For struggling Newbury church, weather vane a gift from above

Antique ornament sold for $575,000

Officials at First Parish Church in Newbury had no idea the weather vane, most likely created by 18th-century artist Thomas Drowne, would sell for more than a half-million dollars. Officials at First Parish Church in Newbury had no idea the weather vane, most likely created by 18th-century artist Thomas Drowne, would sell for more than a half-million dollars. (Museum of Fine Art, Boston)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / February 25, 2009
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Since 1869, the gilded rooster weather vane, perched atop the 125-foot steeple of First Parish Church in Newbury, pointed the direction of the wind. Not much thought was given to its historical significance or to its worth.

"We really didn't pay a lot of attention to it until a letter showed up on my desk last spring from an antiques collector who happened to notice it driving by," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Nancy Haverington. The collector, Raymond Egan of Maine, told Haverington that the weather vane was of significant value, perhaps even a one-of-a-kind sliver of American art history. On a preliminary estimate, Egan told her he believed it could fetch at least a quarter of a million dollars.

After years of declining membership and funds, which spurred talk of selling the church itself, administrators were intrigued by Egan's initial assessment of the weather vane.

The church decided to let Egan and a weather-vane specialist from Philadelphia, Patrick Bell, take a closer look at the golden rooster. The weather vane was taken off its perch, and the two men, standing in the church's back parking lot, evaluated it. Bell then began studying the provenance of the weather vane and found that it was most likely created in 1772 by noted artist Thomas Drowne.

Last week, the church, with Bell serving as its agent, sold the roughly 4-foot weather vane to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for $575,000.

"It was important for us that the weather vane would continue to be made available for the public to view, and that's why we were elated that it found a home with the museum," Haverington said this week. "The MFA was absolutely the perfect outcome; it met every single prayer we had."

Elliot Bostwick Davis, the John Moors Cabot Chair at the museum, said the weather vane will be put on display in the fall of 2010. The museum already owns several weather vanes. Davis said it is the organization's policy not to discuss the prices it paid for the pieces. She did say the weather vane from Newbury was bought with funds from private donors.

"We understand what is going on with the economy, but the depression era was a time of extraordinary expansion for American museums," Davis said. "With the help of donors, we have the funds to make these kinds of buys. The quality and beauty of this piece is enduring."

She said the latest acquisition is an extraordinary piece.

"We know exactly where it came from, which is amazing for something so old," Davis said. "What you couldn't see from 125 feet up in the air, is the attention to detail. It has extraordinary glass eyes, like marbles, blown so that there's a teardrop inside each eye. The ideal may have been that the eyes would glint in the sun and catch the eyes of people walking by."

"There are very few American weather vanes that date back to the 18th century," Bell said.

"The price was based on other vanes sold in the marketplace. About a year ago, a 5-foot vane from Mrs. Ford's collection in Dearborn, Mich., sold for $5 million."

The history of a piece of art is important to its value, and it was relatively easy for art historians to trace the provenance of this weather vane because it has been attached to the church probably since it was hand-wrought. The church first gathered in 1635, the 12th church in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The church has occupied five buildings in its history but did not display the vane until its fourth building, which burned down in 1867.

The church's current place of worship was built in 1869, Haverington said. The weather vane, made of copper, survived the fire intact and was placed on the steeple of the new church.

The rooster was covered with gold leaf in the 1970s or 1980s, Bell said.

"The Museum of Fine Arts has saved us, and it has affirmed our mission," Haverington said. "The money will let us continue our membership and stewardship program and will help with some needed repairs.

"We feel very strongly that because this money came to us as a gift, literally out of the blue, that whatever the church decides to do with it, it is important that a portion be used as a continuous gift to others."

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