When John J.G. McCue, a young Smith College physics professor, was invited in the 1940s to a dinner party in Marlborough, he had no idea it would lead to his forming one of the country’s important private Shaker collections.
It was his first visit to Time Stone Farm, the home of Edna Little Greenwood (1888-1972), an early collector of American country antiques and the mentor of Nina Fletcher Little (1903-1993), the renowned folk art collector and writer, who was married to Edna’s cousin Bertram K. Little (1899-1993).
A bachelor at the time, McCue had little interest in furniture, but a table in the house’s 1702 Great Room did catch his eye. Greenwood told him it was a trestle table she had acquired in the 1920s from the Shakers at Harvard. There it had been used as a dining table by the ministry, but she was using it as her writing table.
While admiring the table, McCue mentioned that his only furniture need was a bureau for his shirts. Whereupon Greenwood suggested he might find what he liked in Richmond, which was not far from the college in Northampton, and where her friends Edward and Faith Andrews, two of the first collectors of Shaker art, sold Shaker furnishings.
Accompanied by Greenwood, McCue went to Richmond, where he ended up buying not only a storage piece for his shirts but also five other Shaker pieces, launching what became, according to Shaker specialists Willis and Karel Henry of Marshfield, “one of the earliest and finest private collections of Shaker to be sold.’’
McCue died last year at 97 in Lexington, and Part One of the collection that he and his wife, Miriam (a psychology professor when they met at Smith), assembled during their 61-year marriage will be auctioned by the Henrys on Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. on the grounds of Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield. The remainder of the collection will be sold later.
The 101 items being offered next month are highlighted by the Harvard trestle table that first sparked McCue’s interest in Shaker and which he purchased in 1949 for $350 from Greenwood before she donated her collection to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The collection included more than 2,000 pieces of furniture and objects used in New England households from Colonial time to the mid-1800s.
McCue kept a journal of his purchases, and the trestle table, which is being auctioned with a $70,000-$90,000 estimate, is listed as entry No. 81. The journal also notes that instead of giving the table to the Smithsonian, Greenwood decided she would sell it to McCue “as a cornerstone of his super collection in the making.”
The No. 1 entry is an 86-inch-high salmon-red painted cupboard that was used in the infirmary at the New Lebanon, N.Y., Shaker community and was one of the six pieces that McCue purchased on his first visit to the Andrews barn in 1946. Probably the storage piece for his shirts, the cupboard for which he paid $125 has a $20,000-
Other top offerings include a sister’s sewing desk in its original red finish purchased for $150 from Sister Eleanor Philbrick of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in Maine and which is expected to bring $30,000-$40,000; a 4-foot-high stand-up desk in its original green finish made in 1851 at the Harvard Community for Elder Grove Blanchard ($20,000-$30,000); and a Canterbury, N.H., four-finger oval carrier in its original yellow finish ($20,000-$30,000).
Smaller Shaker items have such varied uses and prices as the two Canterbury wooden rulers with a $200-$300 estimate that McCue purchased in 1949 and 1951 for 25 cents each, and a cherry wood spool rack ($6,000-
$8,000) with 30 spools of silk thread and the initials “E.R.S.” for Canterbury Eldress Eliza Rebecca Smith.
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A 19th-century folk art portrait and a late-18th-century bombe commode were the two top sellers at Skinner’s American Furniture & Decorative Arts Auction this month, each soaring above their estimates.
The portrait of a boy with his dog and a riding crop, attributed to the Colebook, Conn., artist Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) sold for $77,775, or more than five times the low of its $15,000-$25,000 estimate, and the French Canadian commode sold for $77,025, or more than nine times the low of its $8,000-$12,000 estimate.
The top selling American furniture included a 77-inch-high chest-on-chest attributed to the Dunlap School of New Hampshire ($29,625 against a $30,000-
$50,000 estimate) and a late-17th/early-18th-century carved oak and pine Hadley chest ($28,175 against a $15,000-$25,000 estimate).
A pair of 19th-century portraits of a lady and a gentleman by the Leverett folk artist Erastus Salisbury Field (1805-1900) brought the auction’s third highest price of $65,175 against a $20,000-$30,000 estimate, while the painting expected to be the auction’s top seller, a circa 1807 scene of New Bedford, sold for $45,938 against a $75,000-$150,000 estimate.
Topping the 281-lot personal collection of the Hillsborough, N.H., antiques dealers Cheryl and Paul Scott were two weather vanes, a circa 1860 J. Howard & Co. horse vane ($44,438 against $8,000-$12,000) and a late-19th-century butterfly vane attributed to J.W. Fiske of New York ($41,475 against $8,000-$12,000).
Topping the 60-lot collection of the late Jean Brown of Tyringham was a circa 1830-50 Shaker yellow painted storage bin that sold for $29,625 against an $8,000-$12,000 estimate.
In contrast to the more than 1,200 lots of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century Americana, the auction opened on a 20th-century note with the sale of a 1969 Mercedes-Benz coupe ($27,500 against $28,000-$30,000) and a one-room summer house that stood behind the Westminster Historical Society ($50,288 against $8,000-$12,000).