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The Silver Standard

How One Collector Found an "Affordable," but Still Shiny, Niche in Precious Metals
Thomas Hoving
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

Imagine a newly rich guy in his mid-40s, call him Stony Crowell--American, good university in the Midwest, MBA at Wharton, then venture capital. Hit a winner by selling his medium-sized software company for $450 million. So he's not yet in the Forbes top 400, but is pleased as punch.

What to do with all that dough? Stony attended private seminars on how to become a philanthropist at each one of his five homes, which were spread from Palm Beach to Nantucket through Chicago, Washington and New York. Fine. Yet he soon realized that eleemosynary thrills become soggy. So Stony decided to take up something he'd only dreamed about during his frantic business life--art collecting. Ever since he'd first visited the Art Institute of Chicago as a college student trawling for dates, acting (very successfully) like an intellectual and a connoisseur, he'd fallen secretly in love with the art. The idea of becoming an art collector appealed to his desire for stature. It appealed also to Crowell's rapacious instincts and his need to have at all times a certain titillating danger in his life, like heliskiing. Nothing was more perilous than art collecting. Wasn't the motto of art collecting caveat emptor? The very words made him tingle.

In a whirlwind of due diligence, for which he was renowned in the investing arena, Stony quickly determined which field of art collecting would offer the best return in terms of aesthetic excitement, stature and peace of mind. That area would also pay dividends in terms of being looked at with respect.

He didn't choose contemporary painting or sculpture. While the idea of finding a few undiscovered geniuses at rock-bottom prices intrigued him, he learned that it was impossible; nothing remains undiscovered for more than half a heartbeat. Impressionists that he admired were also out. After all, he was worth a mere $450 million. Besides, what could he find in the all-too-plumbed field that could come close to what he had always admired in the Art Institute? He veered away from Old Masters. What was largely on the market wasn't Old and not very Masterly either. Crafts? Too downscale, he thought. Antiquities? Forget it; all was illegal, for everything was smuggled.

His choice was clear--a field that had a good tradition, wasn't priced to the stratosphere, still possessed some undiscovered beauties, was being made by some gifted living artists, and had a contemporary use no matter what the date. Silver.

It didn't hurt that an extraordinary piece, one of a pair of tureens designed by Just-Aurèle Meissonnier, a Parisian of the mid-eighteenth century and considered perhaps the best European Rococo silversmith ever, had sold at Sotheby's of London in May for a whopping $5.7 million. The Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon Family Trust was the seller--very upscale. Stony wanted to be in that company.

He learned that his best course was not to thrash around on his own but to go to a dealer he could trust implicitly, one who was blessed with a fine inventory and the contacts to increase that inventory, had the willingness to teach him (even if he asked stupid questions), and who possessed, above all, throbbing enthusiasm.

There were a handful of such dealers--Shrubsole's, Edward Robinson and David Killen in New York City, or S. J. Phillips in London. But the inside tip was the legendary London antiques house of Partridge Fine Arts.

The elegant place at 144-146 New Bond Street, seemed like something out of Charles Dickens, with an opulent storefront and cavernous galleries laden with the juiciest furniture, objets d'art and bibelots he'd ever seen. The chairman, John Partridge, the third generation in the business, looked like a friendly owl with his sharp-beaked nose and eyes that glittered when Crowell laid it frankly on the line that he was, well, wealthy and interested in silver. He laughed kindly in genuine appreciation at Crowell's intention to become as great (well, almost) a silver collector as the famous British-born Arthur Gilbert, now of Los Angeles, who had just been persuaded by Jacob Rothschild to donate his fabulous collection (175 pieces strong and worth at least $127 million) to Great Britain, to be housed at Somerset House.

Much as he liked silver and could go on for hours about it, Partridge told Stony he wasn't the man to see. His expert was Lucy Morton, whom he'd brought in seven years before to revive the silver market at the venerable firm.

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