At Hancock Shaker Village: A Twice-in-a-Lifetime Auction
By Scott Baldinger
There are collectors in the world who, in retrospect, seem almost clairvoyant about what is of lasting value and may appreciate over the years, particularly in the decorative arts, a realm especially vulnerable to the whims of what’s in or out at any moment in time. The secret really is in the eye of the discriminating beholder: the ability to see beauty in every form—however quotidian in nature. Thank heavens for people who have it; they turn out to be preservers of an American cultural heritage that could be easily discarded or ruined over time.
Drs. J. J. Gerald and Miriam McCue, of Lexington, Massachusetts, were just such people. On Saturday, September 7 at 11 a.m., Willis Henry Auctions will present many lots of their exceptional collection of Shaker furniture and artifacts at Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, one of a handful of original sources for many of their items. This will be the second Shaker auction held there since the 1990s, with the previous one having taken place just last year. Directly following will be an auction from an assortment of other collections and estates that followed in the McCue’s footsteps.
The McCues began collecting Shaker furniture and objects in the late 1940s, when other styles were considered far more worthy of attention, let alone money. “The height of fashion at the time was fine French furniture—Louis XIV, XV, and XVI—a favorite of 1940s decorators like Elsie de Wolfe and super-wealthy clients such as Jayne Wrightsman,” says David Petrovsky, an antiques historian and specialist from Churchtown, New York, a Columbia County hamlet near Hudson. “Collectors of Americana were more into high-style 18th century case pieces,” he says, “pieces that, apart from the masterpieces, the industry sometimes now disparages as ‘brown furniture.’”
The McCues (at right) went a different way from the beginning, starting out with six small functional household items that Gerald first purchased for his small, spartan bachelor’s apartment in Northampton, MA. (He was an Associate Professor of physics at Smith College, where he met Dr. Miriam Crowley, an Assistant Professor of psychology. They were married in 1949.) Lifelong academics, the couple did not have a lot of money, but they fell in love with the Shaker aesthetic. As time went on (and their fortunes improved), the couple amassed a world-class collection of furniture and objects, sometimes from other notable collectors but often directly from the source: existing, still functioning Shaker communities such as the ones in Canterbury, New Hampshire; Sabbathday Lake, Maine; New Lebanon, New York; and Hancock, Massachusetts—each at a time when Shakers still lived and worked at these places. McCue became not just a buyer, but someone who went out of his way to visit and befriend the Shakers, taking the time to personally understand their lifestyle and ethos—a pretty amazing hobby for someone working on atomic science at the time, both at MIT and at Smith. (Gerald died in February 2011.)
In its own way, at the time, the McCues’ obsession was a very hip way of looking at the decorative arts, to the point that one could even say that there was a stylistic connection between the couple’s appreciation of the simplicity and utility of Shaker form and design and the innovative contemporaneous creations of people like Charles and Ray Eames, Paul McCobb, and the Danish moderns, all of whom valued functionality and natural, translucently varnished materials in their designs. “Clean lines and the stripped-down ornamentation certainly are hallmarks of both styles,” says Laura Wolf, Director of Operations & Marketing at Hancock Shaker Village. “Many mid-century modern designers were picking up on the emergence of Shaker as an aesthetic.”
“The McCue Collection stands out not only for its original finishes and fixtures, but also for its breadth in terms of representing Shaker material culture,” says Wolf. “Their first purchases included an infirmary cupboard, bake shop table, benches, a bedside stand, and a blanket chest. The collection also boasts a number of exemplary small items, including poplarware, metal ware, and sewing supplies that speak to the craftsmanship and attention to detail that are the hallmarks of Shaker work.”
“Dr. McCue was careful to select pieces that retained their original stain finish or paint,” Wolf adds. “The same holds true for cooperage handles, porcelain drawer pulls, and cast iron door closures. Though many finely constructed pieces may have been considered for this collection over the years, if they had been refinished by a previous owner, they were eschewed.”
All of this connoisseurship comes at a price, of course. It may be “the gift to be simple,” as the Shaker song goes, but this time around, it won’t be free. According to estimates from the Willis Henry catalog, available online, some of the objects in both auctions have estimated prices in the low to high five figures, from a yellow cupboard over drawers in the $10,000 - $15,00 range, to a trustee’s desk valued at $30,000 - $50,000. A very Danish Modern-looking trestle table (pictured at top), has an estimated price of $2,500 - $4,000. (A bargain compared to a cherry and pine trestle table from last year’s auction, which sold for more than the $70-90,000 estimate.) For those looking to start their own collection a bit more frugally, there are plenty of appealing lots of hangers, books, pipes, a woven rug, hanging mirror with holder, drying rack, and hand towels in the mere three to lower four-figure range. But just watching and previewing is a more than worthy endeavor, a way to learn not only about the value of American “folk” craftsmanship but also perhaps about how to see afresh even the most basic, everyday objects.
Willis Henry Auction of the McCue Shaker Collection and Other Collections and Estates
Hancock Shaker Village
Auction: Saturday, September 7, 2013, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Previews: Thursday, September 5, 2-5 p.m., Friday, September 6, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. & Saturday, September 7, 9-10:30 a.m.