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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 2)

Imagine Stony leaning forward and in his irrepressible, somewhat pushy, manner asking the specialist, could she just hammer out a quickie timeline of what there might be out there to collect?

Some European countries have paltry pickings, Morton noted. Italian silver is exceedingly scarce because of the incessant conflict. So much was melted down. The same thing happened in France--copious amounts melted down by Louis XIV to pay for his wars.

"In England what's notable was that there were few political upheavals and therefore not the same wholesale destruction," Morton added. "From Tudor times, Elizabethan spoons do show up and are not overly costly, either. From the time of Charles I, the pre-Cromwell epoch, look for communion cups. This small wine cup we have of 1641 is unusual because it is secular and the majority are usually religious items, like communion cups. Of the period of Charles II into the late Stuart years, things appear all the time in auctions and in the galleries. For the most part it is church silver. Flagons, that sort of thing. Then there's the Huguenot period, Queen Anne and George I, which is a fecund transition period for England when there were many crafts being brought in from Europe. Then in succession there's Rococo, the Neoclassical and Regency. And at the end of the nineteenth century you will see various companies and the arts and crafts movement."

What about America? The country's best-known colonial silversmith was Paul Revere. His works are cherished and not many are available. The highest price paid thus far for a Revere piece--a fluted teapot and stand--is $165,000, back in 1990. Today that price would no doubt be exceeded.

Stony wanted to know about the "mystery" of stamps and hallmarks, and he learned that there was no real mystery. English hallmarks are important because for a long time there has been a recorded system of dated letters and hallmarks. The stamp was the sponsor's, not the maker's mark. "Our Elizabeth Godfrey, for example, ran the business; she didn't create the designs," said Morton.

Where did the silver come from? "It was mostly the melting down of grandma's," she said. "Sorrowfully, antiquity wasn't revered. Not like old paintings. You could get a fashionable update from the silver you had melted down. The New World supplied silver increasingly from the nineteeth century. In Victorian times, silver was very cheap. Knickknacks were made of silver because it became cheap."

What about fakes? Were they a real danger? "Outright faking is not very common," Morton explained. "What is dangerous is re-engraving and rechasing, detailing the portions that have softened over the years with usage. Bogus enhancements range from crests to grandiose coats of arms. Enhanced pieces are very tricky to detect. They constitute a big problem in the silver market. There are lots of unscrupulous vendors out there. They take a plain piece and regild it. And sometimes it's not today's electro-gilding. In France there are gilders who use the old style and who enhance everything in sight. Very hard to detect."

How not to get fooled? "Go to the right dealer," she said. "You will learn in time that color is vital and so is the built-up patina acquired through years of handling and polishing. Do not expect to find something in mint condition, for that is all but unheard of. There's one famous mint-condition piece. It's an eighteenth-century communion cup now in the Sterling and Francine Clark collection at Williams College in Massachusetts--a truly grand collection. The cup was ordered by the governor of Bermuda in 1794 and was stored in a bank vault for a century and a half. The surface is untouched."

Crowell asked about the best collections. To Morton, the British Royal Collection is probably the best (although it is not open to the public). Then the British Museum, followed by the Victoria and Albert, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the National Museum in Copenhagen. Private collections remain almost total enigmas because the owners are loath to allow anyone in--even Stony Crowell.

Stony wanted to know how the Silver Vaults on Chancery Lane stacked up. Lucy Morton was brisk. "Tourists go there for knickknacks. It's an upscale flea market. Amusing, but not for the serious collector."


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