Casual collector tastes sweet success with chocolate pot


January 10, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

This is a story about the sweet taste of antiquing success, which will keep the hopeful searching through dusty old boxes at estate auctions, waking at dawn to be first at a flea market and pulling off country roads to prowl sleepy antiques shops.

An inveterate auction-goer hit the jackpot when she paid $75 for an unusual-looking blackened spouted pot at an estate sale last summer, and her lucky discovery is about to warm up the Americana market from its winter chill.

Unwittingly, she had purchased a rare William-and-Mary-style sterling silver hot chocolate pot made in Boston circa 1710, bearing the mark of silversmith Edward Webb. It will be on the auction block once again, this time at Christie's in New York City on Jan. 22, with a pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000. Off the record, some experts say they wouldn't be surprised if it fetches even more.

"It is the first truly great find that has come across my desk in the nearly 12 years I've been at Christie's," said silver specialist Jeanne Sloane. "Most people who own early American silver know what they have, but this piece was totally unrecorded and is such a rare form."

The woman who bought the pot agreed to talk on the phone about what she says is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her, but insisted on anonymity. She also won't identify the local auctioneer or whose estate the pot came from. "I could never live in this small town if anyone suspected I made such a find," she said. (All she would reveal is that the auctioneer said the pot was discovered in a trunk full of old clothes; the next buyer, however, will get the details.)

"I've lived all over the world," she said, "and I've always looked for antiques." Upon re-marrying, she moved to a small town in rural northeastern Pennsylvania where plenty of country auctions are advertised in the local papers every week. She goes for the

amusement: "They're wonderful fun."

'Just liked it'

The house sale on a hot Saturday in July liquidated an estate without any heirs. "I took along my folding chair and a carton, signed up for a bidding number and looked over the stuff," she recounted. "There was a pile of silver plate, real junk, and this odd-looking black pot. Some antiques dealers were joking that the fellow who made it put the handle on the wrong place. . . . It was so black one fellow swore it was pewter and another important-acting dealer said it was a Britannia teapot and would never clean up. I didn't care what it was made of, I just liked it, and sat through the sale until it came up and got it for $75. Only one other fellow bid on it."

She put the pot in her carton and drove home in her pick-up truck. "I left the box in the truck for almost two weeks before I brought it into the kitchen and decided I'd clean up the pot," she recalled. "I tried silver polish and then Tarnex, but it stayed black. Then I got some chrome cleaner and really rubbed and some black came off. I could see the mark 'EW.' " She promptly checked her copy of Seymour Wyler's "The Book of Old Silver," a 1930s reference work.

"There was my pot looking out at me, and under the picture it said 'Chocolate Pot, Edward Winslow, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.' I almost passed out," she said. "I had to tell someone, so I called Christie's." She was told to send a photo.

Jeanne Sloane said that when she got a message about a Winslow pot she thought, "Yeah, sure, it's one of those 1920s Tiffany reproductions and someone rubbed off the Tiffany mark." (The reproductions are very nice, selling for around $3,000 to $5,000.) But when the photo arrived, Ms. Sloane's skepticism about the pot's age vanished. She called the owner, said not to use any more polish and asked her to bring the pot to New York.

The owner was leaving for summer vacation and when she returned, Ms. Sloane called again. "If you won't bring the pot to us, we'll come to you," the owner recalled Ms. Sloane saying before she arrived from New York with an assistant.

Matching marks

Having been told that the mark was "EW" in a rectangle, but knowing that Edward Winslow's mark is "EW" enclosed in a heart, Ms. Sloane brought an enlarged photograph of Edward Webb's mark. The one on the pot matched Webb's exactly, down to a flaw in the die.

Generally Christie's has silver tested if there's a question about its authenticity. In this case, although Ms. Sloane was sure the piece was "right," she took it anyway to the Winterthur Museum's laboratory in Delaware for spectrographic analysis, because the odds are against discovering such a rarity. She wanted to confirm her attribution by subjecting the pot to X-ray fluorescence, which isolates the metals in the alloys.

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