PITTSFIELD, MASS. — Next to a bountiful garden bursting with ripe tomatoes, green and purple cabbage and peppers was an equally bountiful fall crop of Shaker antiques that Willis Henry Auctions dutifully harvests every September.
An annual event, the auction was conducted Saturday, September 7, under a tent at Hancock Shaker Village and offered just over 220 lots. The first session featured Part II of the renowned McCue collection and was followed by the second session comprising the collections of the late antiques dealer Ed Clerk, who exhibited Shaker at the Winter Antiques Show for ten years, and James H. Bissland Jr, who acquired many items with the idea of creating a Shaker museum before his sudden passing. Pieces from the collection of the late Tony and Phyllis Geiss and the late Nancy and Jim Stranahan were also offered.
After 31 years of conducting Shaker auctions, Willis Henry is synonymous with Shaker and people who have Shaker pieces seek Henry out, meaning that his annual sales are chockfull of choice pieces and rarities. Sometimes, though, even the auctioneer is surprised to make a new discovery.
“There are some items here that I’ve never had in an auction. I consider them to be quite rare,” he said during preview as he showed off several rare smalls from the Bissland collection, including a tailor’s compass in its original finish, hand numbered from 10 to 80, with a brass holder for chalk, and some of the chalk intact. This was the first Shaker tailor’s compass Henry has ever sold and the 15-inch-long example from New Lebanon, N.Y., brought $5,192.
The Ed Clerk collection offered up a rare candle sconce with an ochre yellow stained finish and having two tin candleholders. It is the only Shaker candle sconce to cross the block here, and it took $11,210.
The top lot of the sale, perhaps surprisingly, came not from the McCue collection, but nearly an hour into the second session. Clerk was known to have loved the color orange, a highly sought-after color in Shaker antiques, and lot 40 was an especially fine example. The rare, slat back rocking chair had come from the Union Village, Ohio, Shakers and had a lovely bittersweet orange finish. “He lived with Shaker,” Henry said of Clerk during the auction preview, noting that the chair was offered with a multicolor rag rug that Ed used to protect the rare cane seating, as well as give his cats a warm place to curl up for a nap.
Buyers agreed with Clerk’s fine eye and drove the bidding higher and higher for this chair until it came down to two bidders in the room, who battled ferociously for the chair, hitting the lot and countering the high bid again and again, until the final hammer dropped at $57,000 (with buyer’s premium the total was $67,260).
“Ed was our mentor, our friend, and our leader in all things Shaker, and life in general,” Henry wrote in the auction catalog, adding that he and his wife, Karel, had first met Ed back in the late 1970s at Russell Carrell’s outdoor markets. Kindred spirits, the three became fast friends and over the year shared many good times and meals as well as a love of animals and Shaker.
At Willis Henry Auctions’ debut sale in 1982, Clerk bought a two-door pine cupboard for a great price of $16,000 and a year later became a consignor whose Shaker desk achieved a record price here of nearly $500,000, a record that still stands.
The auction started off with the second part of the collection of Dr Jerry and Miriam McCue, who bought directly from the Shakers, mainly at four communities in Hancock, Mass.; New Lebanon, N.Y.; Canterbury, N.H.; and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Jerry and Miriam McCue traveled to those communities and became friends with the Sisters, and occasionally a Brother. The first part of the McCue collection was offered at Willis Henry’s 2012 auction, and was led by an important Shaker table for $198,900.
Several of the pieces in this auction have been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of Art, “Shaker Design,” 1986; and the Smithsonian, “Furniture of the Shaker Sect,” 1965.
“He had his pick. He wanted very unique items,” Henry said of McCue.
First up was a maple spit box with three fingers. It bore the initials “R.C.” prominently on the side and bottom, and its small size at 3¼ inches tall with a 7½-inch-diameter likely meant it was used by a Shaker Sister. The box was a nice buy at $1,652.
The action quickly heated up two lots later when the first of several choice items in a lovely bittersweet orange-red finish crossed the block — a pine blanket chest with two drawers below, 41 inches tall, which sold over estimate for $18,880.
