Thorpe was considered world's greatest athlete.
Dear Helaine and Joe: This statue of the athlete Jim Thorpe was made by Charles Banks Wilson, who was my father’s friend. I also knew him and purchased several lithographs from Mr. Wilson through the 1980s. Mr. Wilson gave this statue to my father and I later inherited it. I wonder about its value and whether there is a market for Mr. Wilson’s work. — R.E., Itasca, Ill.
Dear R.E.: The athlete’s Native American name was Wa-Tho-Huk, meaning “Bright Path,” but his English name was Jacobus Franciscus Thorpe. “Jim” Thorpe (1888 — 1953) was an important figure in American sports history, but his life ended tragically in poverty and alcoholism.
At one point, King Gustav V of Sweden called him “the greatest athlete in the world.” He was a standout in professional football, baseball and basketball, and a brilliant Olympic athlete who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Games.
Thorpe was eventually stripped of his medals (arguably because of racism), but they were restored in 1983 — 30 years after his death. In 1950, The Associated Press named him the greatest football player and greatest all-around athlete of the century’s first 50 years.
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Charles Banks Wilson was born in 1918 in Arkansas and grew up in Miami, Okla. — Jim Thorpe’s home state. Wilson was a painter, printmaker, teacher, lecturer, historian and book illustrator. His works have been widely exhibited in the U.S. and around the world.
In 1937, Wilson was enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute to study painting, lithography and watercolor. There, he began sketching portraits of Native Americans from Oklahoma. This became a lifetime artistic journey that eventually led him to illustrate 22 books and create the “First American Series.” Josiah Wedgwood and Co. turned these images of famous American Indian chiefs into basalt (black pottery) medallions.
Wilson executed several works on paper featuring an image of Thorpe, including one commissioned by the Oklahoma State Legislature that now hangs in the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City. Although Wilson is best known as a lithographer (a Wilson lithograph of Thorpe sold a few years ago for $230 at auction), his bronze works do turn up from time to time.
We found a Wilson bronze bust of Thomas Hart Benton, the famous Oklahoma artist, which sold at auction for $625 in 2010. We would like to know how the statue belonging to R. E. was signed, because this often includes the date of manufacture — the Hart bust, for example, was signed “CBW 92.”
Because R.E.’s father was given the statue by the artist, we have little doubt of its authenticity. And because Thorpe is such an iconic sports figure, this bronze might exceed the value of the Thomas Hart Benton example by as much as double if sold in a good, well-advertised sports memorabilia auction.
But since we could find no specific past sales information on this piece, our evaluation is conjecture and not a “take it to the bank” fact.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)