When the hammer fell on lot number 130 on Sunday, August 5, 1990, at the Willis Henry Auction held on the grounds of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, the successful bidder set a world record for the highest price paid at auction for anything made by the Shakers. What made the audience come alive as much as the price on that hot humid afternoon was that the winner of the lot was talk show host and actress, Oprah Winfrey. The piece, a small pine three-drawer counter in red paint was the cover lot on the auction catalog. Oprah Winfrey was not the only well-known personality who made significant purchases that day. Several dozen lots earlier, a reddish-orange bentwood box was purchased by the artist Ellsworth Kelly and his future husband Jack Shear. While Oprah’s three-drawer counter was unique for a few years for its price, the bentwood box was thought to be a unique example of Shaker workmanship for its unusual shape. Most of the lidded boxes the Shakers made by bending thin strips of steamed wood were oval in shape. Although the ovals vary from box to box from nearly round to extremely elongated, this box is not oval at all. Rather, it is more of a rectangle with rounded ends – what Ellsworth Kelly later called “lozenge-shaped” – but in every other respect it was made like thousands of other Shaker oval boxes.
Six years ago, Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear decided to give their collection of two-dozen Shaker pieces to Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. That gift was received by the Museum in 2016 and this spring, from March 24th through May 13th, pieces from the collection, accompanied by a selection of prints by Kelly, will be exhibited at the Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, New York. In preparation for the exhibition the Museum staff is conducting additional research on the Shaker pieces that will be exhibited. The unique box is included in the exhibition and has been the target of the staff’s research for the past few days.
The auction catalog identifies the box as having been made at the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It is not clear if this attribution came from the consigner of the box, or if it was, at the time, the auction house’s best guess at its origin. In either case, more investigation was in order. The bottom of the box bears what appears to be a three-line inscription, which, were any of it still legible, might answer all questions about who made the box and where and when. Until that technology can be accessed, the information remains elusive.
As is the case with the construction of most Shaker boxes, the bent sides of the box and its lid are made of maple and its top and bottom, the heading as the Shakers called it, are made of pine. The three over-lapping fingers on the box and the single finger on the lid are fastened together with copper tacks. The heading is secured to the bent rims with iron headless tacks. The box is painted inside and out with a reddish-orange paint – no wood is left exposed. There are a few design features, other than its unusual shape, that are notable. The ends of the overlapping fingers point to the left. This characteristic is most often found on boxes that were made at the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine. Shaker oval box makers often smoothed off the heads of the tacks used on the fingers to keep anything from catching under the head and pulling the tack out. On this box, the heads of some of the tacks show marks – small parallel grooves – left by a file. These marks on tack heads are most often found on boxes made by the Shakers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. In a similar manner, the use of iron rather than copper headless tacks to secure the heading in the box rims is often associated with early boxes made at Canterbury.
Given these construction and design characteristics, a good case can be made for this box originating in the shops of the box-makers at Canterbury, New Hampshire. However, an oval box in the collection of Hancock Shaker Village led to a reconsideration of this conclusion. That oval box has a label glued to its bottom that reads, “This box was made by Ebenezar Freeman of Alfred in his 82d year of age, and by him presented to me Aug 26th 1861. Mary P. Vance.” Ebenezer Freeman turned sixty-one on July 12, 1861, beginning his 82d year. The box is the work of an accomplished box-maker and it is likely that he made a number of boxes in his lifetime. This box has a distinctive feature that is usually found on Canterbury boxes – the rims of the box and the lid had their edges rounded before they were bent and tacked. This creates a double hump on the edge of the rims where the two ends overlap, shown in the picture to the left. Boxes made at Mount Lebanon, for example, had the rims sanded to a single round edge after the rims were bent and the overlap tacked. This observation raises the question as to whether the Alfred oval box-makers were either taught by the box-makers at Canterbury or if someone who knew how to make boxes was transferred from Canterbury to Alfred. Either of these options would explain why the tacks securing the fingers appear to have been smoothed with a file – they learned that from Canterbury. It may also suggest that the fingers on Alfred boxes point left instead of right to intentionally set them apart from those made at Canterbury.
As the decision was being made to attribute the Kelly / Shear lozenge-shaped box to the Alfred community rather than either Sabbathday Lake or Canterbury, the existence of a second box of this unusual shape came to light. This box, nearly identical in size and very similar in its color and the shape of its fingers, is in the collection of the Shaker Museum at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. This box is attributed to the Alfred Shakers and as far as anyone knows has been in the community at Sabbathday Lake ever since or even before the Alfred community closed and its members relocated to Sabbathday Lake in 1931. The box in the collection at Sabbathday Lake is pictured on page 17 of The Human & Eternal: Shaker Art in Its Many Forms published in 2009 by and available from the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Museum.
For now, and for the for exhibition at the Jeff Bailey Gallery, the attribution of this box will remain with the workshops of the Alfred, Maine Shakers. All are welcome to come and see it face to face this spring.