Published: June 21, 2016
Review By Laura Beach,
Photos Courtesy Skinner Inc
MARLBOROUGH, MASS. — Skinner Inc auctioned 150 lots from the collection of Erhart Muller at a dedicated sale of Shaker furniture, accessories, textiles and ephemera on June 4. Including roughly three dozen works gathered by the late Yarmouth Port, Mass., dealer Suzanne Courcier and her husband, Robert W. Wilkins, plus property from other consigners, the 285-lot auction at Skinner’s Marlborough galleries realized $729,125, including buyer’s premium. The auction’s cover lot and top-selling piece was a painted alphabet board described by Skinner as from the schoolhouse at the Shaker community in Harvard, Mass. The rare artifact went to Wilkins for $104,550.
“What I love about the board is that what makes it great doesn’t depend on its being Shaker. It is an iconic example of American folk art that transcends the subcategory ‘Shaker,’” said Wilkins, who bid by phone. He added, “It is also exceedingly rare. There is only one other Shaker alphabet board known that, loosely speaking, is comparable to this one. It was included in ‘Shaker Design’ at the Whitney Museum in 1986 and is in private hands.”
Painted white with calligraphic black script, the board at Skinner, measuring more than 13 feet long, calls to mind the paintings of Brice Marden and other contemporary artists working in a minimalist style. It is nonetheless an important artifact of American and Shaker educational practice in the Nineteenth Century.
In his catalog introduction, Bernie Brown wrote, “This sale may be the last single-owner collection of Shaker material to come to market, the majority of which was acquired directly from the Shakers.” Muller’s friend remembered, “In the fall of 1941, Erhart acquired what was traditionally referred to as the Carpenter’s Shop in the Harvard Shaker Plot, next door to the new Church Family Office. The rear section of the building, which had high arching doors and a dirt floor to accommodate wagons, was used as the carriage shop. Erhart renovated the building into a home.”
A noted conservationist, philanthropist and co-founder of the Harvard Conservation Trust, Muller died at 105 in 2015 after living at Harvard Shaker Village for more than 60 years. He and his wife, Ruth, furnished their home with Shaker furniture, woodenware, tools, textiles, baskets and ephemera. They bought directly from the Shakers between the 1940s and 1960s, forming deep friendships with the sect’s remaining members in Canterbury, N.H.; Hancock, Mass.; New Lebanon, N.Y.; and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The Mullers sold pieces at Skinner in January 1996, but did not disclose their names.
“People in the Shaker world have known about the Muller pieces for years,” said Wilkins.
In the June 4 sale, furniture from the Muller collection included, from Canterbury, an 11-drawer chest, $22,140; a red-stained pine tall chest of seven drawers, $18,450; and a single-drawer table with spayed legs, $14,760. An Enfield, N.H., tiger- and bird’s-eye maple and cherry one-drawer table achieved $52,275, while a sewing desk from Sabbathday Lake made $67,650.
The Mullers were partial to boxes and carriers. Among them, an olive-green box from Mount Lebanon achieved $18,450, while bids of $14,760 apiece took a yellow painted oval fixed-handle carrier and a red and yellow stained oval fixed-handle carrier, both from Canterbury.
From the collection of Courcier and Wilkins, a signed and dated 1834 tall clock by Isaac Newton Youngs of New Lebanon made $24,600 and a Hancock worktable garnered $14,760. Of great surprise to all was an early Nineteenth Century candlestand on a classic tripod base. From an unnamed consignor, it sailed past its $6/8,000 estimate to sell for $86,100.
Preceding the auction was a lecture by scholar Maggie Stier, who met Erhart Muller in the late 1980s when she was curator of the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard. Stier, a field service representative for New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, assisted Muller in cataloging much of his collection.
Noted Bernie Brown, “Erhart and Ruth well understood the Shaker aesthetic. They were meticulous in caring for their collection and recognized the importance of preserving original Shaker finishes.… Erhart and Ruth possessed many attributes that the Shakers would have admired, such as honesty in all dealings and the choice to live a simple life on Shaker Road. Their life together exemplified the Shaker life.”
For additional information, www.skinnerinc.com or 508-970-3000.
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