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Museum acquires antique desk collectors never knew existed

A desk by 18th century artisan John Shearer recently was acquired by The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. Courtesy MSV (Buy photo)

A desk by 18th century artisan John Shearer, recently acquired by The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, is rare because collectors never knew of its existence until it went up for auction. Courtesy MSV (Buy photo)

By Josette Keelor

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester has acquired a 19th century desk made by one of the Shenandoah Valley's most recognizable and eccentric early artisans.

The 1808 John Shearer desk is the museum's second piece by Shearer, but what makes it so special is that no one knew about it -- not even Elizabeth A. "Betsy" Davison, who wrote a book about Shearer.

She was "flabbergasted," she said in a phone conversation Friday from Reston.

"It was completely unknown and that's what's so exciting and fabulous about it," said Davison, who wrote "The Furniture of John Shearer, 1790 to 1820 'A true North Britain in the southern backcountry.'"

There are 57 known pieces that survive Shearer, including a chest of drawers, four clocks, table stands and the sideboard the museum previously acquired.

"That's the only sideboard," Davison said. He also built a bureau table and a dressing glass, but no chairs.

The museum's collections committee has long been on the lookout for Shearer pieces, and Julie Armel, museum director of marketing and public relations, said the desk they purchased Nov. 16 "illustrates everything that's unique about John Shearer and his story."

Director Dana Hand said the museum has been looking for iconic pieces that tell great stories, and the desk's few glitches make it "a conundrum piece."

"All the things about it, when you see it, if you're familiar with John Shearer's work, it hits every note," she said.

Shearer, who lived in Frederick, Md., was a joiner, Davison said, not a cabinetmaker, and his work is so interesting because of the carvings he made.

"He's known for signing it and for writing lots of things," she said.

On one desk, "he calls himself a carpenter," she said.

On the desk the museum required he wrote, "I made this desk for an Honest Dutchman of the name of Philip Stover...."

And in 1804 on a bureau table, he wrote "Huzzah to Admiral Nelson for vanquishing the enemies of his country."

Though from Scotland, Shearer called himself a North Briton, which Davison said was not surprising at the time.

"They're proud to be both Scottish and British ... and they called themselves North British," she said.

"Shearer would do these responses to current events." She said he wrote of Horatio Nelson because like most other Britons, he was proud of Nelson, who at the time was as well known a public figure as Michael Jackson is today.

"He was incredible huge to the Brits," she said, and "Shearer obviously had these same leanings."

Also on the museum's new acquisition, Shearer wrote "Lord Nelson and Victory," which Davison said doesn't refer to his victory in battle but rather to his flagship, called Victory.

"The important stuff in this note is he's pro-British, he's pro-union," she said.

He identified with Martinsburg, W.Va., which Davison said confused historians for a while until they realized he lived in Frederick, Md., but worked in Martinsburg.

Hand said the museum learned of the desk because it went to public auction in October.

Shearer's work is highly collectible, sought after by museums, private collectors, and she said having the desk at the museum will benefit the community.

According to Armel, "It just tells a fabulous story."

Following minor conservation, the desk will go on view at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, 901 Amherst St., Winchester, as soon as possible. The sideboard and another Shearer desk, loaned to the museum, will be on display until Jan. 6. For more information about the Shearer desk, call the museum at 540-662-1473 or visit www.theMSV.org.

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