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Willis Henry Sells McCue Collection and More

David Hewett | September 7th, 2013

Here’s a rare maple rocking chair made at Union Village in Ohio. The more common (but still rare) version has turned posts with the familiar symmetrical pommels or finials at the top and arched-top slats. This version in thin bittersweet orange paint has the thinned-down posts and notched-end slats. It had belonged to Shaker collector/dealer Ed Clerk when it was pictured on page 107 of The Shaker Furniture Handbook by Rieman and Burks. It sold for $67,260.


This pine tailoring counter is 6'6½" long and in that magical orange-red paint. A dealer picked it up for a client for $38,350. McCue collection.


At least one dealer felt this was the best Shaker carrier in the sale—“That was just a great carrier, the best!”—and the price may have proved him right. The 14½" long maple and pine carrier in chrome yellow paint cost him $23,600.


This 28" wide pine washstand in a yellow ocher stain has a crack across the backsplash at the point where the sides join it. That’s the way Dr. McCue got it back from a museum exhibition, but it didn’t appear to hurt the price any. The estimate was $10,000/15,000, and it sold for $44,250. McCue collection.


Original cherry red paint helped this 6'3½" high pine cupboard over six drawers from Watervliet, New York, bring a solid $47,200. It had been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. McCue collection.


Our favorite non-furniture lot in the whole sale, these finely woven dark blue or ultramarine cotton cloth shoes belonged to Sister Grace Dahm (1874-1958), originally at the Watervliet, New York, community. After it closed she moved on to the community in Hancock, Massachusetts. The color is often seen on Sisters’ cloaks and other Shaker cloth items. At least two people wanted the shoes, and they pushed the bidding up to $3068 (est. $400/600).

Willis Henry Auctions, Inc., Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Willis Henry Auctions, Inc.

On Saturday, September 7, Marshfield, Massachusetts, auctioneer Willis Henry held the second session of the famed Shaker collection of Drs. J.J. Gerald and Miriam McCue. As with the first session, it was under a tent on the grounds of the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It was almost a year to the day from the first sale (see M.A.D., November 2012). Like the first sale’s catalog, the catalog for the second session included a McCue family history, with photos, along with an addendum, Dr. McCue’s notes about where he purchased the pieces, and a bibliography, and it listed the various exhibitions that featured pieces from his collection. That part of the catalog filled more pages than the auction listings and will be of much value to future historians documenting Shaker material.

The 105 lots in last year’s first session included the cream of the McCue collection. It seemed as though every Shaker collector and dealer on the planet was there or on the phone for that event.

Prices were fantastic. A cherry and pine trestle table sold for $198,900; a Sister’s cupboard-over-drawers brought $122,850; and a pine wood box (for firewood) in yellow paint, estimated at $15,000/20,000, sold for $78,390. (All prices for the 2012 sale include a 17% buyer’s premium; all prices for the 2013 sale include an 18% buyer’s premium.)

The little accessories brought similar prices. A 4" diameter spool holder with 30 tiny spools (est. $6000/8000) soared to $29,250, and a soapstone hand warmer sold for $3042.

That was then; this report deals with this year’s sale. There were 56 lots in this installment, and though there were some wonderful items among their number, it was obvious that the choicest McCue pieces had been included in the 2012 session. Following the McCue stuff, Willis Henry offered another 164 lots of Shaker material from a variety of sources in a separate catalog.

There were some notable absences among the Shaker dealer/collector group. Tom Queen wasn’t there; neither were Clint Bigelow, Bernie Brown, nor Bob Wilkins and Suzanne Courcier. “I’d have liked to have seen more of a crowd than there were,” said New Hampshire dealer Doug Hamel, “but I guess it still was a decent-sized group, even if I didn’t recognize many who were there.”

Hamel went with a handful of bids to execute for clients and ended up getting just four lots. “I got an orange-red blanket chest and the bittersweet-colored tailoring counter from the McCue collection, and a yellow carrier and the big yellow chest of drawers from the other catalog.”

“Good original condition and strong surfaces: that’s what collectors want these days,” Hamel said.

The highest-priced McCue lot was a large Watervliet, New York, cupboard-over-drawers in cherry red paint that sold for $47,200. The highest-priced lot from both sales was a rare five-slat Union Village (Ohio) rocking chair with wavy shaped arms that sold to New York City collector/dealer Philippe Segalot for $67,260.

Ohio collector Chuck Muller spoke about that chair. “I went [to the auction] with a collector friend from Cincinnati who is very involved with Ohio Shaker. We were blown away by the price paid for the Union Village chair. Historically, western Shaker is the poor stepchild.”

The rocking chair had been owned by Ed Clerk and is shown in color on page 107 of The Shaker Furniture Handbook (2005) by Rieman and Burks.

Chuck Muller had an interesting observation. There was a cast-iron wood-burning stove in the McCue collection that sold for $4130. On the same day, Garth’s Auctions sold an identical stove for $482 in Delaware, Ohio.

Collector Bob Hamilton flew in from Scotland, where he and his wife had been vacationing, and bought a single-leaf drop-leaf table with turned slightly bulbous legs and a single drawer. He got the butternut and pine table for $5900. Chuck Muller called that “one of the best deals” of the sale.

Five lots from the McCue collection brought over $30,000, and a total of eight lots sold for over $20,000. In the various owners’ sale, only one lot brought over $30,000, and a total of six lots brought over $20,000.

The Shaker market is a mature market now, with newly discovered items few and far between. The movement is lateral; objects enter the marketplace only when collectors quit collecting or die.

It’s different from the days when Willis Henry held his first auctions in the 1970’s. A sale under a tent would draw 200 to 300 would-be bidders then. There was confusion about what was Shaker and what was just plain rustic or country, and some collectors made bad mistakes.

Doug Hamel is right. “Good original condition and strong surfaces: that’s what collectors want these days.” And they are willing to pay the price to get it.

For more information, contact Willis Henry Auctions at (781) 834-7774; Web site (www.willishenryauctions.com).

Selling prior purchases at auction doesn’t always equate to profits. In September 2005 Willis Henry sold these six birch side chairs from Enfield, New Hampshire, for $13,800 as part of Doug Towle’s Shaker collection. This time they brought $8850.

These cherry forms have internal threads on the bulbous piece joining the two halves, so they can be opened wider. They were used to measure the inner sizes of Brothers’ hats by the North Family at New Lebanon, New York, according to the catalog. The estimate was $300/500; the selling price was $5192.

Most yarn winders and flax and spinning wheels are dead at auction these days, but Shaker examples are different. Will Henry gave this maple and birch yarn winder in a brick red stain a $1200/1800 estimate, and it sold for $3186.

Just a nicely made 42" long pine bench in red paint? Will Henry didn’t think so, and he added this comment to the catalog: “This is one of the finest Shaker benches in proportion, architectural integrity, and color that we’ve have ever had at auction.” The estimate was $2500/4000, and at least two bidders agreed with his words. It brought $12,390.

The lot of three black ash baskets (est. $300/500) excited some of the Internet bidders. One jumped the bid from $2000 to $5000 and then jumped it from $5100 to $6000. He was out when someone came in with a $6100 bid and took the lot for $7198 (including buyer’s premium).

This candle sconce in a yellow ocher stain has an oak back and a cherry or maple base, and the candles sit in tin holders. It’s 24" high and was formerly owned by Shaker dealer/collector Ed Clerk. Bidders chased it to $11,210.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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