Published: October 3, 2023
Review & Onsite Photos by Rick Russack
DUXBURY, MASS. — Willis Henry, with his wife Karel, have been in the auction business since before some of our readers were born; for those who aren’t in the know, they have a reputation for trendsetting annual auctions of Shaker material. He always believed that “auction” meant a tent or gallery full of live bidders and that humor and entertaining that crowd was properly part of an auctioneer’s “stock-in-trade.” While he plans future live sales, his September 23 sale was online only. Why? “It’s a small, diverse sale and I don’t have the space I used to have. I know so many auctioneers are doing this type of sale and I wanted to try it. We’ll see if it works for me.” He advertised the sale as “eclectic” and that it was, ranging from Native American baskets and pottery, to silver, to Shaker chairs, to Eighteenth Century furniture, a Frederic Remington painting, an exceptional quilt, an outstanding carving of a Great Blue Heron and more.
Indicative of the eclectic nature of the sale was the fact that the four highest priced items in the sale bore no resemblance to one another. The colorful life-size carved and painted Heron brought the top price of the auction: $7,500. It first flew into Massachusetts in November 2022, when it landed at the Gurley Thanksgiving Show in Marlborough. It changed hands four times that day before leaving and turning up in Duxbury. The heron, standing more than 5½ feet tall, had a very good paint job and glass eyes, and had probably been made in the late Twentieth Century. Its maker was not known.
Frederic Remington’s oil on canvas night scene, titled “Good Bye. (Johnny Reb V),” depicted a wounded Civil War soldier in a horse-drawn wagon, with other soldiers nearby. It had a Kennedy Gallery label on the back and sold for $6,875, the second highest price of the day. Third place honors went to a wonderful, folky appliqued quilt that had a central green pot of bright colorful hand-cut flowers and almost 20 hand-cut birds, including yellow finches and mourning doves, with multiple vines and flowers. The hand-stitched quilting and the slightly uneven cutouts of the birds and flowers gave it a very folky feel. It brought $3,750. When Henry was asked which was his favorite item in the sale, he selected a well-weathered tavern sign with a wrought iron loop hanger. The carved leaves retained some original green paint and the grapes had gold/yellow highlights. With a great patina, it sold for $3,438, rounding out the top four lots.
It wouldn’t be a Willis Henry sale without some Shaker furniture. There were three lots, each with two rockers made at the Mount Lebanon community. One lot included two rocking chairs with shawl bars: one a #4 and one a #7. Each had Mount Lebanon decals on the top slat and the two sold together for $625. Another lot, also of two chairs, featured rockers with taped backs; one a #3 and the other a #7. Both had Mount Lebanon decals and the lot achieved $375. A lot with four contemporary Shaker-style woven baskets, each with loop handles, brought $188. Each was signed and dated between 2002 and 2005.
It also would not be a Willis Henry sale without at least a piece or two of Hingham woodenware. This sale included a miniature four-drawer toy chest with original dark staining and original brass drawer pulls which sold for $375. It had a paper label on the back that read “Litchfield & Holbrook, Hand Made, Miniature Furniture and Toys, Free Street, So. Hingham, Mass.” There was also a round pantry box with original brown paint stamped “J. Burr.” The catalog notes “John Burr, 1791-1856, Hingham, Mass., was a cooper and maker of pantry boxes.” It was 6½ inches in diameter and realized $156.
One of the most unusual items in the sale was an 1838 folio-sized edition of Musical Exercises for Singing Schools, which included an early printing of “America,” popularly known as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” It had been written by Samuel Francis Smith and first performed in public in Boston on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration. It was first published in The Choir in 1832. “America” was actually the unofficial national anthem of the United States until “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted in 1931. Martin Luther King Jr recited the first verse towards the end of his famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Henry’s copy sold for $1,000, which many consider a good buy. Another copy was sold in 2020 for more than $6,000, with a catalog note that read, “A monumental volume of music lessons – certainly one of the largest of its kind printed in Nineteenth Century America. The huge double-page format was intended to supplant blackboard instruction, being printed in characters sufficiently large to be seen throughout the schoolroom.”
After the sale, Will Henry said, “It was our first online-only sale and it went pretty well. We sold to people we hadn’t done business with before. It really was an experiment and wasn’t a large sale. It grossed over $75,000 and that was fine. I’d do it again, but I miss the excitement of a large crowd. We’re working on putting together a Shaker sale but I’m not sure when it will be.”
All prices quoted include the buyers’ premium as reported by the auction house. For additional information, 781-834-7774 or www.willishenryauctions.com.
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