Published: September 18, 2012
Auctions are often termed landmark sales; some are, some are not. Willis Henry Auctions’ sale of the McCue Shaker Collection, conducted on the grounds of Hancock Shaker Village on September 8, was a sale that fit into the “was” category. To call it anything less would be short-sighted. It was an auction that the antiques world may never see the likes of again.
It was not “out-of-this-world” prices that made this an event; it was the circumstances under which the single-owner collection was formed that made this auction so special and unique.
The auction of Dr Jerry and Miriam McCue’s collection was accurately summed up by many in attendance as “one of the last” of the original collections. Indeed, it was “the last” as never again will a collection of Shaker items become available to the public that was purchased by collectors, in most cases, directly from the Shakers. A collection sculpted by collectors who were intrigued by the Shakers, who respected the Shakers, who were friends of the Shakers, who interacted with the Shakers, who regularly visited Shaker communities, who bought Shaker furniture and Shaker accessories directly from the Shakers, and who were presented gifts as tokens of their friendship with the Shakers.
The astounding circumstances surrounding the McCue Shaker Collection sale made for an astounding auction †and along the way some astounding prices realized.
“The McCue Shaker Collection is unique and beautiful,” stated auctioneer Willis Henry prior to the start of the sale. With the items “meticulously selected over 60 years, Jerry and Miriam admired the craftsmanship that they saw when they visited the different Shaker communities throughout the 1940s. They were so far ahead of their time, they collected only pieces that retained their structural integrity and the original finish.”
The setting for the auction could not have been more appropriate, housed in a huge white tent situated on the grounds of Hancock Shaker Village, with gardens directly to the rear and with Hancock’s most distinctive feature †the round barn †off in the distance.
A huge crowd was on hand for the auction, and midway through preview Will Henry was overheard instructing his staff to put out more chairs. A while later he asked to have that request repeated with even more chairs being brought into the tent. Virtually every seat in the tent was filled and many people stood at the rear and the sides. While there was a fair amount of telephone and Internet activity taking place, it was evident that the serious buyers had made the trip to the auction. “We have people here that have been regular buyers at our Shaker auctions for the past 30 years and have never actually come to the sale. They are here today. It is amazing,” stated the auctioneer.
Just as preview ended and Henry began to get the sale underway, the skies opened up with wave after wave of torrential downpours. At times the rain beating off of the tent’s surface was so loud it drowned out (no pun intended) the auctioneer and he was forced to wait a minute or two so that the crowd could hear the bids. Henry was not amused and his distaste of all things associated with outdoor auctions and tents readily became apparent when a gushing water spout appeared at the entrance of the tent threatening to destroy electrical and Internet connections. Not only did the large crowd take things in stride, they seemed to enjoy the circumstances as it added to the atmosphere.
Henry reluctantly provided a sheet with the presale estimates printed on it to buyers. “I hate estimates,” he quipped. Only a couple lots throughout the day sold between estimates; virtually everything went above, sometimes way above.
The crowd was hungry. “It is not often that a sale likes this takes place,” commented one buyer standing along the side of the tent and justifying an impressive price paid for the lot that had just been hammered down. “Its now or never; if you want great stuff from a great collection, you better be willing to stand up and pay the price.”
The first lot of the day, a spit box in yellow stain, estimated at $2/3,000, would set the pace for an interesting afternoon. Jerry McCue kept meticulous journals in which every purchase and the circumstances were recorded and this lot was recorded as entry #203, purchased from J. Gillies, Lenox, Mass, 1952, $4.50. Almost a foot wide and bearing the grungy surface that any spit box should, it sold well above estimate at $4,387.
Next up was a glove box in butternut and retaining the original varnish ($600/800), a purchase from Gillies in 1950 for $10, that was thought by McCue to either be Hancock or New Lebanon. It hammered at $2,925.
The top lot of the auction came as Henry presented the standout lot of the McCue Shaker Collection, a classic shoe-foot trestle table measuring just over 5 feet in length. The auctioneer declared it to be “probably the most important [Shaker] table in existence.” Exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986, curator Joan Sprigg designated the cherry table with pine top and wrought iron braces as made at the Harvard community, circa 1820. “Its small size would suggest that it was used as a dining table for the four members of the Harvard Bishopric Ministry,” she wrote in the exhibition catalog.
