BARRE — City councilors say sometimes you have to spend money to save money. They are going to find out the worth of the hammered copper weather vane that was forged for $75 in 1903 and is currently insured for $1.2 million.
Three weeks after tabling a request that they invest in an appraisal of the antique weather vane, councilors agreed it is time to determine what the priceless relic is really worth.
Councilors were told the answer likely will be less than the $1.2 million the city has insured it for since 2007, but the cost of the appraisal – roughly $1,200 – could allow the city to shed what has become a $2,300-a-year insurance expense.
That prospect was part of the council’s calculation, as it weighed whether to invest in an updated appraisal they were told would be needed in order for the Vermont Historical Society to add the city-owned weather vane to the “fine arts policy” that covers its collection.
VHS Executive Director Stephen Perkins officially extended that offer to councilors Tuesday night, suggesting the last appraisal was obsolete and a new one would be needed, barring a decision to gift the weather vane to the historical society.
Though a 12-year-old appraisal suggested the weather vane, which depicts “flying” horse-drawn hook-and-ladder truck, would fetch between $700,000 and $1.2 million at auction, Perkins warned times have changed.
“My opinion (and) I’m not an appraiser, is it’s over-valued at this point (given) where American decorative arts are selling right now,” Perkins said. “That market has cratered.”
That wasn’t the case when the city obtained the earlier appraisal shortly after receiving an unsolicited offer to by the unique weather vane for $500,000. At the time a similar vintage weather vane – this one depicting a steam locomotive tender – had recently been purchased at auction for more than $1.2 million.
Councilor Michael Boutin said he wasn’t worried about the money.
“No matter what value you put on that weather vane, it will not cover the cost of the history that is lost if something happens to it,” he said.
However, Boutin also said he wasn’t convinced the city should continue to pay a premium to insure what Councilor Teddy Waszazak agreed was a “priceless” and “irreplaceable” artifact.
“I’m not confident that we need to insure it for … what we’re insuring it for,” Boutin said, welcoming Perkins offer to insure the weather vane as part of the historical society’s collection.
Perkins said that policy was likely quite different than the one the city is paying for and is based, in part, on the 10 most valuable items in a massive collection.
According to Perkins the city’s policy likely places a replacement value on something that can’t be replaced.
“It’s equating it to cans of tomatoes,” he said. “How much does it cost to replace $1.2 million worth of tomatoes? Here’s the insurance.”
The historical society’s fine arts policy works differently and acknowledges the rare nature of items – like the city’s weather vane – that are covered.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind, so if there’s a loss how do you monetize the loss?” Perkins said of the weather vane.
“It always becomes a negotiation with the insurance company at the time of the loss, regardless of what you valued it at to begin with,” he added. “You lose a Monet painting, Monet is not going to paint it again so … what happens with that?”
Perkins said the historical society’s policy covers its collection and can cover items – like the weather vane – that are loaned, provided there is an up-to-date appraisal performed.
“If we gave it to you?” Boutin asked.
“It would just fall under our policy,” Perkins replied.
Either way Mayor Lucas Herring said an appraisal was warranted and City Manager Steve Mackenzie said any conversation of “gifting” the weather vane to the historical society was premature.
“In theory, this appraisal will pay for itself in a year,” he said. “I say ‘why not?’”
In a related matter, councilors were told the American Folk Art Museum in New York City is interested in including the weather vane in a show planned for next year.
Perkins referred the inquiry to Mackenzie, who said he will bring it to the council when he has more details.
Assuming councilors agree to loan the weather vane for the show it would mark only the second time it has left Barre’s boundaries since it arrived from Boston more than 115 years ago.
The weather vane, which was removed from its long-time perch atop the hose drying tower at the old firehouse in 1983, was stored at the Aldrich Public Library until it was moved to the Vermont History Center in 2007.
While in the care of the library the once-gilded weather vane was taken to Boston to be restored. That work, which involved reattaching the head of one of the two firefighters driving the horse-drawn fire wagon, was financed with a $3,000 grant the library secured in 1993.