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Lawn Art: The Oft-Overlooked Value in Estates

by Wayne Jordan (06/20/13).

Many executors overlook the yard when appraising estates and miss exceptionally valuable works of art. Even vintage pink flamingos can sell for a good price.

In American popular culture, the kitsch surrounding pink flamingo lawn ornaments appears universal. Mention such ornaments and visions of trailer parks in Baltimore come to mind; perhaps as a result of John Waters’ 1972 movie “Pink Flamingos,” with its subtitle: “An Exercise in Poor Taste”.

Until the 1970s, upscale suburban homes sometimes boasted lantern-carrying lawn jockeys, but these blackface ornaments lost favor and aren’t seen much anymore.

Flamingos and jockeys seem to have been replaced by garden gnomes and repurposed furniture. From city lots to country acreage, Americans love yard art. We make flowerbeds from antique beds and claw-foot bathtubs, birdbaths from old lamps and garden lights from tin cans.

Because yard art is so trendy, estate executors sometimes forget to have a good look around an estate’s yard or grounds as they inventory personal property. Focus is instead given to the contents of homes, where it is believed that the most valuable property is located.

Found in a barn under hay and riddled with bullet holes, this 1875 J. Howard weathervane recently sold for $45,000.

But, that’s not always the case. Recently, a zinc and copper horse weathervane was found in a Massachusetts barn covered with hay. The hollow horse was full of hay debris, had no stand and was aerated by a few bullet holes. Nevertheless, the 1875 J. Howard & Company “Index” horse weathervane sold on eBay for $45,000. Other notable “yard art” finds include:

• A pair of 19th-century Neoclassical lead urns sold for $18,800;
• A mid-19th-century Regency-style carved marble garden bench sold for $14,340;
• A three-piece Neoclassical-style marble birdbath sold for $7,170;
• A brass sundial sold for $720.

Yard art is valued on the basis of the material the item is made from; the artful execution of the work; the item’s condition, age and provenance and the demand for the item. I’ve written this primer so you can determine if your yard art might be valuable.

This 1850 garden set is representative of 19th-century cast-iron furniture.

Most garden decorations are weatherworn and covered with debris and verdigris; to a casual observer, it all looks old. However, the materials and techniques used to make an item give clues to its age. For example, in the 18th century, lawn ornaments made from wrought iron were popular with the wealthy elite. These early wrought-iron ornaments were made from high-carbon content iron bars, which were heated, twisted and hammered by individual craftsmen. Tooling marks are visible on such ironwork, and all parts of the item would have been made from the bars, with no parts cast in molds.

Ornamental cast iron didn’t become available until the 19th century. Early cast iron was melted and poured into sand molds in order to acquire the shape desired—urns, pots, furniture or hardware. Decorative motifs like fruit and architectural patterns were often used to make cast items more visually appealing. Large pieces of cast iron were bolted together to complete a piece. 

This beautifully carved 19th-century marble garden bench features winged griffins on each end.

The wrought iron of the 20th and 21st is machine-made using a combination of bending, scrollwork and cast parts. Large pieces of modern cast iron are welded together rather than bolted.

Knowing the technological benchmarks for wrought iron will help executors and appraisers determine whether a wrought-iron piece is of 18th-, 19th- or 20th-century origin.

The same is true for other materials; when in doubt about an item’s age, check the technological benchmarks for the material and techniques used to make the item.

Not all metal lawn ornaments were made from cast or wrought iron. In the 19th century, machinery was developed to make wire in various sizes, and heavy-gauge wire was used to make a variety of outdoor furniture, plant stands, trellises and arches. Wire items are still manufactured, so don’t assume that all wire items are old. 

Lead urns like this are an uncommon find.

Yard art that is hand-worked using expensive materials like marble, copper and bronze will have higher values than mass-produced items. Carved stone will show tooling marks and marble, although smoother than stone, will not be perfectly symmetrical.

Natural stone materials used for lawn ornaments were marble, granite, Indiana limestone and sandstone—all of which have easily identifiable characteristics. Copper and bronze can be identified by a greenish patina called verdigris. Metal objects made of iron will rust, and if an item has been painted the paint will eventually peel and chip, leaving exposed rust spots.

Mass-produced yard art is usually manufactured in molds from pourable cast materials like iron, plastic resins, concrete and plaster. Plastic resins can be colored, textured, veined and grained to resemble a variety of natural materials like stone, marble, terracotta and wood. Of course, it shouldn’t be too difficult to tell which items are made from resins: they are lightweight and waterproof.

Concrete planters are unmistakable; they are very heavy and don’t have the smooth surface that real or artificial stone has. Concrete planters have been popular since 1867 when French gardener Joseph Monier patented a design for reinforced garden tubs.

Statuary made from Coade stone, named for its inventor Eleanor Coade, can bring prices of $50,000 or more.

Since that time decorative stone, crushed glass, tiles and glazing have been added to concrete products to enhance their beauty.

Another popular use for molded materials is decorative statuary. Statues made from cast concrete or plasters are ubiquitous, from garden gnomes to 6-foot tall versions of the Statue of Liberty. Cast lawn ornaments seldom have maker’s marks of any kind, so determining when they were made and by whom can be difficult.

Old cast stone darkens over time from water-borne mineral deposits, and the amount of mineral deposits may give clues to item’s age. Again, check for technological benchmarks such as the use of glazes that do not contain lead.

Highly prized among cast-lawn ornaments are those made of Coade stone. Coade stone is artificial stone, invented by its namesake Eleanor Coade in Lambeth, England, in 1769. English architects embraced Coade stone immediately because it was hard, durable and ideal for architectural details and statuary. Because Coade stone was cheaper to use than mining and sculpting quarry stone, it grew in popularity quickly.

Bird baths like this 3-pc Italian Neoclassical model were all the rage in the late 19th century.

Barbara Israel, author of Antique Garden Ornament, Two Centuries of American Taste,” says “a full-sized female Coade-stone classical statue, if you could find one, might run between $50,000 to $75, 000.”

Items made from terracotta clay—Italian for “baked earth”—may be either handmade or mass-produced. Terracotta has been used since ancient times; terracotta artifacts have been found in both Greece and China.

Once the final shape has been achieved, terracotta is baked in a kiln until hard. It’s most common garden uses are planting pots, urns and sundials, and it can be identified by its brownish-orange color.

Typically, colored glazes are not used for terracotta items. Mass-produced terracotta items usually sell at garage-sale prices, but artisan-crafted items are worth significantly more than the mass-produced items if they were made by a branded artist.

If you’re taking inventory of an estate’s yard art and happen upon a flock of plastic pink flamingos or a rusted iron lawn jockey, don’t throw away! A recent eBay auction featured a pair of 1950s-era pink flamingos that sold for $261 and an iron lawn jockey that, even in poor condition, brought $720. Proof positive that even kitsch eventually becomes collectible.


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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