The Shakers, a religious sect, left England in 1774, when Mother Ann Lee and eight followers moved to New England to devote themselves to work and prayer. While they didn’t invent the oval box, crafty Shakers refined the form, with arch-shaped joints, rust-free copper tacks, and nearly airtight lids.
Collectors covet specific boxes based on color, condition, and size, not age. Vibrant lemon-yellow trumps other colors, and buyers pay a premium for original untouched paint. (“You can almost see through the brush strokes,” says Schorsch.) Some of the smallest boxes fetch the largest prices. “Almost all boxes fall within the standard range—3-5⁄8 inches long up to 15 inches,” he explains. “If a box is larger or smaller, it’s a very big deal.” Schorsch once purchased a tiny yellow box (“small enough to balance on one finger,” recalls Leigh) for $25,300. It’s now on display at Manhattan’s American Folk Art Museum.