Colonial silver has been shining at recent auctions


July 12, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Solis-Cohen Enterprises

Rarely do more than half a dozen fine pieces of Colonial American silver appear at auction at one time. When the June Americana sales at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York together featured a dazzling display of nearly 50 pieces of late-17th and early-18th century silver, museums, dealers and a small group of wealthy collectors had an unusual opportunity to acquire shining examples, many fresh to the market. Although no records were made, prices generally were strong for works by some of the finest Colonial silversmiths.

The two rarest items on the auction block will enhance museum collections. The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., spent $121,000 at Christie's for a silver sugar caster made by Jacobus Van Der Spiegel, who worked in New York from 1690 to 1708. At Sotheby's, a two-pronged fork made by John Noyes of Boston, (( circa 1700-1710, fetched $28,600. It was purchased by Putnam Valley, N.Y., dealer Jonathan Trace, bidding on behalf of a collector who is donating it to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. (A New Jersey collector bought a matching fork, with a less clear maker's mark, for $14,300.)

Sugar was a precious commodity in Colonial America, and the wealthy stored and served it in special silver vessels. The rare sugar caster was sold by New Hampshire collector Eddy G. Nicholson and had been expected to bring $120,000 to $180,000. Weighing 16 ounces and standing 8 1/4 inches high, it is the largest of four known similar early-18th century New York casters, all now in museum collections.

The Van Der Spiegel caster, engraved with a coat of arms, likely belonged to John Gardiner (1661-1738) of Gardiner's Island, N.Y., who was present when Captain Kidd visited in 1699. Kidd traded him a bag of sugar and other imports for sheep and cider. According to family accounts, the prosperous Gardiner was a "robust man" and a "big liver."

Window on lifestyle

The caster "is a real window into the family's lifestyle," said William N. Hosley Jr., curator of American decorative arts at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which purchased it with funds raised last fall by auctioning items from its Wallace Nutting Collection of Pilgrim Century furnishings.

As unusual as sugar casters were, silver forks were even rarer in 18th century America, since diners generally ate with just knives and spoons. If used at all, forks typically had steel tines and bone handles until the 19th century.

The pair of plain, two-pronged silver dinner forks offered at Sotheby's, each 7 3/8 inches long and weighing less than 2 ounces, were engraved with the initials "HA" for Hannah Arnold (born 1695). They remained in her family for nearly three centuries and were consigned by a descendant. Two other forks from the set are at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

Although drinking vessels were common 18th century American silver forms, rare and early examples brought solid prices at auction. A circa 1690-1705 tankard made in Boston by Jeremiah Dummer sold for $110,000 to Harold Sack, an antique furniture dealer who said he bought it for his own enjoyment. (Consigned to Christie's by Mr. Nicholson, it previously had fetched $137,500 at auction in St. Louis in July 1988.)

Also at Christie's, a later and much larger Boston tankard, made by Daniel Henchman, 1755-1775, with the Green family's stag head crest engraved by Henchman's brother-in-law, Nathaniel Hurd, sold for $80,300 to Firestone and Parson Inc., a Boston dealer, surpassing its $30,000 to $50,000 pre-sale estimate.

At Sotheby's, an average-size tankard made by Jacob Hurd, inscribed "The gift of Captn John Breed Deceas'd to the first Church in Lynn, Decembr, ye 14th, 1728," sold to New York dealer S. J. Shrubsole Corp. for $33,000, showing that, contrary to common belief, ecclesiastic silver can bring a premium over similar household pieces when form, condition and engraving merit. The tankard was one of 16 pieces made in Boston between 1710 and 1737 consigned to Sotheby's by the First Church of Christ in Lynn (Mass.) Congregational. The collection brought a total of nearly $400,000, including $55,000 for a circa 1737 inscribed alms dish made by Jacob Hurd.

"Some people say they don't like silver with church inscriptions, but I do, and I think it went cheap," dealer Eric Shrubsole said. "With most American silver you must say 'circa' a certain date, guessing when it actually was made. . . . This church silver was dated on the inscriptions and is in perfect condition. It was cared for and is genuine."

Mr. Trace paid $82,500 for a pair of elaborately engraved and inscribed tulip-shape beakers by Jacob Hurd, circa 1737. A pair of chaste cylindrical beakers by John Coney, circa 1710, engraved underneath "L-C," presumably for Lynn Church, went to Mr. Trace for $55,000, their low estimate.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Dr. Richard O'Hara, said after the sale that the silver no longer was used for communion and had been kept in a bank vault virtually since 1929.

Colonial American silver, particularly unusual forms, always has been the prerogative of the affluent and is as rare and prized today as it was centuries ago.

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