The Buyable Past

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The Communal Shaker Order included master woodworkers whose classic nineteenth-century designs anticipated modernist attitudes by a hundred years or more. Their furnishings, “plain without superfluity,” perfectly suit the precisionist paintings and photographs in which Charles Sheeler depicted them around 1930, and their reductive spirit suffuses the superb Danish furniture that began to appear after World War II. The Shakers marketed some items to outsiders through catalogues, and their oval storage boxes proved highly popular. Brother Isaac Newton Youngs noted in a journal that his New Lebanon, New York, community, the one that made the largest number, built 3,560 in 1836 alone. Production there, which had begun in the 1790s, continued through the early 1940s, but by then the group had dwindled considerably, and hired hands made boxes that were sold through a gift shop.

While oval boxes weren’t unique to the Shakers, they built the best ones, neatly beveling the swallowtails on their sides and tacking them down with rust-resistant copper nails. They finished some in brightly hued paint, which tends to surprise people who think a strict religious code mandating celibacy made the Shakers a dour lot.

Prices start at less than $500, and Willis Henry, a Massachusetts-based specialist who has been holding Shaker auctions since 1982, seems to have set a record two years ago when he knocked down an oval box for $42,250. Boxes dated or initialed by their makers are likely to sell for more, and a gift inscription from one Shaker to another makes a piece especially valuable.

Oval boxes came in different sizes so they could be neatly stacked. The smallest, just under three inches lone, often fetch premium prices because they’re hardest to find. Finish is crucial, and boxes painted yellow, an uncommon color, tend to be pricey. But beware. The veteran auctioneer, who enthusiastically compares these simple but stunning wooden objects to gems and uses a jeweler’s loupe to examine them, warns that painted surfaces are sometimes faked.