NEW YORK – America’s Independence Day, aka the Fourth of July, is perfect timing to take a look at one of America’s most interesting artists, Andrew Clemens (1857-1894), whose patriotic sand art bottles have taken the collecting world by storm. In his lifetime, he meticulously crafted hundreds of these bottles, though few survive today, and he sold these for a few dollars each, price depending on size. Today, his best examples now sell for over $100,000 each.
Born in January 1857 in McGregor, Iowa, Clemens was a young child when he contracted encephalitis, which caused him to go deaf and suffer speech impairment. He attended the Iowa State School for the Deaf and during his summer breaks, he discovered a wondrous variety of colored sands at Pikes Peak State Park along the Mississippi River in his home state, which is still today a hiker’s paradise. Near the aptly named Sand Cave in the park, Clemens found and collected vividly colored grains of sands, which got their color from naturally occurring iron and minerals leaching into the sand. Later on, he also collected sand from Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore from its sandstone cliffs.
His bottles would be marked with labels on the bottom indicating where the sand was sourced.
He would bring home sand in many hues, which he would sort into different bottles. He used these to create sand art without the benefit of glue or artificial coloring and mostly worked upside down as the bottle’s opening (sealed upon completion) would be at the top. Using only specific tools from hickory sticks or fish hooks to either tamp down the sand or manipulate it, he created elaborate designs using only different colors of natural sand in much the same an artist uses paints on a palette. First making simple and attractive geometric designs, as Clemens’ skill grew he graduated to making complex pictures from portraits of sailing ships to George Washington riding a horse, landscapes and more.
Among his best-loved – and most desirable to collectors – are Clemen’s patriotic designs.
The State Historical Society of Iowa has a collection of Clemens’ artworks, including this famed bottle depicting the nation’s first president on horseback. According to the society, Clemens made this as a gift for his mother and it took him around 18 months to complete, working intermittently.
Wes Cowan of Cowan’s Auctions has sold quite a few examples of Clemens’ sand art over the years. His first time seeing a Clemens bottle was at a taping of Antiques Roadshow in 2002 when a guest came in with a beautiful bottle made for his great-grandfather. The owner knew little of the artist but soon discovered a fascinating back story. Cowan marveled at the piece’s artistry, telling its owner during the taping, “The real interesting thing about this remarkable piece of sand art, though, is just what you see here. Not only is his name on it, but on the back you see this wonderful eagle with the 36-star flag …”
Cowan went on to auction this very bottle a few years later for over $12,000. Flash forward to 2019 and Clemens bottles have topped the $100,000 mark, including the buyer’s premium. In October 2018, it set a record auction price for the artist at $132,000, selling a sand art bottle by Clemens showing a spread-winged American eagle beneath a 36-star flag and a bouquet of flowers inscribed to Mrs. Eliza B. Lewis.
In that same sale, an inverted sand bottle by Clemens featuring a nautical scene as well as an eagle and flag made $108,000.
Completing the trifecta of six-figure prices was a Clemens bottle that sold here in February 2019 for $102,000, featuring a favorite motif for the artist, a spread-winged eagle, usually brandishing an American flag.
In the latter half of the 19th century, career opportunities for the deaf could be limited but American artists like Andrew Clemens and John Brewster Jr. carved out successful career paths through art, greatly enriching the lives of the countless people whose artworks they have beheld. Today, Clemens’ art continues to find fans and engender an appreciation for his mastery and artistry.