Published: October 3, 2017
Review and Onsite Photos by Andrea Valluzzo, Catalog Photos Courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions
PITTSFIELD, MASS. – The third and final installment of the Gerald and Miriam McCue collection crossed the block before a crowd of about 70 hungry Shaker collectors September 16 at Willis Henry’s annual Shaker auction at Hancock Shaker Village, an autumn tradition. Considering that these sales only take place once a year and finding the select items that the Shakers made for themselves – not for retail – is getting harder, pent-up excitement among bidders was at a high.
“You have a chance to buy things that have not been on the market since the 1940s-50s,” Henry told the audience of more than 70 buyers as he got the auction underway. The first 60 lots across the block came from the McCues followed by another 189 lots from other Shaker collections.
The audience evidently agreed as the auction kicked off with a chrome yellow measure in pine and maple, secured with 12 copper tacks, circa 1840, purchased from Sister Lillian of the East Canterbury Shakers, that she said was used to measure rice, flour or whatnot. A scrupulous journal keeper, Dr McCue noted in his journal that he bought this piece in 1948 for $1.50. It sold here for $10,800, tripling its high estimate.
Pragmatically speaking, auctions are all about the numbers and the bottom line, but these annual Shaker sales seem to transcend monetary concerns. “To me, it’s much more than prices,” Will Henry said, citing a Sister’s cupboard over drawers in its original stained yellow finish for example. “This has what I see as the Shaker glow. It’s spiritual. Some people might scoff at that but it really does have something to do with the way they lived their lives… and it has to do with the way these things were made.”
Citing the Shaker motto, “Hands to work, hearts to God,” Will said, “You see this cupboard and it speaks to you because it’s got this spiritual glow. The soul of the Shakers are in these pieces. This would have been made for a Sister and they made it with great care and great thought,” he said. “A lot of them made things for each other – not to sell – and they were made from the heart. Eventually, they made some chairs to sell, to survive. The things we sold of the McCues were made for each other.”
Will and his wife, Karel, who run the auctions together, got their introduction to the Shakers in the early 1970s on a visit to Maine’s Sabbathday Lake Shaker community. They were immediately hooked, started buying for themselves and began the Shaker auctions in 1982. “We love the Shaker stuff, we fell in love with the Shakers back in 1975,” he said.
As much as the Shaker spirit and aesthetic, these auctions are also all about the people. If you’ve been to at least one of these sales, you’ll notice many of the same people year after year. They walk around, during preview, inspecting pieces and making notes in their catalog but also greeting fellow collectors, whom they perhaps have not seen in person since last year’s Shaker sale. The warmest greetings, however, are reserved for Will and Karel, who eagerly chat with their guests, even while attending to myriad last-minute auction details.
Shepherding a visitor through some of the auction highlights in the preview gallery, Will turned around when someone called out to him and asked him if this gets old after doing it for 35 years. “No, I’m old but I still get excited. I still love it!”
The buyers who come here, especially those who travel from afar, are also excited to be here. Jack Higham and his wife, Pam Hearon, Sommerville, Mass., have been coming to the Shaker auctions for about a dozen years. They collect Shaker furniture and, like just about anyone you talk to, Jack says it’s the Shaker aesthetic that attracts him. The first piece they fell in love with and bought was an Ohio Shaker dry sink years ago. Now, they equally covet small Shaker boxes. “It’s a shrinking availability of good pieces,” he said of the current Shaker market.
Neal and Lynne Miller of Cambridge, Mass., have been regulars here for about eight years, describing themselves as “frequent flyers.” “For me, it’s the color. I enjoy the aesthetic,” Neal said, saying one has a very personal reaction to Shaker pieces, almost “ethereal.” “Plus it’s very functional.” Lynne echoed his sentiments, adding, “It represents a community,” and when you decorate your house with these pieces, “You just feel like you’re home.”
Though “Jerry” McCue died in 2011 at age 97, Miriam McCue is going strong at 99 and will mark her 100th birthday in November. After the last two years’ sales here featuring their collection, this sale features the last of their collection and are the items Miriam lived with until recently.
“She’s become a very close friend and sort of our surrogate mother as both our moms passed. She’s just wonderful and the auction is about her and her husband who started the collection back in the 1940s,” Will Henry said.
There were more than a few big ticket items that crossed the block, bringing high prices commensurate with the pieces’ quality and rarity. Lot 5 (mentioned above by Will) was the Sister’s cupboard over four drawers, made in Mount Lebanon, circa 1850, possibly by Amos Stewart. An hour before the sale kicked off, during preview, Will showed off this piece’s subtle decoration, noting one board that had been flipped to show off the grain and a slight contrasting stain on two panels. “This is a piece that glows,” he said, noting it was his favorite piece when he visited Miriam at her home.
Opening at $10,000, the piece kept climbing in price, ultimately going to a floor bidder for $180,000, eliciting a round of applause from the room. While the internet and phones picked up some items, the old adage, “You had to be there,” seemed to hold true as most of the best stuff went to in-house buyers.
The top selling lot of the sale came soon after, lot 35, in the form of a sewing table/case of drawers in cherry, butternut and pine having its original red stained finish and crafted with a single-board top over three drawers. After vigorous bidding, the piece went to the room with the successful buyer who was no stranger here, Harlow Murray of Saginaw, Mich., for $234,000. The room burst into applause. “He is a very passionate collector and has bought some wonderful things,” Will said. Harlow and his wife, Cherie, have been longtime visitors and benefactors to Hancock Shaker Village.
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.willishenry.com or 781-834-7774.
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