Published: July 8, 2015
Beverley and Jeffrey Evans hold the record auction price — $962,500 for a hanging cupboard sold in 2004 — for Johannes Spitler, a Shenandoah Valley descendant of Swiss Mennonites. Their latest offering, sold to a southeastern Virginia collector for $356,500, was a Spitler blanket chest that descended in the local Long family for two centuries. Jeff Evans and Elizabeth Davison are currently researching Spitler for what they hope will be a book on the craftsman.
Review and Onsite Photos by Laura Beach
Additional Photos Courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates
MOUNT CRAWFORD, VA. — Left on South Whitesel Church Road, right on Green Valley Lane. There, rising from the waving meadows of the Virginia highlands, is Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. The impeccably managed business built by the husband and wife team Jeffrey and Beverley Evans is a monument to hard work and devotion to calling.
A serious student of Southern decorative arts, Jeff Evans is not your average auctioneer. Though indefatigable at the podium — he calls an unheard of 900 lots without a break, 80 lots an hour — the Virginian’s greatest passion is discovering, documenting and preserving the culture of his native Shenandoah. Soon to be published is the catalog that he and Kurt C. Russ wrote to accompany their exhibition of tin-paneled cupboards, “Safes of the Valley,” which recently closed at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Va.
Now Evans is pivoting to other interests. He is investigating Johannes Spitler with Reston, Va., scholar Elizabeth A. Davison, the author of The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790–-1820: ‘A True North Britain’ in the Southern Backcountry.
On the front panel of the Long chest, two inverted hearts each support a trio of tulips, as seen in this detail.
“We want to survey and record all the pieces. We hope to determine, among other things, whether Spitler did the cabinetwork in addition to the decoration. Spitler’s stuff is out there by itself. It is such a different expression of the painted chest,” Evans said.
He is also researching artisans active in New Market, Va., between 1780 and 1830 and is supremely interested in one family, the Henkels. “We know there was a connection between New Market and Winston-Salem, N.C., and want to investigate it,” he says.
Twice a year, the Evans team puts together a cataloged sale featuring Virginian and Southern antiques, much of it of rural origin. A June 20 event that finished at just over $800,000 hammer drew a brain trust of Virginia decorative arts authorities, from Wallace Gusler, J. Roderick Moore and Marshall Davidson to Washington, D.C., collector Al Marzorini and Rod Graves, senior vice president of the Luray Taverns Corporation, which operates the small but outstanding Luray Valley Museum. Dealer Kelly Kinzle made the four-hour trip down from New Oxford, Penn.
The prime attraction was a blanket chest by Johannes Spitler, the Shenandoah craftsman known for a distinctive group of painted furniture. Spitler’s iconic status was cemented by Sotheby’s May 1995 auction of the Deyerle collection. The cover lot, a red, white and blue blanket chest decorated with quarter fans and pinwheels, sold for an astounding $343,500 to Colonial Williamsburg. After discovering a unique painted hanging cupboard, Evans auctioned it in 2004 for $962,500, the standing auction record for Spitler. Woodbury, Conn., dealer David Schorsch bought the cupboard for his client, Jane Katcher.
Of Evans’ blanket chest, Schorsch said, “These are rare things. To find one that was never out of the family like that is rare as heck. The market spoke.” The dealer sold a chest made by Spitler for the wife of fraktur artist Jacob Strickler at the Winter Antiques Show for what is probably the record price, public or private, for the form. “The one I had was very complex, even decorated on the inside, and more akin to the Deyerle model.”
The grandson of Swiss Mennonites who settled in Massanutten region, Spitler was born in Virginia in 1774 and died in Ohio in 1837. To date, he is credited with 31 pieces of painted furniture: 28 blanket chests, two clocks and one hanging cupboard. All appear to have been made between roughly 1790 and 1809, when Spitler left Virginia. With the exception of one tall clock and the hanging cupboard, all the pieces are of yellow pine and share common construction characteristics.
A team assembled by Colonial Williamsburg was the first to document Spitler. Roddy Moore and Wallace Gusler conducted the fieldwork that uncovered key pieces, many still in original families. In October 1975, Don Walters, then associate curator of Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Collection, published their groundbreaking research in The Magazine Antiques. The article included a blue blanket chest, the one Evans would later sell. Photographed by Gusler, the chest is decorated on its front panel with a pair of white lovebirds flanked by inverted red, white and blue hearts. Each heart supports a trio of tulips.
Co-director of the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum at Ferrum College, Moore recalls, “I think it was about 1974 that I was hired to do survey work on Shenandoah furniture. We knew very little about decorated furniture in Virginia then, though years ago Wallace and I had gone up to see Joe Kindig Jr. Kindig had a real special affection for Wallace, who has one of the better eyes in the country for study. Kindig first got to know Virginia when he was trading horses with his father. He told us to look in Wythe County,” Moore recalled.
