Treasures: Rusted weather vane still can point to cash

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Dear Helaine and Joe:

I have a railroad weather vane that is made from iron that has rusted, leaving none of the original paint. It still has the directional part and what appears to be the original rod that attached it to the building. Any information and a value would be appreciated. -- S.

Dear S.:

In the days before we could turn on the radio or television and get in-depth updates on the weather, weather vanes were important pieces of equipment for farmers and homeowners. They told which way the wind was blowing and that information could warn of an oncoming storm.

It is said that the first weather vane was created circa 48 B.C. and was placed in the Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece. This bronze figure had the head and torso of a man and the tail of a fish. It held a rod that pointed at one of eight different wind deities to show which god would be in charge of the weather that day.

The term "vane" comes from the Old English "fane," which meant "flag." Many early weather vanes were in the form of roosters because, in the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I ordered that all churches had to display a rooster on its steeple or dome as a symbol of St. Peter and Christ's prophecy that Peter would betray him three times before the cock (rooster) crowed.

Eventually, these roosters were converted into communal weather vanes that could be seen all over town. In the 19th century, an amazing number of images were used for weather vanes -- including cows, fish, horses, pigs, peacocks, rams, grasshoppers, dragons, mermaids, Indians (Native Americans), witches, saws, Lady Liberty and centaurs.

The spread of railroad tracks across the United States in the second and third quarters of the 19th century led to a proliferation of weather vanes in the form of trains. The railroad companies often had elaborate 3-D weather vanes in the shape of locomotives and the cars they pulled, handcrafted from copper and affixed atop their depots and stations.

Today, the most elaborate of these are highly prized by collectors, and in 2002, an example sold at Skinner's in Boston for $237,000. This, however, was for the best of the best, and lesser weather vanes bring far less money. Also, the market for flat sheet-iron vanes is a bit depressed at the moment.

If a middle-class family wanted a representation of a train as a weather vane, it might order a two-dimensional sheet-iron piece from one of the various manufacturers who made such rooftop ornaments. Many times this type of weather vane was chosen because the homeowner was either fascinated with railroads in general, or a member of the family worked for the railroad as an engineer, conductor or some such.

The example in today's question is certainly interesting, and it appears to be complete, but it does have some serious condition problems, and these greatly affect the value. It is obvious from the photograph that the piece has lost all of its paint and is covered with corrosion. How serious this is we cannot say for sure, but if holes have eaten through the metal, this would be very serious.

It appears from the photo we have that this weather vane should have an insurance value in the neighborhood of $1,200-$1,500.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of "Price It Yourself" (HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at