Published: May 15, 2007
“Dr Donald A. Shelley, the York, Penn.-born collector who died last year, was a trailblazer who ranks with the other great early Pennsylvania collectors, from Lorimer and Horton to Reifsnyder and Geesey,” says Ron Pook, vice president and principal auctioneer at Pook & Pook, Inc.
Pook’s thesis was successfully put to the test on April 20′1, 2007, when the Downingtown auctioneer gaveled down 852 lots consigned by Shelley’s widow, Esther. The tally reached $9,765,454, including buyer’s premium, a house record. Pook sold the couple’s fraktur collection in 2004 for $899,460, including premium.
Unreserved and estimated to bring between $3.1 and $4.6 million, the latest Shelley sale achieved unprecedented prices for a variety of individual forms, from a dower chest to a William and Mary dressing table to a dry sink and a painted box by Jacob Weber.
One bidder jokingly likened the once-in-a-lifetime gathering to Woodstock. The sale summoned the spirits of great dealers and collectors past along with a contemporary who’s who in the world of early Pennsylvania decorative arts. Attendance figures told the story. Pook & Pook registered 1,245 bidders and set up 350 chairs. Still, it was standing room only. Pook got rave reviews from customers on its execution of the Shelley sale, from its detailed, readily available condition reports and hardcover catalog to its lengthy preview.
Educated at Penn State and Harvard in the early 1930s, Shelley spent much of his career at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, as curator and then executive director and president of the Dearborn, Mich., institution. The Shelleys bought an Eighteenth Century house in Oley Valley, Penn., before they moved to Michigan. They began collecting in the 1930s and continued after they returned to Pennsylvania in 1976. From the 1940s through 1960s, they bought heavily. Favorite sources included Joe Kindig, Jr & Son, Mary Thornton, Edgar & Charlotte Sittig, and Jess Pavey.
Shelley’s passion, commitment, expertise and extensive contacts in the field enabled him to assemble a large but highly focused collection that was broad, deep and full of unusual examples. In some cases, he paid a fraction of what the pieces command today, as well-preserved receipts reveal.
“Shelley had rare, wonderful things in every category. He also had that special fire that it takes to buy something unusual and see it for what it is. In part, people wanted to own a piece of the man,” said Trish Herr, a Lancaster, Penn., specialist in Pennsylvania textiles, reflecting on Pook’s buoyant results.
“I prepared my customers to be disappointed,” Massachusetts dealer David Wheatcroft said before the sale, bracing himself for the stiff competition. The dealer got the top-priced dower chest in the sale, a dated 1803 Berks County example with parrots and tulips painted in crisp red and white against blue, for $561,600, an auction record for the form.
A charming Centre County dower chest on gracefully flared feet also went to Wheatcroft for $222,300. Appropriately, it is initialed “DW.” His other purchases included a 6¾-inch-tall Schimmel eaglet for $58,500, a red tole syrup pitcher for $4,914 and a Native American burlwood bowl, 11 inches wide, $22,230.
Shelley’s mystique was heightened by the fact that few people had actually seen his collection. Pennsylvania dealer Skip Chalfant said he visited the home only once, when he delivered a piece of furniture to the reticent collector. Philadelphia Museum of Art curator David Barquist recalled that Shelley declined to loan an important hardwood schrank to an exhibition jointly organized by Winterthur and the PMA in 1982, or even to allow Barquist’s predecessor Bea Garvan to photograph the case piece.
From Lancaster County, the carved walnut schrank was a sale highlight, knocked down to Barquist’s colleague Alexandra Alevizatos Kirtley on behalf of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for $351,000 ($175/225,000). The schrank’s frieze is inlaid with the date 1760, making it the earliest dated piece of Pennsylvania German furniture in the museum’s noted collection.
Said Barquist, “There are only a few dated Pennsylvania German pieces from the 1760s. Stylistically, this schrank shows a direct transfer of the high baroque style from Germany to Pennsylvania. It is a Germanic piece of furniture presumably made by an immigrant. Later Pennsylvania German furniture represents a hybrid of influences.”
Another dated 1760s piece was a Berks County miniature marriage chest inscribed “1765 HB LB.” It is decorated with what buyer Todd Prickett believes to be love birds. The 19½-inch-wide chest went to the Yardley, Penn., dealer for $304,200, far exceeding the $40/60,000 estimate.
