A Cup Runneth Over

An auction of an old beer stein from a Baltimore church may bring a flow of money back to the congregation

October 24, 2005|By CARL SCHOETTLER | CARL SCHOETTLER,SUN REPORTER

When Edna Rau found the handsomely engraved silver beer stein tucked in a closet at Epiphany Lutheran Church, she knew right away it was too valuable to sell in the thrift shop.

Perhaps it's worth a few hundred dollars, she thought. Her instinct was right, but her guess was wrong.

The elegant tankard engraved with scenes from the Passion of Christ - the Crucifixion, the Entombment and the Resurrection - will go on sale Wednesday at Sotheby's New York auction house with an estimated value of $40,000 to $60,000.

"We were shocked," Rau says, then adds with a kind of awe, "Even more amazing than the value [is that] you just don't hold something and carry it around every day that's from the 1600s, something predating the United States."

The stein, which might have languished in the church closet for decades, is an extraordinary example of 17th-century engraving, says Kevin L. Tierney, Sotheby's senior vice president in the silver department.

"It's an absolutely fabulous thing," he says. "You cannot get better engraving from the 17th century, and it has survived in remarkable condition."

Made in Konigsberg, Germany, probably between 1640 and 1650, the tankard is hand-crafted of solid silver. It's about 9 inches high, weighs not quite 2 pounds and is virtually covered with engravings from the life of Christ, with a profile on the arched thumb piece.

"Just to do this engraving was an endless task," Tierney says. "Most craftsmen didn't attempt it. ... This is a virtuoso display of the engraver's ability."

No one quite knows how a museum-quality 17th-century beer tankard came to be owned by a Lutheran church in Northeast Baltimore.

"All we know is that somewhere along the line someone gave this to the church, and it's been here a very long time," says the Rev. Keith Hardy, the church's pastor. The stein had once been used as a wine flagon for Communion services. But that really didn't work out well.

"It was spilling all over the place," Hardy says. "The rounded edge was fine for drinking but not for pouring."

Just pouring wine into a chalice was a mess, let alone into tiny Communion glasses. "It was simply put away," he says. "It was just taking up space in the sacristy."

Rau, who has been a member of Epiphany Lutheran for about 33 years, first saw the stein a couple years ago in a closet, zippered up in a brown velvet bag.

"I was being nosy," she says. "Sometimes it does pay off."

The stein turned up again last spring when the church began making space for the City Neighbors Public Charter School. The school, which held its first classes in September, rents a building from the church for $1 a year.

"I recognized some of the things they were throwing away could be sold at auction," says Rau, who runs the church thrift shop. "If you get 20 bucks or so, it's better than throwing them away."

She set out last spring on the circuitous route that ended with the identification of the stein by Sotheby's. She tracked through the Bel Air Auction House, where she was told that it might be worth $4,000 to $6,000 but that she'd need a more experienced appraiser.

Then she checked with the Walters Art Museum but says she was told abruptly that its staff doesn't do appraisals. The Maryland Historical Society wouldn't appraise the stein either but suggested she seek out Frederick Duggan, an owner of the Imperial Half Bushel, an antique silver shop on Howard Street. He put her in touch with Sotheby's Tierney.

In early May, Rau, congregation council member Jack Roeder and a friend, Roger Karsk, a Hampden antiques dealer, caught a bus to New York and took the stein to Sotheby's. Then they waited.

"Every couple of weeks I'd call," Rau says. "They'd say, `We still haven't found anything.'"

After considerable research, aided by experts at the Bavarian National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Sotheby's identified the painter who was the source of the stein's engravings and suggested that the silversmith was one Hans Buhl of Konigsberg. The maker's mark "HB" is struck into the stein under the handle. But the engraver remains a mystery.

Finally, in September, Tierney wrote that the stein was of such superior quality that it belonged with a major collector or in a museum. He suggested that it be included in Wednesday's sale of "Important English and Continental Silver."

Rau - and the congregation - were elated. The reaction of the 15-member congregation council was unanimous: Sell it!

"The congregation was extremely pleased to find out the value of the piece," Hardy says. "And extremely anxious to redeem the value of the piece and put that money to work for the ministry here."

He finds it remarkable that the flagon came to light during the preparations for the opening of the charter school. The church has given $50,000 from its endowment to help launch the school.

"So," he says, "it's almost as if, in scriptural terms, cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you sevenfold."

The reserve bid on the flagon is $40,000.

"Not quite sevenfold," the pastor acknowledges. "But with 120 schoolchildren in and out of our doors every day, that's certainly a sevenfold return on any investment."

carl.schoettler@baltsun.com

Sale

The elegantly engraved 17th-century beer stein from Baltimore's Epiphany Lutheran Church will go on sale at Sotheby's auction house, 1334 York Ave., New York, at 2 p.m. Wednesday. 212-606-7901 or sothebys.com.

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