Published: July 6, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Willis Henry Auctions
DUXBURY, MASS. – Willis Henry has been running Shaker and other auctions for more than four decades. His first Shaker auction was conducted in 1982. As Henry recounted the story, “We had a chance to buy a very good collection of Shaker stuff. It was $45,000 and I didn’t have that kind of money. I went to a local bank, but they weren’t accustomed to lending money to buy collections of antiques. I had to work hard to convince them that I could sell the collection for more than that. They finally agreed, and we had the auction. We didn’t make a lot of money, but that was a start. And the rest, as they say, is history. We really love the stuff and there’s so much history, with so many communities, and so many stories. We’re still doing business with some of our very first customers. The year before our first auction, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted an exhibition of Shaker furnishings from the New Lebanon, N.Y., community, and Sotheby Parke-Bernet conducted an auction of the Shaker collection assembled by William Lassiter. He had been curator of history and art at the New York State Museum in Albany and had a wonderful collection. Those events really got the ball rolling.”
At the time Henry was referring to, some of the communities were still occupied by Shakers, and early collectors were often able to buy directly from these communities.
The June 18 sale, which grossed $587,687, included chairs and other furniture, boxes and buckets, needlework, clothing, dolls and paintings, as well some examples of the ingenuity Shakers are known for. Items came from several Shaker communities. Ten items brought more than $10,000 each. One of those was a circa 1840 tripod cherry candlestand from the Watervliet, N.Y., Shaker community which topped the sale, finishing at $55,000, well above the estimate. It retained the original red-stained finish, had a round top and a well-turned bulbous shaft. It also had a metal cleat joining the three legs to the shaft, and that cleat had the number “1” painted on it. That number refers to the room number of the Shaker dwelling house at Watervliet where it was used. An oral history also connects it to Watervliet. There were a number of items that were cataloged as possibly having originated at the Watervliet community. Bidders surprised Henry, paying $10,000 for two very long peg rails with the original yellow-painted finish from Watervliet. One was 8 feet 5 inches long and the other was 7 feet 3 inches. Each had well-turned cherry or stained maple pegs. A two-drawer blanket chest in old blue with boot-jack ends and turned pulls, also probably from Watervliet, went out for $4,375.
Other standout items in the sale included Henry’s favorite item, which was a large, circa 1820-40 maple and birch elder’s rocking chair. It had its original dark stained finish with five graduated and beveled slats. It also had an early natural rush seat, original carved rockers and was from the Canterbury, N.H., community. It sold for $50,000. Although original finish is important, bidders had no problem accepting a refinished but rare cupboard over a case of drawers, which earned $47,500. It had two raised panel doors with separate cupboards and two small drawers over five graduated and dovetailed drawers. The surface showed traces of old red. The circa 1840 piece was from Enfield, Conn., and the catalog noted that the drawer and dovetail details were associated with the Abner Allen and Grove Wright school of craftsmanship.
A tiger maple washstand with the original varnish finish earned $33,750. It was also attributed to Brother Abner Allen I1776-1855) from the Enfield, Conn., community. Henry pointed out an interesting detail – the last inch or two of the legs had a greyish-white discoloration, which he said was evidence of the Shaker sisters using wet mops around the table. A sister’s sewing desk with an original dark red finish brought $31,250. It had an unusual separate top section with four drawers. The first lot in the sale was another of the items that Henry liked – a circa 1840, three-fingered spit box with an original chrome-yellow finish. It got the day off to a good start, realizing $6,250, more than double the estimate.
John Keith Russell, Shaker dealer, was present at the sale with his associate, Sarah Margolis-Pineo, formerly the curator at the Hancock Shaker Village. He noted that they were not there to buy, but to observe and meet with collectors who they knew would be at the sale. Russell commented that many serious collectors were present at the sale, and many items were sold to buyers in the room. He said that he has little need to buy for inventory at this time as his firm will be showing items from the Belfit collection, most of which was assembled with purchases directly from the Shakers beginning in the 1920s.
Scott DeWolfe, Shaker dealer from Alfred, Maine, echoed Russell’s comments about the attendees. “It was good to get back to a live sale,” he said. “I knew most of the collectors in the room, but not all. There are certainly new collectors coming into the field, and many are from overseas. And I was wondering who all the folks were that were bidding online. They were certainly strong contributors to the overall prices achieved.” Both Russell and DeWolfe said that prices were strong at the sale, and, as always there were surprises at both ends of the spectrum.
The Shaker world has come a long way from the time of Henry’s first Shaker auction. Several villages, including Canterbury and Enfield in New Hampshire, Hancock in Massachusetts and Alfred in Maine are open to the public and show Shaker objects as they were used. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y., has one of the largest collections, primarily from the New Lebanon village. That museum is engaged in a fundraising drive for a new museum building to be located in Chatham, and it has been digitizing large parts of its collections. Jerry Grant, the museum’s director of collections and research, who was at the auction, said that the museum currently has 2,500 photographs online, as well as 47,000 pages of manuscript material and 18,000 objects. This activity has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
After the sale, Henry said that it went well. “It was our first live Shaker sale in three years, and it was fun to see folks we’ve been dealing with for years. And those folks came to buy and enjoyed chatting with old friends. It was also nice to see some new faces in the room – people I had not done business with before. There was some stuff passed, but bringing in just under $600,000 was good and showed the market is healthy. My favorite chair, the large elder’s chair brought what I had hoped it would, and I was surprised at how well some of the other stuff did. Many of the items came from the collection of Kitty Haas. She’s in her 90s now and had a great collection, much of which she bought directly from the Shakers. I’m glad we were able to get good prices for her things.”
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.willishenryauctions.com or 781-834-7774.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm