and on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Museum of Old Newbury.
Sotheby’s will put this new addition to Drowne’s known works up for sale on Jan. 23, as part of its “Important Americana” auction. It will be publicly shown at its New York City gallery beginning on Friday.
Gronning said those who stop by in person have the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with the historic artwork.
“They’re never going to climb to the top of Faneuil Hall,” he said. “But in this instance, you can actually be inches away from history. You can literally touch it.”