It’s not just for table service—extravagant, sculptural silver objects reach into the higher spheres of art.
By John Dorfman
At Christie’s sale of Important Silver on October 19, the top lot was not a table service or a tea set but a pack of cards. Made in 1616 in Augsburg, Germany, it was a complete set of 52 playing cards made of silver, parcel-gilt (silver lingo partially gilt) and engraved. The artist, Michael Frömmer, engraved his signature on one of the cards. The cards are exquisitely fashioned, thin enough to stack and play with, if not exactly to shuffle. Estimated at $150,000–200,000, they shot up to $554,500, selling to an English dealer who was bidding on behalf of a private collector who specializes in Renaissance art.
Jeanne Sloane, head of the silver department at Christie’s, described the cards as being “lavished with engraving, the kind you would do on a copper plate to pull prints from. To do that on a one-off is so extravagant, so decadent, it would only have been for a Renaissance prince.” The deck, which has the so-called “Italian suits,” is the only complete one of its kind known in the world, is in impeccable condition, and comes from an Uruguayan collection, with a provenance that goes back to the Spanish royal family.
Although the Augsburg cards are a once-in-a-lifetime find, their star turn on the auction block illustrates the fact that there’s a lot more to the collecting market for antique silver than forks, knives and plates. At a time when fewer and fewer people are setting tables elaborately enough to require traditional sets of silverware, many collectors are looking at silver objects as works of art. Extravagantly ornamented vases, centerpieces, saltcellars and tureens, as well as items such as commemorative shields or chess sets that have nothing to do with eating and drinking, can be appreciated as pieces of sculpture, full stop.
“Great pieces of silver are works of art,” says antiques dealer Bill Rau, of M.S. Rau & Company in New Orleans. He points to a figural ice pail and a soup tureen by Hester Bateman that was given as a present to the sheriff of Cork, Ireland after the rebellion of 1798. “You couldn’t get any more sculptural than those if you tried,” he enthuses. “That tureen has never seen soup!” Similarly, a tray Rau sold to a collector several years ago, now on loan to the San Antonio Museum of Art, “has never seen tea in its life.” While not strictly speaking sculptural, its interest also derives from non-practical factors. Made by the firm of Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, the most prestigious English silversmith of the Regency period and the first half of the 19th century, it has history-bearing inscriptions. “When Queen Victoria acceded to the throne in 1837,” says Rau, “she found out that her father died owing Lord Dundee the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s money. She paid back the money and gave Lord Dundee this tray with the inscription as a token of appreciation for what he did for her father.”
The Regency period (technically 1811–20 but more like 1780s through the 1830s in terms of silver style) is generally accepted as the time when extravagant artistry came to silversmithing in England. Some of the most astonishing pieces were produced then, due to a combination of technology and demand. Previously, a major raison d’etre of silverware was monetary; before widespread, organized banking, many people placed their assets in silver, with the understanding that the wares would be melted down for their currency value in time of need. As the 19th century dawned, however, a growing affluent class wanted to show off their wealth with silver pieces of a type that required labor disproportionate to the so-called “melt value” of the silver. “During the Regency, they had the money and the ability to create these fabulous objects for the first time,” says Lewis Smith, director of Koopman Rare Art, a silver specialist in London. “Previously, silver was thought of as a form of cash; the Regency period shook that up and created a new exuberance, of which Rundell were the leaders.”
One way in which Regency silver distinguished itself was by what Smith calls “the penetration of other media into silver.” The famous Warwick Vase, of which Koopman has an example, was made by Rundell silversmith Paul Storr based on engravings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In creating the prints, Piranesi was documenting a Greek marble vase from the 2nd–4th century that was excavated at Hadrian’s Villa near Rome. Koopman also points proudly to another trophy piece he has handled—the “Shield of Achilles,” made of fully gilt silver from a design by John Flaxman. Round, convex and 35 inches in diameter, the elaborated chased piece was intended to represent the shield described by Homer in Book XVIII of the Iliad. Between 1821 and 1823, Rundell cast four of these shields. “It’s almost like a painting,” says Smith, “only sturdier.”
Of course, such ultra-rare works are hardly ever available, and are too expensive even for most serious collectors even if they do, but, Smith is quick to point out that there is plenty of sculptural silver on the market at a wide range of prices. The Achilles shield would bring over $1 million if it came on the market, but Koopman Rare Art currently has an 1824 clamshell-shaped dessert bowl with the maker’s mark of John Bridge, its Triton and sea-horse figures testifying to the naval might of England, for about £300,000. Its pair is in the Art Institute of Chicago. “But there’s lots you can buy from $1,500 to $2,000,” adds Smith. “A Victorian vase from the 1850s could be $10,000. It doesn’t all have to be six figures.”
The market for high-end silver is currently quite strong. Sloane says, “Our last two sales have shown a marked increase in foreign buying, especially mainland China.” The Internet, she says, has contributed to this trend, with many prospective bidders perfectly content to view lots online without ever going to the preview. “The silver market is experiencing the same things as watches and jewelry. It’s about investing and lifestyle. