White House china is hotly desired by eager collectors


January 17, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

Bill and Hillary Clinton better lock up their dishes when they move into the White House this week: presidential tableware is a hot collectible. Collectors are after any china, glass or silver in any condition used by any president.

The day after Mr. Clinton's election, one small porcelain tea bowl and saucer from George and Martha Washington's French porcelain tea and coffee service sold for $52,250 at a Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco. That's a record for presidential china.

A rococo foliate script "GW" monogram appears in the middle of the saucer and on the cup's side, floating above a sepia-colored cloud and below a wreath of pink roses. The borders are floral swags with gilt scrollwork.

Eight pieces from this service remain at Mount Vernon where the Comte de Custine-Sarreck, proprietor of the Niderviller factory near Strasbourg, presented it to Martha when he came to dinner on July 20, 1782. George was with his army and missed the visit, but sent a thank-you on Aug. 7 from Newburgh, N.Y. (The count, who had fought under General Washington at Yorktown in 1781, later returned to France and ultimately was guillotined in 1793.)

Over the years the first first lady gave away most of the Niderviller pieces to various friends and relatives, and this tea bowl and saucer descended in the Custis family to her great, great, great granddaughter. The last time it sold publicly, at Sotheby's in New York, in January 1976, it brought a record $25,000 from a Midwesterner whose heirs sent his collection to Butterfield's. One hopes the new owner, a Californian, will protect his treasures so they survive the next earthquake.

The same collector spent $35,750 on a small Chinese Export porcelain platter emblazoned with the emblem of the Order of the Cincinnati, the fraternity of Washington's officers. That dish, which brought $19,000 at Sotheby's in 1976, was part of the Cincinnati service brought to Baltimore harbor on the ship Pallas in 1785. Washington didn't buy it when it was first offered because of the high price. His friend Col. Henry Lee finally struck a bargain on the general's behalf in August 1786, and the purchase is documented in Washington's ledger. Washington used these dishes in his presidential residences in New York and Philadelphia.

Tableware belonging to later presidents is not as valuable as Washington's, but is surprisingly costly, even for extensively repaired pieces. (Unless a piece was chipped or broken, it usually remained at the White House. Much of the china that comes up for sale was discarded or stolen, though the first families occasionally gave a piece away, and some presidents are known to have lost a dish or two in a poker game.)

Abe and others

Of all the presidents, Lincoln's tableware is the most widely collected -- even in Japan. One of his unmarked Haviland porcelain dessert plates, its cracks restored, sold for $3,300 at Butterfield's. An 8 1/2 -inch Paris porcelain plate with a transfer-printed eagle wearing a banner inscribed "E pluribus unum," from Andrew Jackson's presidential service, sold for $4,675 despite having small chips, wear and spotting. At the same sale, two Limoges porcelain dessert plates with deep rose borders from Franklin Pierce's presidential service fetched $3,300, even though they have no eagles or initials, one plate was repaired, the other chipped, and the gilding was rubbed.

Collectors who want scraps from every president's table must settle for some family china because not every chief executive ordered official White House china, explained Set Momjian of Pennsylvania, who has been stashing away anything presidential for nearly 40 years. "There is no Kennedy White House china; it hadn't been ordered before he was assassinated. Nixon left office before he and Pat got around to buying china, and the Fords thought they'd wait to order china until their second term, a big mistake," said Mr. Momjian, who has a piece of the Fords' personal Lenox pattern with a pale yellow border and a floral meander.

Barbara and George Bush didn't order White House china either, probably in part because there was so much flack over Nancy Reagan's huge, expensive Lenox service with the wide red border, even though it was purchased with private donations, or in anticipation of four more shopping years.

Mr. Momjian claims his place setting of Carter china decorated with the presidential seal is part of a set ordered from Lenox before the Carters left the White House, although it was delivered afterward to the Carter Library. (Lenox is favored because it's an American manufacturer, but in former years the White House pantry was stocked with foreign imports.)

Personal china

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