Long undervalued, Shaker antiques grow expensive and scarce

It is becoming more difficult and more costly to buy genuine Shaker antiques. ``This is unfortunate,'' says June Sprigg, curator of the current Whitney Museum exhibition, ``because this show will stir a lot of new interest in Shaker things, but at a time when scarcity and price will prevent many people from ever owning a Shaker piece.''

Ed Clerk of Bethlehem, Conn., a well-known dealer who has specialized in Shaker antiques for many years, sees his business gradually dwindling as his sources dry up. ``I still go to auctions, buy from other dealers, and comb those areas around the original Shaker communities, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find good things. When any really desirable piece comes on the market, it is snapped up immediately.''

Early Shaker rockers that 10 years ago might have brought $800 or $900 are now bringing anywhere from $7,000 to $8,000, he explains. And sewing desks that a decade ago might have fetched from $5,000 to $9,000 are now in the $25,000 to $30,000 range. But even with this escalation in price, he says, Shaker furniture still hasn't caught up with the rest of Americana. It was undervalued for so long that where prices are concerned there is much catching up still to come.

For those who feel they cannot afford real Shaker antiques, several craftsmen in New England are now making handmade reproductions. Woodworker David Lamb of Canterbury, N.H., is one of the best known.

Two companies have developed successful mail-order businesses of assemble-it-yourself kits for Shaker reproductions. Shaker Workshops in Concord, Mass., was established in 1969 and is now owned by Richard Dabrowski, who says his volume increases by more than 50 percent each year. ``It is the times,'' he says. ``More and more people are appreciating the spare good looks of Shaker.'' He features over 40 reproductions in his catalog (available for $1 from Shaker Workshops, P.O. Box 1028, Concord, Mass. 01742), ranging in price from a hanging towel rack for $15 to a spinning stool for $42, a trestle table for $440, and a queen-size bed for $650.

Cohasset Colonials (38 Parker Avenue, Cohasset, Mass. 02025; catalog, $2) also offers, by mail, kits for assembling a limited number of Shaker tables and chairs. These include a side chair for $105, a Shaker rocker for $153, and a dining table for $298.

People who know the real thing would never be fooled by these kit reproductions, according to Miss Sprigg. Yet they are filling a real need, she says, and she herself uses a reproduction of a Shaker side chair at her desk.

The Shaker legacy is being preserved and can be seen and enjoyed by visitors in a number of museums and Shaker communities. Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., Sprigg says, is probably the most fully restored of the Shaker communities. Pleasant Hill, a well-preserved and picturesque Shaker community in Kentucky, is now kept open by a nonprofit organization.

The Shaker Museum at Old Chatham, N.Y., displays a fine collection of Shaker items, although a Shaker community never existed there. And in Harvard, Mass., the Fruitlands Museum has a small but good collection of Shaker artifacts.

The Shaker village in Canterbury, N.H., is still operating as a home for Shakers, but residents there authorized the formation of a foundation 12 years ago to preserve the village as a museum long after living members of the sect have passed from the scene. The Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, is also still active, but visitors are welcome. --30--{et

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