Wallace Nutting: A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
By Leon Castner
Wallace Nutting was a nationally known printmaker and furniture expert of the 1900-30's era. His work is highly collectible and now recognized by most antique lovers. Decorators particularly love his simple and somewhat romantic view of the American Colonial era. Museums as well as collectors avidly seek his furniture, which copied early pieces of historic Pilgrim and Federal examples. His work was detailed, careful and of high quality.
He is remembered most of all, however, for his hand-colored photographs, which were sold by the millions to middle class Americans during the first half of the 20th century. Over 2,000 different titles were available, including the famous outdoor scenes like Larkspur, Honeymoon Drive, or A Barre Brook. These beautiful prints, which now adorn young collectors' walls, were produced from actual photographs Wallace took on his walks and country rides (first in carriages and then in cars). The negatives were printed on special platinum paper that was then hand colored by a group of workers in his studio. They were framed and sold, similar to the 19th century Currier & Ives.
The exterior scenes tend to be the most popular, although not the most expensive. Reportedly during inclement weather, Nutting's wife suggested he take a few shots of classic interior scenes (nothing like a wife's common sense). He set up a Colonial set in his Sothbury, CT home, and the rest, as they say, is history. These tend to be the most valuable and can command prices from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Wallace took nearly 50,000 pictures over the next few decades; 10,000 of which he felt met his high standards. By 1925, almost every American house had at least one hanging on their walls. Most outdoor scenes were of country roads, floral walkways, or apple orchards in bloom. The rare ones tend to be shots of foreign locations, seascapes, and animals, although there were snow scenes, children, and floral arrangements also.
The height of the business was around 1925. During this time, Wallace employed over 200 people, half of which were hired as colorists, who hand tinted the pictures. Although the business started to decline in the late 1930's, Mr. Nutting's furniture interests kept him and his company busy. Shortly before World War I, his company grossed about $1000 a day.
Wallace Nutting died in 1941. Interest in his prints did not really revive until the 1980's. Today there are even auctions and auctioneers that specialize in his work. Michael Ivankovich of Doylestown, PA has four auctions a year devoted to Nutting and prices have become rather steep. Prints that used to sell regularly for $25-30 a few years ago are now bringing well over ten times that amount. Some rare subjects will bring over $2000.
As with seemingly everything else in the antiques market, reproductions have surfaced. There are even photocopies of the original prints and may even be hand signed ("Nutting"). Beware and be forewarned. Take a good loupe and examine for dot structure. The originals have tinted color, whereas the reproductions have a series of dots.
Picture sizes range from 2"x5" to 20"x40" in the same titles (some were even matted). Condition is extremely important. Stains or faded colors decrease value drastically. Bright or crisp color will increase above the normal going rate. Find a good reference book or a friendly collector.
The best thing about Nutting prints is their accessibility. Even though collectors scour through garage sales and auctions, many are still available. Those wishing to start a collection are a bit late, but better late than never.