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 collector’s walls, were produced from actual photographs Wallace took on his walks and country rides (first in carriages and then 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, like the 19th century Currier & Ives.
The exterior scenes tend to be the most popular, although not the most expensive. Reportedly during inclement weather his 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 Southbury, 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.
The height of the business was around 1925. During this time Wallace employed over 200 people, half of which were hired as colorists (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 $1,000 a day.
Wallace became obsessive with his interest in American colonial furniture and accessories, partly because he had photographed so many interiors of Colonial homes, many of which were shot using his furniture “props” he placed in the rooms. This experience led him to start a business manufacturing and selling reproduction furniture. He authored a guidebook to American Windsor chairs in 1917 and then came out with his massive 2 volume set called Furniture Treasury. He was well known for documenting American period furniture and, along with his reproductions, participated in the style called Colonial Revival.
Wallace Nutting died in 1941. Interest in his prints did not really revive until the 1980’s. Then it took off as many began to find his work in flea markets, garage sales, and thrift stores-often at a pittance. The market responded quickly, however, and soon there were specialists, clubs, and books written on his work. Michael Ivankovich of Doylestown, PA became a Nutting auctioneer and held over four auctions a year devoted strictly to Nutting prints. Prices began to escalate, and some reached into the five figures. Evan common ones began to sell for $100-200 or more.
Times have changed once again. Reproductions began to flood the market, complete with fake signatures. The public’s thirst for quaint Colonial interior scene and floral front yards and cherry trees began to ebb. Prices came back to earth. Now only the very rare or exotic command much interest and the rest seem to have fallen to pre-1980 levels.
Picture sizes range from 2”x5” to 20”x40” in the same titles. (They 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 we’ve gone through the high period, many are still available at garage sales and auctions and at reasonable prices. Those who assembled collections at their height may see a drastic loss. One could always wait. We have seen many revivals of style, including the one Nutting espoused. Maybe the revival will have another one.