The action at times was a bit sluggish and buyers got many fine examples at reasonable prices, but bidding was fast and furious on several very choice pieces, such as the aforementioned Ohio chair.
The rule of three seemed to be an early trend, of sorts, when after lots 1 and 3, high performing lots occurred at every third lot. A one-drawer rectangular table in red paint with a single-board top (lot 6) opened at $2,000 but doubled its high estimate to fetch $15,340; a cupboard with original yellow stain (lot 9) then opened at $10,000 and also finished at $15,340, and a six-drawer tall chest in pine with a red finish (lot 12) took $9,440.
The top furniture lot for the McCue collection was a cupboard over drawers in its original cherry red finish, which attained $47,200. It came out of the Watervliet, N.Y., Shaker community and the McCues bought it in 1976 from A.H. Benning, another collector who appreciated Shaker design.
A rare trustee’s desk, circa 1840, had once belonged to Mrs Benjamin Moore (of paint fame) and was referred to as “The Cathedral” by Jerry McCue. It was sold by the Canterbury Shakers in 1930 from their antiques shop and attained $32,450 at this sale.
“With Shaker, it’s all in the details,” Henry said during preview, pointing out the exemplary craftsmanship, as evidenced by the double-pinning on the diagonal. “That’s what makes this thing so outstanding.”
A wonderful washstand in original yellow ochre stain doubled its high estimate to bring $44,250.
Comprising items from several fine longtime collections, the offerings in the afternoon session ran the gamut from choice smalls to fine furniture, hailing from Shaker communities in Ohio, New York and New Hampshire.
A quartet of child’s chairs was shown together during preview to exemplify the range of sizes and diversity offered. A rocker in size O sold for $1,534, while a size 1 rocker with split top post took $708, a size 1 armchair with shawl bar and gold taped seat went out at $1,888, and a size 0 rocker with green taped seat and shawl bar fetched $1,180. On at least one of the chairs, one could feel the sawdust stuffing in the seat.
Two fine timekeepers crossed the block. An exceedingly rare Shaker shelf clock, signed “John Winkley, Canterbury,” circa 1795, was found in New Hampshire and fetched $25,960, while a tall clock in old refinish by Isaac Youngs, dated 1835, brought $21,240.
Selling well above high estimate was a chrome yellow carrier that came out of a Massachusetts collection and realized $23,600, while a good buy was a fine worktable in butternut and pine, circa 1820–40, that sold for $5,900. Henry was contacted via email about furniture and he spied the table in a photograph of items in a Duxbury, Mass., shed that was filled with stuff. When he got to the house, he immediately asked where that table was and when he got his hands on it, he was thrilled to discover it was real and not a reproduction.
A highlight of the Geiss collection was a stack of drawers with its original dark red finish and six dovetailed drawers that realized $4,012, while the star of the Stranahan collection was a 30-peg board in its original ochre/brown stain, 10 feet 3 inches long, that was a scarce size in wonderful condition. It climbed well past its $800–$1,200 estimate to take $7,080.
James Bissland Jr got to know the Shakers at Enfield, Conn., while a boy growing up in nearby Springfield, Mass. After growing up and graduating from MIT, he continued to appreciate Shaker history, which he passed on to his wife and son. The family would visit the Shakers, starting in 1939, particularly the North Family at New Lebanon, N.Y., so often that the Shakers called him “Brother James.”
Bissland’s sudden passing in 1966 ended his dream of creating a Shaker museum with all the artifacts and antiques he had spent years acquiring, though many had been shown at the Museum of American Folk Art.
After spending years in storage, the collection was offered, and led by an oval box from Sabbathday Lake, Maine, in a pleasing apple green paint, that fetched $5,900.
Also from the collection was a yarn winder in maple and birch, retaining its original brick red stain finish, 16½ inches tall, that fetched $3,186; a tuning fork and a rare staff used for inking sheet music that together claimed $3,540, and a garden seed box in pine with a leather-hinged lid and a leather handle that sold for $2,478. A rare buttonhole chisel with a turned bone handle was a nice buy at $826.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.willishenry.com or 781-834-7774.