Spitler favored motifs such as hearts and tulips, but employed them in different combinations from one blanket chest to the next. The front panel of the Long chest features two lovebirds atop a tulip.
Until retrieved by Evans, the chest remained for two centuries in the Long family. It was probably made following the 1795 marriage of Reuben Long (1773–1830) and Mary Ann Shank Long (1773–1831) and descended through six generations to the consignor. For the past century it had been at Wall Brook Farm near Luray in Page County, Va.
Estimated at $250/300,000, the Long chest sold in the room to a collector from southeastern Virginia, underbid by Rod Graves, for $356,500, an auction record for a Spitler blanket chest. The price narrowly eclipsed the $350,500 that Kelly Kinzle, James Glazer and Philip Bradley paid at Freeman’s in 2012 for a more elaborately decorated Spitler blanket chest. Kinzle took the Freeman’s chest to the 2015 Winter Antiques Show, where, priced $675,000, it later sold.
“I went down there to try to buy,” said Kinzle, who let the Long chest go. “I would say that the one at Freeman’s was probably a little bit earlier but I like the size better on this one. It was in great condition and the color, with a little cleaning, would be beautiful. It probably has the most complete decoration on the top of any Spitler chest we know.” The lid of the Long chest incorporates inverted hearts balancing inverted crescents suspended on thin, prominently knopped stems.
Virginia fraktur are relatively rare. This one, a birth record by Jacob Strickler (1770–1842), an artist with professional and familial links to Johannes Spitler, more than doubled high estimate to bring $29,900. According to Evans, it is the only Strickler fraktur incorporating American eagles. Strickler made several fraktur for the Rothgeb family of Shenandoah and Page County. This 1806 taufschein is inscribed to Susanna Rothgeb, Strickler’s niece by marriage.
Scarce compared to Pennsylvania examples, Virginia fraktur were also fiercely contested. An 1806 birth record by Spitler associate Jacob Strickler for his niece by marriage, Susanna Rothgeb, made $29,900. Decorated with a scattered field of tulips, hearts and lettering enclosed in a chevron border, the manuscript is the only one known by Strickler that incorporates American eagles, Evans said.
Printed in German by Ambrose Henkel of New Market and embellished by Peter Bernhart, an 1814 house blessing and birth record for Emanual Rolar of Rockingham County, Va., went to an Internet buyer for $14,950.
By a recognized but as yet unidentified artist, six illuminated pages recording the 1792 marriage of Arthur and Mary Carter and the births of their children John, Eliza, Lucinda and Sarah were acquired by Al Marzorini for $21,850. Affluent Quakers, the Carters lived near Winchester, Va.
Folk pottery, much of it stoneware and from the collection of Virginians Ronnie and Neal Kite, accounted for the first 200 lots of the auction. Ceramics highlights included a diminutive Zigler Pottery of Virginia cream pitcher, $6,325; a redware honey pot, $5,750, attributed to Cain Pottery of Tennessee; and a Strasburg, Va., decorated stoneware 2-gallon pitcher, $4,888, thought to be by Lehew pottery.
Folk carving included a walking stick, $3,750, carved by Thomas Jefferson Craddock of Albemarle County, Va., circa 1890, and small figures, $460 to $1,840, by the Shenandoah artist and historian John L. Heatwole. The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley acquired two rare Heatwole sketchbooks for a combined $748.
Dutch-born painter Anthony Thieme is best known for his treatment of light on water, notably Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts. Calling to mind “Evening Light on the Suwannee River,” a Florida view by the artist that fetched a record $144,000 at Christie’s in 2005, this 24½-by-29¼-inch oil of circa 1935 is thought to be a Connecticut subject. In what appeared to be its original frame, it was a bargain at $5,463.
The sale was not without surprises. Unlikely in this setting, a pair of circa 1930 English sterling silver candelabra by Thomas Bradbury & Sons made $18,400. Signed, inscribed and in what appeared to be its original frame, a gorgeous mill scene, probably a Connecticut view, by the Dutch-born New England painter Anthony Thieme was a sleeper at $5,463.
Evans & Associates has seven more sales scheduled for 2015, including a specialty glass auction on July 18 and its next Southern sale on November 14. Already announced is a collection of Virginia stoneware. On July 17, the firm will host a seminar on glass, Jeff and Bev Evans’ other big interest. A fall lecture by Jeff Evans, “From Kindig to Tannehill: Antiques Dealers and Collecting in the Shenandoah Valley, 1910s to the 1970s,” is scheduled for November 13.
Reflecting on his love of all things Shenandoah, Jeff Evans said, “Context gives such meaning to these works. In New England and elsewhere, so much context has been lost.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
Jeffrey S. Evans is at 2177 Green Valley Lane. For information, www.jeffreysevans.com or 504-434-3939.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm