Published: September 27, 2016
Review by Chuck Muller, Photos Courtesy of Willis Henry Auctions
PITTSFIELD, MASS. — After more than 30 years, it is probably time to clean out the barn. That was the impression of the September 10 Willis Henry Shaker auction, which returned many pieces to the marketplace. The previous sale of items was delineated in the catalog for about a tenth of the items and half a dozen were recycled from last year. A total of 32 of the 251 items in the sale passed this year. Henry reflected, “I feel like a dentist” when trying to solicit bids, and “I like the excitement…every 15 minutes.” Throughout, though, he kept a positive attitude.
As one collector said, “Don’t be too quick to judge Will. He always pulls something out of his hat.” A tip of the hat goes to Henry for annually putting together a good excuse for collectors to gather.
Henry started the “Shaker Auctions” in 1982 and, after the first four or five years, people started asking, “How long can he do it?” Well, he has done it every year except one, but another year he had two. Shaker material culture is a limited commodity and Henry has kept the market alive for more than three decades. Next year will be his 35th and he already has a foundation for a very good sale — part three of the McCue collection.
There were eight collectors named as consignors in this year’s sale with well-known ones, such as Ed Clerk, the Bissland family and Howard and Flo Fertig. Only 13 lots, however, carried those prominent names.
The largest consignment, 27 lots, came from the estate of Marion “Kippy” Bolton Stroud, an appreciator and mover in the art world. Stroud founded the Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia and developed a residency program devoted to new media, with more than 600 artists participating since its beginning in 1977. In 1990, she founded the Acadia Summer Arts Program on Mount Desert Island, Maine. She mixed her love of art with Shaker and was a regular at the Henry sales. The proceeds from the auction of her items is going to the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Stroud was a better appreciator than she was an astute buyer. She bought what she liked, which often lacked quality.
There are always a couple pieces exceeding $50,000 in Henry’s auctions (there were two last year) but none in this one. The highest price was $33,600 for the almost-10-foot-long spindle-back bench. This year, there were eight lots that exceeded $10,000 and brought a total of $156,600. Last year, there were nine over the $10,000 threshold with a total of $250,500.
This difference reflects the “graying” of the market, but also offers opportunities for younger collectors. Although Henry points to another piece of the McCue collection to be sold next year, the dispersal of the Erhard Muller estate at Skinner’s in June pointed to the ending of the first-generation of collectors who acquired directly from the Shakers. Today’s major collectors, including entertainer Bill Cosby, acquired most of their collections in the marketplace from early dealers or auctions beginning with the 1972 auction from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers. Those buyers are now well in their 70s. And even if a person started accumulating Shaker material with Henry’s sales, he/she is probably now retired.
Those collectors have been watching, studying, buying and upgrading for well over 30 years. An object needs to be very special to gain their interest. All of the major buyers at the September sale (excluding anonymous absentee and phone bidders) are a part of that astute aging group.
There were 79 bidding numbers issued in addition to the absentee and telephone buyers. By the 21st lot when more than half the items went to those not present, Henry commented, “We might want to do this at home next year.” But long-time collectors who were present, as much for the renewal of friendships as chance to buy, acquired four of the top seven lots.
There was a group of young design students visiting historic Hancock and sitting in on the auction. Henry addressed them a couple times and suggested they needed to take a closer look at the Shaker design and material. He is certainly right, and this sale was a good example. It was one for the beginner who is not yet enamored with “pristine” or “all original.”
In the auction, there was a lot of two low-back Shaker dining chairs ($330) and a lot of three spindle-back dining chairs ($1,020). Compare that to new ones sold by Shaker Workshops ($393 each). Either lot of real, authentic Shaker chairs go for less than reproductions! Or a set of six side chairs for the same money as new ones! And there was a pair of No. 3 rockers with original finish that went for only $240. Let’s furnish the house!
While most of the case pieces exceeded $1,000 (comparable to prices at Pottery Barn), there were several that were below that number. Several of these would be good sellers in the general Americana market, sans the “Shaker” label.
Long-time writer and collector Fran Kramer reflected on the rise and fall of trends. She, like many, pointed to the need for new buyers and younger collectors. She suggested that Shaker furniture be promoted not as a specialty but for its simplicity, functionality, quality and made-in-America roots.
“It is compatible with Danish Modern and Twentieth Century artists,” noted Kramer. It should be offered not just to Shaker collectors, dealers and museums, but marketed to Country Living fans, new home buyers or apartment renters or anyone who wants a good piece of practical furniture at a good price. Maybe, just maybe, these buyers will become Shaker collectors, but it does not matter…having them in the marketplace is the point.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
Long-time collectors of Shaker can look forward to next year when Henry brings some choice items up for bids. And a younger generation can anticipate another opportunity to add well-made products to their living quarters.
For additional information, www.willishenryauctions.com or 781-834-7774.
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