Catch Frank Finney’s carvings before prices fly out of reach
NEW YORK — Growing up on Virginia’s coastal Eastern shore, surrounded by wildlife in and around the Chesapeake Bay, it’s only natural that Frank S. Finney (b. 1947-) grew up fishing, hunting and carving decoys.
Originally hailing from South Africa, Finney moved to Cape Charles at age seven and has been carving and painting wood for most of his life. He is reportedly still making new works of art. Renowned for his realistic decoys as well as his whimsical folk art birds, his sculptures are highly coveted. Done in the old country style, his works are prized for their accuracy and charm. Some are lauded for their storytelling of the relationships between birds, which undoubtedly stems from Finney’s decades of firsthand observations of the winged creatures. While best known for his full-bodied works, he is a master of multiple mediums. Finney’s bird carvings as well as his landscape paintings recount the adventures of species native to coastal Virginia and the migratory birds that travel up and down the Atlantic Flyway.
Among his most delightful and top-selling works are his bird trees. The artist has created many, and while all have a similar form, no two are alike. They range in height from about six inches to nearly two feet tall, with smaller ones usually depicting a pair of birds. Larger examples can have up to a dozen birds of various species.
A standout among his bird trees is a circa-1990 example, standing 14½in tall, which attained $27,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022 at Copley Fine Art Auctions. The vibrantly colorful tree depicts 11 different birds, each mounted on a branch. “Carved in the Pennsylvania tradition, this notable work is one of the artist’s great pieces of folk art,” according to the auctioneer’s writeup of this work.
Evocative of the Pennsylvania German tradition, in which birds were a common motif, Finney’s bird trees are made with polychrome paint and are in keeping with the Americana aesthetic. Most of his birds have glass eyes. The bird trees usually feature an assortment that might include orioles, finches, hummingbirds and others, but sometimes he will focus on a single species. A peacock tree with four peacocks, reminiscent of a directional weathervane, realized $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at New England Auctions – Fred Giampietro. Set on a stepped base marked with stripes of black paint, the 24in tree is topped with a pineapple finial, a common symbol for hospitality in the South.
In addition to his three-dimensional carved and painted birds, Finney has painted many landscapes featuring his favorite subject. An oil on board of geese and ducks in flight, which tells a story about what local species thrive and compete for food in a particular place, sold for $17,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022 at Guyette & Deeter, Inc. The painting depicts a seemingly tranquil, if noisy, coastal scene, with groups of snow geese, mallard ducks, canvasbacks, pintails and teals on the wing. People are not depicted in this painting, but their presence is indicated by a small sailboat and a duck house on shore that likely holds a hunter in a blind. Looking at the painting, one can almost taste the salt in the air and hear the cacophony of the birds soaring overhead.
This prolific artist has not restricted himself to any particular species, but one bird he has returned to often is the owl. A sculpture of a full-sized owl, clutching a field mouse in its razor-sharp talons, earned $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022 at Guyette & Deeter, Inc. The sculpture stands 24in tall, including its wooden base, and features a soft palette of browns that delineates the owl’s feathering.
In a scene that could have been inspired by a page in Audubon’s field guide, a pair of Northern cardinals chattering away over a pile of berries — a favorite food of theirs — is the focus of a strongly realistic sculpture set on a base. The artwork attained $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at New England Auctions – Fred Giampietro. Finney depicts the birds perched on a branch and with their beaks open while looking to their left; perhaps they sense danger, or are telling other birds to stay away from their food stash.
Renowned among contemporary folk art carvers, Finney’s carved and painted birds have crossover appeal to collectors of sporting art and folk art. His works are reasonably valued when compared to carvers from the previous generation whose masterpieces have brought six-figure prices. Finney’s craftsmanship is no less adept or appealing. Stealthy collectors have hunted and bagged his works for years, but the market remains accessible, even to new collectors.