The Silver Standard

How One Collector Found an "Affordable," but Still Shiny, Niche in Precious Metals
| By Thomas Hoving | From 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.

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."

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."

He asked her if he stayed in London for an extra three days--for the silver of it--what would she recommend he do?

"One, go to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert and look, look, look. Two, go to a bookshop and buy The National Trust Book of English Domestic Silver--1500-1900. Three, buy something."

There happened to be on the table where they were seated in the silver room at Frank Partridge's six candlesticks and two majestic candelabra made for Emperor Augustus II of Saxony in 1750. Morton said softly, "They are beautiful beyond imagining, looking like suspended silver and gilded clouds, superior works of art, fine discoveries, and to me they epitomize the glory of silver looking as if it's still molten."

"May I be permitted to know the price?" Stony asked hesitantly.

"That's exactly the way to start. Only £680,000."

"Time to get my feet wet. I'll buy them. In dollars that's only--around a mere million."

One can imagine that Stony Crowell never regretted his first plunge into the waters of silver collecting and that over the decades he probably assembled a truly historic collection of ancient and contemporary silver that, when donated to the museum at his university, might well have been worth more than two hundred million.

Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the author of False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes.