When a Handful of Sand is Priceless

By Laura Deering

antique sand art by Andrew Clemens

Sand bottle with patriotic decoration, which sold for $102,000, Cowan’s Auctions. Sand bottle, which sold for $132,000, Cowan’s Auctions.

How is it possible that a few fistfuls of sand could be worth $275,000? 

It may be hard to believe, after all, what could be more common than the sand beneath your feet? We often take sand for granted while we’re beachcombing near bodies of water or hiking through sandy forests. But it does make a difference if it is sand in a bottle created by artist Andrew Clemens, born in Iowa in 1857.

Sand Artist Andrew Clemens

Andrew’s family, like many, emigrated from Germany to the Midwestern state of Iowa in the early 1850s. The area had seen earlier explorers including Father Marquette and Louis Joliet, who claimed land for France in 1673. President Thomas Jefferson bought it from France during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and later, General Zebulon Pike admired its scenic splendor. The jutting bluff overlooking the blue Mississippi River was christened Pike’s Peak, before the famous one in Colorado.

Andrew’s family felt a connection to its beauty and bounty making McGregor, Iowa, their home. Sadly, around the age of six, Andrew had a case of “brain fever” and as a result, became deaf. Due to the illness happening early in his life, he also did not speak. His mother, though, was ahead of her time and taught him to read lips. The family also sent him to a school for deaf people, which they hoped would make his world larger. Andrew excelled in school and was offered a position as an instructor, but instead chose to return home.

Enjoying hikes on the rugged sheer cliffs towering over the Mississippi River, Andrew’s favorite spot was an area near McGregor known as the Pictured Rocks. Many years before the area was settled, Native Americans also had a deep appreciation of the landscape. Today, you can visit the Effigy Mounds National Monument. The surrounding park area has over 200 earth-built mounds of effigies ranging from birds to bears, perched high above the Mississippi River.

sandstone cliffs along mississippi river

Sandstone cliffs along the Mississippi River, sandstone pillars, and Mississippi overlook, Laura Deering.

The Sands of Many Colors

Andrew explored the area and found a cave where he admired the multitudes of colored sand. The hues ranged from snow white to jet black. He even discovered rare sand colors, such as blue. Over 40 colors of sand lurked in the cave, which at times could only be reached by boat.

Hauling back bags of multi-colored sand to his family home, Andrew started using the sand to make geometric designs in glass jars. He quickly shifted to landscapes, and then objects such as eagles, horses, trains, ships, and events. Many local people started recognizing his gift and special ordered bottles to commemorate their own events, such as anniversaries.  

Andrew fine-tuned his craft by sorting and grinding the sand into different hues and size portions. He made his remarkable renderings in drug store apothecary bottles around 10 to 14 inches high, with the tallest being 22 inches. He often worked at home in front of a window, in which he seemed to take pleasure as people watched him transform sand into enchanted masterpieces.

sand art in bottles

Sand bottle, which sold for $100,000, Cowan’s Auctions. Inverted sand bottle with nautical scene, which sold for $108,000, Cowan’s Auctions. Sand bottle with patriotic decoration, State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Inside Out and Upside Down

The other outstanding feature of these gems was that they were often rendered upside down. Using very few tools, such as slender hickory sticks and one with a lean curve, Andrew would expertly place grains meticulously, one on top of the other, all while backfilling from the inside out to keep his art from collapsing. In doing so, he would create crisp lines or lingering shadows—whatever the piece demanded next, while carefully tapping down the sand to keep it stable. Once his masterpiece was complete, he would affix the bottom of the bottle with a label stating, “A. Clemens, Deaf Mute.” Finished, he would then flip the entire bottle over ready for display.

andrew clemens sand artist with tools

Portrait of Andrew Clemens, Andrew Clemens’ tools, sand bottle label, State Historical Museum of Iowa.

The bottle that is considered his masterpiece, showcases President George Washington upon his steed, with the reverse a depiction of Native Americans. It was a special gift for his mother, and it took 18 months to complete. Andrew did not use glue, he only used sand and gravity to keep it in place. Sometimes, people would purchase a bottle to smash it and see how he made them, only to find out it was sand and quiet determination.

antique sand art in bottles

Sand bottle with George Washington and Native American designs, sand bottle with nautical design, State Historical Museum of Iowa.

Bring on the World!

Eventually, his customer base expanded, and he was even invited to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Andrew was admired by followers as far-reaching as Europe during his lifetime. Even the New York Times ran an article on him. He died at age 37 of causes not fully known.

Andrew’s legacy lives on, including fame on an “Antique Road Show” episode. During the 2002 episode, the sand art bottle was valued around $5,000. It sold at auction in 2020 for a record-breaking $275,000. Not bad for sand in a jar.

During a recent visit to his hometown of McGregor, a friend and I dashed down the street to visit the local historical museum to see Andrew Clemens’ sand art before the museum closed. My friend later confessed that she thought it crazy to go all that way just for sand art. That is, until she saw the famous Huntting House sand bottle in person. Speechless, she stood and stared. Then she turned to me and the custodian, only to turn and stare again. Finally, she slowly, and with deliberation, asked, “This is made out of sand?” Knowing the effect, both of us nodded, re-basking in the wonderment.

A New Discovery?

As we made our way home, we stopped at the Driftless Area Education Visitors Center in nearby Lansing, Iowa, a jewel box of natural and Native American history. It included a display from the mid-century button industry that helped clothe the nation. The buttons were made from Mississippi River freshwater mussels, in which their shells were drilled and fashioned into everyday, or high fashion buttons. As we meandered our way out, we noticed three jars of sand art on the staff conference table. Knowing that fewer than 200 bottles exist, a new discovery would be magical to say the least.

Like a magnet pulled north, we walked into the room and stood dumbfounded. The day before, a local Iowan donated the jars to the museum, as she was ready to pass them on, while unconfirmed of Andrew being the artist. One of the bottles depicted a favorite scene by Andrew: a large, masted ship held hostage in the raging waves, on the edge of breaking free. We saw a similar ship by Andrew earlier and the scene spoke to us.

We could hear the winds howling, the thunderous crash of waves against the bow, and the searing high pitch of rigging rope cutting the wind. Indeed, through his art Andrew talked, and we heard him.  

We heard him loud and clear.

With special thanks to Brenda Morrison. For more information, check out The Sand Art Bottles of Andrew Clemens, by Roy Sucholeiki.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.

1 comment

I saw an example of Andrew’s sand art on the Antiques Roadshow. His work was phenomenal to say the least!! We had been leaders of a scouting troop and did some very minor sand art work. What an amazing talent….I wish that I had known of Andrew to share with the children.

Kathleen A Stub June 16, 2023

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