Published: October 27, 2015
Review By Charles R. Muller,
Photos courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions Inc
PITTSFIELD, MASS. — Since 1982, Willis Henry has conducted his annual Shaker sale each fall. The last few years, the question has been, “Will there be another?” And every year, Will says he is ready to retire. But do auctioneers ever retire? Not if they can find the merchandise to sell. And Henry keeps coming up with it!
This year, the October 12 sale at Hancock Shaker Village benefited from its 34-year legacy as items from that first sale — and many since — came back into Henry’s hands. Add to these returnees pieces from the estates of several collectors and you have the makings of a solid Shaker auction.
Howard and Flo Fertig’s interest in Shaker started in the 1970s. Henry sold part of their collection last year and their folk art this past August. Jonathan Wadleigh and Joanne Wombolt had been bidding at Henry’s sale since the 1980s. Ed Clerk, longtime antiques dealer and exhibitor at the Winter Antiques Show, grew up in the shadows of the Mount Lebanon Shaker community and specialized in its products. Parts of his “keepers” were sold in previous years. Don Emerich was a longtime scholar who helped organize the exhibition and catalog of “The Shaker: The Collection of Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews” in 1974 at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Many of his select smalls had come from the Andrews.
The most prominent offering this year was a group of ephemera from the estate of a man who had been on the staff of the Darrow School, which purchased the New Lebanon property in 1930. The Shakers regard all daily activities as gifts. But in a period from 1837 to 1860, referred to as Mother Ann’s Work, a great number of visions — special gifts — came to a small group of “instruments.” These imparted words of wisdom or expressions of good will were through songs, writings or drawings. With most of this material being in historical collections, examples that come upon the market are highly sought after.
The highest price paid for a piece from the ten lots from this grouping was $38,400 for a 28-page booklet, A Farewell Word or Parting notice from our Heavenly Parents to Eliza Sharp January 7th, 1842. Dealer David Schorsch, the underbidder on behalf of a private collector, said, “I loved, loved, loved that booklet, and understand that there are four others with identical covers.”
The new owners are Bill and Sandra Soule of Pennsylvania. Sandra has written numerous articles and books on the Shakers, including, Shaker Cut-and-Fold Booklets: Unfolding the Gift Drawers of Emily Babcock, Independency of the Mind: Aquila Massie Bolton, Poetry, Shakerism and Controversy and Robert White Jr, “Spreading the Light of the Gospel. The Soules also acquired five other “spiritual” items with a “spirit card” bringing $2,640, and a spirit poem, $1,920.
The two spirit correspondences the Soules did not acquire went to Robert Hamilton, also of Pennsylvania. The “Spirit Leaf Gift Message” that Henry used in promoting the auction brought $15,000. This is the seventh of these messages and the sixth by Polly Ann Reed. Hamilton took it and the “Lovely Vineyard” spirit communication ($2,160) to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center the next day.
In addition to the ephemera, items commanding the most excitement and money were the 9-foot-long trestle table, $84,000; a large blue cupboard and drawers combination, $67,200; and a red 6-inch-round box with a straight lap joint, $25,200. Some of the items — especially those with good color and/or smalls from Clerk or Emerich — brought strong prices. Generally, merchandise was within reach of the average collector.
The classic and readily identifiable Shaker forms were well represented with about every fifth lot being an oval box or a chair. The prices on boxes varied primarily upon the surface. A green example marked with “Rowina Allen and Hannah C. Newell” in chalk brought $6,300. At the other end, a stack of four that was lacking paint went for $1,440, less than $400 per box. The presence of color is underscored by comparing round spit boxes with the lot No. 1 being in yellow and selling for $1,340, while an example later in the sale sans color that did not sell.
Chairs that would have brought thousands a few years ago sold for hundreds here. None of the 24 chairs in the auction beat estimate and only four fell within estimate. The only chair that held its price was the No. 0 New Lebanon child’s chair at $2,880. A pair of No. 5 armchairs brought $1,200. Consider that a single new No. 5 from Shaker Workshops will cost $546, and it may be time to start again furnishing with the real thing.
Auction estimates often seem low, perhaps as a suggestion the offerings could be readily acquired. This had been true in the past here, but first impressions when the catalog came this year were of strong estimates, which proved accurate. Of the 244 lots hammered down, 139 (or 57 percent) sold below estimate and only 46 lots went over. Was this a reflection of overly high estimates or a down market?
The Shaker market mirrors that of the larger antiques business. Rarity, color and provenance add extra value. The middle and lower ends of the offerings have not lived up to the past. While the estimates might be right for ten years ago, they were off this time.
With each auction of another collection of Shaker material culture, the question comes up, “Are there any others to be sold?” There are several outstanding collections that have been built or enhanced over the years of Willis Henry auctions. Perhaps the last sale from old-timers who acquired directly from the Shakers will be the one that is scheduled for June 4 at Skinner Inc, in Boston. Erhart Mueller (no relation to this writer) had lived and collected in the Harvard, Mass., Shaker community until his recent death at 104. Featured in the sale will be 150 lots from his estate.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.willishenryauctions.com or 781-834-7774.
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