A dated 1763 pewter flagon attributed to Johann Phillip Alberti sold to Pennsylvania pewter authorities Don and Trish Herr for $49,140. “Its very German, but its got an American handle,” said Don Herr, who joked that he regrets having published a similar but signed Alberti flagon in Pewter in Pennsylvania German Churches . A Queen Anne pewter teapot attributed to Alberti brought $35,100. A chalice attributed to Johann Christoph Heyne fetched $30,420.
“Shelley was collecting at a time when there was a different rule book in place,” said Phillip Zimmerman, an independent scholar and consultant from Lancaster, Penn., who acquired several pieces on behalf of clients. “He bought for his own purposes and enjoyment. Sometimes he preferred an interesting piece with damage to something that was perfect but uninteresting. Shelley’s personality comes through in this collection. More than individual pieces, I enjoyed groups of objects and how they related to one another.”
Shelley’s chairs illustrate Zimmerman’s point. A Boston William and Mary crook back maple armchair of circa 1730 went back to Jenifer Kindig for $21,060, complete with a letter and note from her grandfather, who sold Shelley the piece. Among five lots of early Eighteenth Century Pennsylvania walnut wainscot armchairs, one sold to an absentee bidder for $111,150. The others ranged in price from $25,740 to $87,750. A pair of Delaware Valley banister back side chairs of the same date fetched $93,600 from Pennsylvania collectors.
Attracting the most attention were two mid-Eighteenth Century Savery-Fussell school maple ladder back armchairs. Each had its virtues. An exceedingly rare six-slat example with robustly carved handles sold to Todd Prickett for $478,600. A five-slat chair with beautiful turnings and fine surface fetched $117,000 from Harry B. Hartman Antiques. Among several benches, a William and Mary walnut settle went to buyer in the room for $99,450. By contrast, an early Nineteenth Century settee with fanciful landscape decoration garnered $128,700 from Mercer, Penn., dealer Chuck White.
Off the market for half a century, the Shelley collection offered a graphic illustration of changing taste and standards. As Ed Hild of Olde Hope Antiques put it, “Painted pieces are in favor and commanding much higher prices. Things with repairs are out of favor.”
Prices for painted boxes and chests were staggering, if not unexpected. Olde Hope, however, got a relative bargain on a circa 1770 decorated pine schrank that sold for $220,300. “It’s a gorgeous example. We loved its color, its form, the high foot. I would guess that under 30 of these have survived in their original painted finish,” said Hild. Condition kept the price down. The top part of the shrank had been cut in half. It can easily be reglued, said Hild.
Olde Hope also acquired a Lancaster County dry sink in old red paint for what was undoubtedly a record price, $64,350. Its provenance was impeccable. The dry sink came from Ephrata Cloister and was once owned by Titus Geesey.
Every category produced winners. Among carvings, a 14½-inch-tall Schimmel eagle brought $234,000; not a record, but still a handsome price.
In ceramics, an English transfer decorated creamware teapot for the American market brought $130,000, a 30 percent premium over a similar pot from the William Guthman collection, recently acquired by the Smithsonian. Pennsylvania redware was the main story. Maine dealers James and Nancy Glazer acquired a slipware plate dated 1816 for $105,300 and a scraffito decorated plate marked “1812 RG” for $87,750.
A redware charger attributed to Isaac Stout fetched $115,150; a wall pocket, $44,460; a Lancaster County flower pot, $32,760; and a green-glazed covered reticulated jar attributed to David Haring of Bucks County, $25,740. A stoneware jug decorated in cobalt with a figure of a woman in a hoop skirt brought $53,820.
In tole, a red-ground coffee pot went to Old Hope Antiques for $23,400. The New Hope, Penn., dealers also bought a dome-top black-ground documents box for $16,380.
In tin, a punch decorated coffee pot by Willoughby Shade went to the Glazers for $11,700.
In lighting, a rectangular wood and tin mirror-back sconce together with a tin mirror-back sconce fetched $18,720 from New Hampshire dealer Hollis Brodrick.
A handful of textiles included a brilliant Pennsylvania pieced crib quilt that went to the phone for $25,740. A Lititz Moravian Girls’ School silk embroidery sold to a Pennsylvania collector for $35,100.
“This was certainly the most exciting sale I’ve ever participated in. We were honored to handle it. Bidders paid respect to Dr Shelley and what he collected,” said Kellie M. Seltzer of Pook & Pook.
For information, 610-269-4040 or www.pookandpook.com .
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