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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

(continued from page 1)

A woman in her 40s, Morton has a charming, animated face and an English reserve that disguises for a few minutes her roaring passion for her field. She was trained in the best schools for silver--the trade. She got her history degree from Exeter University in 1980, then worked for the London dealer John Borden Smith. Subsequently she worked for dealer Tim Schroder and he became her good friend and teacher. When Schroder joined Partridge in 1991 to manage its silver department, he brought along Morton as his assistant. In 1997, Schroder left the antiques house and Morton succeeded him.

The first question Stony asked Lucy was: why did she like silver? The history had intrigued her--on whose tables the pieces had been. But from the earliest on she had fallen in love with the appearance of the metal: "It looked to me as if it were frozen or suspended light streams from heaven, liquid and greasy, heavy with delight."

When Lucy Morton gets caught up she races along, bursting with zeal. "I love it because it's frozen emotion! I love this transformation of a lump of metal out of the ground by fire and heat into a tangible reflective object. Formed, melted, treated in so many cunning ways to create something entirely different. Silver's the very symbol of the birth of a new substance. It's nothing in the beginning; then, carved, hammered, chased and engraved, it emerges as a different medium at the end. It's more immediate than painting or sculpture. In essence silver is utilitarian but magnificent as jewelry. Call it, 'God with his feet on the ground.' Unlike porcelain, silver relies entirely on sculptural qualities for its beauty. And it relies on the skill of the creator. It works or doesn't work. I think of silver as the sonnet of the fine arts."

Morton balances her poetry with practical information. She divulged to Stony that there are some very fine contemporary silversmiths working and the Goldsmiths Hall near Saint Paul's does a fine job promoting them. "The telephone number is 011 44 171 606 7010--seek out Leslie Leader, very helpful. You'll find an indispensable library and good exhibitions of old stuff and the modern."

How was he, Stony, to learn about silver? The only way was complete and utter saturation. "Talk to everyone with an interest, from collectors to craftspeople, restorers and museum curators--learn from anyone who will tell you anything," urged Morton. See everything, touch it, hold it, plant your lips on it. Haunt the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and, of course, the Gilbert Collection.

"The Gilbert is interesting because it has matured from a hoard of a rich man's toys (the very obvious makers like Paul de Lamerie and Paul Storr, the eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century British silversmiths), but now his taste has developed wonderfully," Morton said.

Could a new Gilbert--could he, Stony--start now?

Certainly. There are still "opportunity areas," but they are not populated by exalted names like Storr and de Lamerie, whose prices range from more than $1,000 for a spoon to up to $2 million for large pieces.

Lucy Morton went to a well-stocked vitrine and took out for examination a splendid silver epergnè made in 1753, during George II's reign, in a workshop owned by a woman named Elizabeth Godfrey. The coat of arms she pointed out were those of John 2nd Earl of Hopetoun.

"I would recommend Continental silver. Germany above France. And Austria even above them," Morton advised. "It is not so well known that the silversmithing skills of the German and Austrian craftsmen were the same as Frenchmen--sometimes even better because they went to Paris to be trained." Morton said that today no area is totally ignored. "Oh, I suppose unfashionable would be 1850s Victorian, which tends to be a mishmash of styles. In the 1870s there was a great deal of experimentation with techniques, but design was at a low point. Nothing really great. You ought to know that collecting Regency pieces is over--virtually nothing available."

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