The cherry and pine trestle table has a 62¼" x 34" top and is 28½" high. McCue purchased it from collector Edna Greenwood in 1949 for $350. Its exhibition history includes the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Dealer Bill Samaha took it at $198,900 after a prolonged bidding battle with New York City art dealer Philippe Ségalot.
The 6'8½" high x 27" wide x 18" deep cupboard-over-drawers in pine is finished with varnish over red stain. The cast-iron pulls on the drawers are original. That door has no screws, nails, or pegs in its joinery. The four outside frame members are mortised and tenoned and then double wedged through the tenons from the door edges. It remains tight and square with no sagging. A phone bidder paid $36,270 for it. McCue attributed the piece to New Lebanon cabinetmaker Amos Stewart (1802-1884) and dated it to 1873.
This infirmary room cupboard is from "the Nurse Shop, Church Family, New Lebanon, N.Y.," according to what the Andrewses told McCue and he recorded. It's 86¾" high and has shelves behind the doors, which, by the way, are impeccably made. The surface is a nice dry salmon red on the outside and yellow on the inside. Dealer Doug Hamel of New Hampshire paid $111,150 for it and commented, "If you could only have one Shaker cupboard, this would have to be that one. There are none better."
We asked a couple collectors of Shaker to compare the yellow paint on this woodbox with the paint on the almost identical one sold at Skinner in August. Each collector said this one had more of a dry thin yellow paint finish than the Skinner example, which they said had an opaque chrome yellow paint finish. Dimensions for this example are, for the box, 30¾" x 25¾" x 17¾", with 9" high legs. The Skinner example brought $29,625; this one sold for $78,390.
One of the simplest forms possible, the red-painted storage chest from Hancock has applied molding around a one-board top, a till and drawer inside, all on a straight cutout bracket base and with original hardware. The $4000/7000 estimate seemed reasonable, but reason doesn't always prevail at auction. When the bidding stopped, someone in the tent owned it for $58,500.
Willis Henry Auctions Inc., Pittsfield, Massachusetts
by David Hewett
Photos courtesy Willis Henry
At 1 p.m. on September 8, Willis Henry addressed the assembled multitude under the big white tent in the backyard of Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: "This is, by far, the most important auction we've ever had, or will ever have, for that matter!" That's a broad statement and covers a lot of sales and years. Henry's first all-Shaker auction was on October 8, 1982. He's had at least one a year since then, sometimes more. He's had record-breaking sales under a tent, in a boathouse, and in many a hotel.
Henry sold a cherry and walnut worktable made by Orren Haskins (1815-1892) to dealer David Schorsch in 2006 for a record $491,400. He sold a red-painted tailoring counter to Oprah Winfrey in 1990 for a record $220,000. (It was Oprah's first-ever attendance at an auction.) Back in 1987, he sold a tall, elegant revolving chair to David Schorsch for $88,000. At his sale in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1984 (the first all-Shaker sale this reporter covered for M.A.D., by the way), there was quite a stir when a small lemon yellow spool holder with 16 turned spools wound with silk thread brought an at-that-time record price for that form of $4400. He's probably sold more Shaker objects than any other auctioneer, living or dead.
The McCue Shaker collection sale more than lived up to Henry's billing, though. Experienced dealers and collectors alike were hard pressed to name a collection with as many examples of quality as that put together by Drs. J.J. Gerald and Miriam McCue. Estimates were uniformly shattered, it's true, but the event itself was very nearly a casualty of inclement weather.
A sudden torrential downpour erupted about midway through the sale. The rain gutter on the nearest museum structure collapsed, and water flowed under the tent flaps and into the area of the phone and computer operators with all the associated electrical wires. Museum staffers managed to keep the flood at bay until the storm passed.
There were tornado warnings and microbursts throughout the western Massachusetts area and into neighboring Vermont from late afternoon into the evening. Many areas lost electrical service as trees and limbs collapsed from the near-hurricane forces.
The September 8 event in Pittsfield drew just about every Shaker collector and dealer to Hancock Shaker Village for the three-hour sale. Henry described the 105 offerings as "the cream of the McCue collection," a group that some dealers said was collectively the choicest all-original material ever offered to Shaker collectors and dealers.
The man responsible for the collection was John Joseph Gerald McCue, who was born on December 25, 1913, and died on February 8, 2011. He began his Shaker collecting in 1948. His collecting rationale in brief was, "Only the best-to hell with the rest." As former Hancock curator June Sprigg wrote in 1996, the McCue collection "has deservedly earned legendary status among curators, scholars, and collectors for its stunning breadth, quality of form and design, superlative condition of original surfaces, and outstanding provenance."
McCue, who was a doctor of physics and an outdoorsman, bought directly from the Shakers when he could but also sought out the best material bought or assembled by other early collectors. Quality and originality were paramount factors when McCue assembled his collection. The items chosen for the September 8 auction reflected those standards. The fact that the collection had aged another 16 years since Sprigg offered her accolades only served to strengthen its allure.
