Early Southern Desk With Secrets Takes $354,000 At Brunk Auctions

A John Shearer fall-front desk from 1808 was recently discovered and buyers appreciated its freshness, driving it to $354,000.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It has often been said that art and antiques can “talk” —  that they speak to us about the craftsmen who made them and the place they were made, and that they give us clues about the people who owned them and how they were used.

John Shearer was a cabinetmaker who worked in Virginia and Maryland at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, but very little is known about his life. His body of work is documented in a recent book by Elizabeth A. Davison,  The Furniture of John Shearer.  On a number of occasions, Shearer pasted secret notes into his furniture and he was known to sign, date and inscribe his work in multiple locations.

Andrew Brunk of Brunk Auctions has been on the lookout for a Shearer piece for 25 years. In a romantic series of events, he finally found a fall-front Shearer desk, dating to 1808, from a local consignor; a friend and neighbor of his. The desk attained $354,000, selling to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley as the top lot of his November 15–17 auction. This was Brunk’s last sale of the year. The auction totaled $4,361,221 and is the firm’s second highest sale total to date.

This previously undiscovered piece was also not without secrets. Concealed inside its construction is a note that was pasted in by its maker more than 200 years ago. To read it, one needs to remove the back boards, open the tambour slides in the front “just so” and use a special scanning camera that can take images in a narrow space.

The desk can be traced back to the family of Charles H. Folwell of Mount Holly, N.J., in the 1930s. It may have descended from the original owner (Philip Stuber) through the Neill  family of Hagerstown, Md.

Bidders flew in from all over the United States and participated from more than 65 countries online during Brunk’s first Friday night jewelry sale. Just in time for the holiday season, bidders fought over hundreds of lots of jewelry, including modern and vintage works by makers including Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and others. The highest of the group was an aquamarine and diamond necklace, which ended up selling for $54,280.

A number of Russian icons drew considerable interest during the sale as well. The most notable of the group was a depiction of Christ Pantocrator with Sotheby’s provenance, which brought $42,480.

Art glass again proved sound at a Brunk Auctions sale. Tiffany, Daum Nancy, Gallé and Lalique pieces excited bidders and often brought prices above estimates. Though it is hard to choose a winner from such a fine selection of works, one of the most fantastic was a Daum Nancy acid-etched and hammered vase, which sold for $11,210.

Brunk experts have again demonstrated their keen eye for spotting quality Asian ephemera. Competitive bidding on Asian items led to soaring prices, once to the point where a buyer in the room jokingly yelled “Sold” in hopes that he could coax the auctioneer in to hammering down at a lower price. Starting the Sunday session out with a bang, Ding Ware and other porcelain, jade, panels and other ephemera all brought outstanding prices.

The sale of maritime and sporting art was also a high point in the sale. Perhaps the “pick of the litter” was a Percival Rousseau depiction of four hunting dogs in a stream, which totaled $51,920.

Yet another notable work of art in the sale was a sculpture by Deborah Butterfield. It sold for $87,320.

All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.

The next sale at Brunk Auctions will take place on the weekend of January 18. For information, 828-254-6846 or www.brunkauctions.com.

This scathing missive was hidden inside the desk by its author John Shearer when he made it.

Among fine art standouts was this sculpture by Deborah Butterfield that achieved $87,320.

An aquamarine and diamond necklace led jewelry offerings at $54,280.

Percival Rousseau’s depiction of four hunting dogs in a stream, which totaled $51,920.

Among Russian icons was a depiction of Christ Pantocrator with Sotheby’s provenance that brought $42,480.

A Daum Nancy acid-etched and hammered vase sold for $11,210.

A French Art Nouveau marquetry-inlaid, lift top, lady’s writing desk fetched $5,000.


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