John Keith Russell was living in the fast lane—literally—when he first encountered Shaker furniture. It was the early 1970s and he was in his twenties working for Porsche Stuttgart in the racing department. He was traveling eleven months of the year providing technical data, parts, and support to the 350 racing teams worldwide that then used Porsche-built cars. On a one-day layover in New York, he attended a year-end holiday party that wound up in the home of a Shaker collector. What he saw that night, Russell says, amounted to an epiphany: furniture with craftsmanship and function-driven form equal to that of the Porsche cars he loved. Before he went on his way to Daytona, Florida, the next morning, he stopped off at his parents’ house in Pound Ridge, New York, to store the chair he had purchased from the collector.
That purchase, Russell says, was the little stone that changes the course of the river. He was flying from Stuttgart to the United States at least a dozen times a year back then, and every time he did he would visit the few dealers who specialized in Shaker furniture. He shopped and read voraciously. “I collected my way into the business,” he says. At twenty-six, Russell found that racing was taking an unacceptable toll on him. He knew what he wanted to do next. He signed on for two years as an assistant in a New York antiques shop. Then he went to his father for a small loan, bought some stock, restored an early nineteenth-century meetinghouse in South Salem, New York, and set up shop. He opened for business in March of 1979; he is at the same location thirty years later, older but, he insists, a lot more knowledgeable.
You earn the knowledge. Russell recalls another dealer approaching him at an antiques show in Hartford, Connecticut, offering him a Perkins and Barlow chair at a low price because the man had determined that its finials must be replacements, since they were not of a piece with the posts they crowned. Russell paid the asking price and then informed the fellow that the beds of the Shaker lathes were not long enough to make those posts and finials out of a single piece of wood, so the finials were always turned separately for such chairs. You could consider the difference between what the other dealer could have charged and what he did, the price of his tuition.
Shaker furniture and artifacts remain Russell’s specialty, but it is not possible, he admits, to make a living dealing only in those. About 80 percent of his business is in other early American antiques, notably baskets and pottery, as well as clocks and furniture.
Currently serving his eighth (“and final”) two-year term as president of the Antiques Dealers Association of America, Russell insists that serious collecting is not only for the wealthy. “It is still possible today to live with antiques,” he says. “The economics in many instances are the same as they were twenty, twenty-five years ago. You can still buy good things. In my shop, I have a perfect one-drawer Sheraton blanket chest in the original red, not a scratch on it.” It is priced, Russell says, in the low four figures. Amortize that over a two-hundred-year lifespan.
Tom Christopher is a writer living in Middletown, Connecticut.