As for the mechanics of the actual auction, everything was shown on monitors, and smaller lots were carried out of a nearby building and shown to bidders, but viewing conditions under the big white tent were very difficult. It was almost impossible at times to spot who was bidding on what or see the purchaser. Where we definitely know the buyer, we name that individual. If not, we list winners of lots as in the tent, on the phone, or left and Internet bidders.
The first big-bucks item was a four-finger handled carrier in yellow paint. A floor bidder took it at $63,180 (includes buyer's premium). Another piece in yellow paint, a rare Shaker pine pail with a black painted "J.J.B." on the side and a heavy wire swing handle, sold to collector Drew Epstein for $17,550 (est. $2000/4000).
A large six-fingered oval covered box in chrome yellow finish, an item McCue purchased from pioneer collectors Faith and Edward Deming Andrews, brought $47,970 from someone under the tent.
A yellow-painted pine woodbox with a $15,000/20,000 estimate brought $78,390. The buyer was Arthur author and illustrator Marc Brown. Brown described his purchase: "This box had soul; it's going home with me to New York City." And he offered a comment about the sale in general: "This is just a wonderful auction." Most everyone under the tent had to agree with him.
There were other choice forms in their original paint, such as the salmon red-painted infirmary cupboard with a door-over-door front that New Hampshire dealer Doug Hamel took at $111,150. "If you could only have one Shaker cupboard," Hamel noted after the sale, "this would have to be that one. There are none better."
Dr. McCue kept profuse notes regarding items added to the collection. He kept copies of letters sent to and answers received from the sellers. His notes, loan agreements from museums, auction receipts, and other memorabilia were printed in a lengthy addendum in the Henry catalog. All of those factors contributed toward the success of this sale. There was the McCue provenance, uniform high quality, condition of finish, and rarity. Each and every lot became special.
A retiring room bed (lot 30), for example, carried a $1000/2000 estimate. Beds are not a form universally collected or appreciated. Logic and custom would have it selling for near estimate or perhaps in the low multiples of the estimate, but the McCue bed was indeed outstanding with its original wooden wheels mounted in side-facing metal sockets, original dark green paint ("called Ministry Green," as noted by McCue), and history of having been bought from Edward and Faith Andrews in 1947 for $30. The Andrewses "got it from the attic of the red brick dwelling at Hancock," McCue wrote. "It had not been in use there since such beds had stopped being used by transient hired men." McCue's bed, therefore, was anything but average. It brought $11,700.
A Sister's cupboard-over-drawers, just over five feet tall (61½") and perfectly proportioned, appealed to just about every dealer in the tent and sold to someone in the crowd for $122,850.
The top-priced lot of the sale was positioned at almost the exact halfway point. The cherry and pine trestle table had been bought from collector Edna Greenwood in 1949 for $350. It has been a curators' favorite since that time, appearing in many of the major museum shows about Shaker artistry and cabinetmaking. Dealer Bill Samaha outbid floor and phone bidders to take it home for $198,900.
Sometimes it was a physically small lot that brought out the killer urges of the assembled dealer/collectors. For many, it was a turned cherry spool holder of 4" diameter with a turned central handle and carefully spaced maple pegs centered around that handle. Those pegs held 30 tiny turned spools, on which was wound brightly colored silk thread. The height of the spools ranged from 3/8" to 1". It was estimated at $6000/8000; dealer Doug Hamel picked up the little gem for a customer at $29,250, or roughly seven times the amount a similar spool holder and spools brought at Henry's 1984 sale.
Even the most utilitarian of objects caused bidding wars, such as sock-drying forms that sold for $702, a tin pail and scoop that sold for $1023.75, and a soapstone hand warmer that went at an amazing $3042.
Almost every important dealer in Shaker material attended the auction. Robert Wilkins was probably speaking for all of them when he summarized the sale a week later. "I think the Henrys had a highly successful sale, and they are to be congratulated. It was a shot in the arm for the Shaker market."
For more information, contact Willis Henry at (781) 834-7774 or check the Web site (www.willishenryauctions.com).
|Here are two more of the cupboard-over-drawers forms.|
The Sister's cupboard with white porcelain pulls is 61½" high and came from the Hancock Trustees office. Made of pine with a light cinnamon red stain and with 12" square panels in the pegged mortise and tenoned joined doors, it sold in the tent for $122,850.
The tall cupboard in pine is 7'4" high and finished in a purplish red paint. It came from the Sisters shop in Hancock and was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1965. It does have some old lip damage on the bottom two drawers and went to Chatham, New York, dealer Frances Veillette at a reasonable $21,060.
|The six-fingered covered oval yellow box is a recognized New Lebanon product and greatly appreciated for its size (14 5/8" long) and color. It was purchased in 1947 for $5. Its worth $47,970 now.|
An Alfred, Maine, form and an unusual one, the worktable has a 37" x 28" one-board top (7/8" thick) with rounded corners, with two pine board braces under the top, held with handmade iron screws to keep the top from warping. It's on turned legs with high tulip feet, all in a deep red-painted finish. McCue bought it at Sabbathday Lake in 1950 for $60, and noted, "This was sold to me out of the dairy house or possibly the laundry house by Sr. Mildred Barker." It brought $21,645 here.