The first piece of Shaker furniture that Jerry McCue was ever exposed to, and one that he was later able to purchase from mentor, pioneer dealer/collector Edna Greenwood for $350 in 1949, it carried an estimate of $70/90,000. The lot opened for bidding at $20,000, with several bid cards in the air as the lot took off. Moving at a rapid pace in $5,000 advances, as the lot cleared the high estimate, bidding seemed to pick up momentum. South Salem, N.Y., Shaker dealer John Keith Russell was active on the lot as bids bounced from his position in the rear of the tent to the front row where Ohio dealer Bill Samaha was seated. Russell dropped from the action, only to be replaced by another bidder who pushed Samaha to a winning bid of $198,900.
Greenwood made a notation in McCue’s journal back in 1949, “Buy the best †to Hell with the rest.” A sentiment that Samaha surely shares.
A Sisters cupboard with two small blind doors over a bank of six-drawers was recorded in McCue’s journal as acquired directly from the Hancock Trustees office. Retaining the original light cinnamon red stain and contrasting white porcelain pulls, the chest carried a $20/30,000 estimate. The lot opened for $27,000 on crossing absentee bids, with Ohio dealer Tom Queen and Russell competing for the lot initially. At $56,000, Queen dropped from the action, but was replaced with a new bidder right away. As Henry was looking for $72,000, Russell’s call of $80,000 jumped the bid; the scenario was repeated at $90,000 with Russell calling out $100,000. A bid of $105,000 came from an unknown spot in the tent; Russell dropped from the action and the lot finished at $122,850.
The first piece of Shaker furniture that McCue ever purchased came during a trip in 1946 when Edna Greenwood took the fledgling antiques collector to the home of Dr Edward and Faith Andrews. The trip resulted in the purchase of several pieces of Shaker furniture, including an infirmary cupboard from the Church family at the New Lebanon community for which he paid $125. In the original red exterior stain, the cupboard’s interior was stained yellow. Henry surmised the lighter reflective color of the interior would have made it easier for to locate different medicines by candlelight. Estimated at $20/30,000, the lot sold for $114,075.
A yellow painted wood box, probably made at the Alfred community, tripled estimate, selling at $78,390.
Another high note of the day was the sale of a six-drawer blanket chest with original grain paint that was made at Hancock Shaker Village, circa 1840, possibly by Brother Grove Wright. When the lot hammered down at $21,060, a small cheer erupted from the rear of the tent where a bunch of people had congregated. It was later revealed that the group consisted of donors that had gotten together and raised sufficient funds to purchase the rare chest with the intent of returning it to Hancock Shaker Village.
Yellow was certainly the color of the day and nowhere was that more evident than when it came to finger boxes and carriers. Purchased in 1968 at the George and Gladys Jordan auction conducted by New Hampshire auctioneer Frank Greene Jr, an oval fingered carrier made at Canterbury was in the best paint. Bidding on the lot opened at $10,000, with Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft chasing the lot. Wheatcroft pursued the lot to $48,000, where he dropped from the action, only to be replaced with a new bidder. The lot finished at $63,180 shortly thereafter, bringing double the high estimate,.
A large six-finger box, measuring almost 15 inches long and 10 inches wide, and also in wonderful yellow finish, $10/15,000, would not escape Wheatcroft’s clutches as the lot went his way at $47,970. An unusual tall five-finger box in yellow that measured over 10 inches long and stood more than 6 inches tall, also went to Wheatcroft at $8,190.
A nice four-finger box in red stain sold to Connecticut Shaker dealer Clint Bigelow at $6,727.
Purchased by the McCues at the Sabbathday Lake community in 1950 for $3.50, a coopered Shaker pail in the original yellow paint reached $17,550.
A rare Canterbury spool holder and 30 spools was hotly contested, selling at $29,250. The small tabletop piece had been purchased from Sister Mildred Baker at Sabbathday Lake for $15 in 1955.
Other smalls that garnered hefty prices included clothes hangers with a set of five graceful wooden hangers in a red stain selling well above the $400/600 estimates at $3,159. A rare triple hanger that the McCues purchased from “A. Hamilton” in 1951 for $2.50, sold to a telephone bidder for $5,031.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.willishenry.com or 781-834-7774.
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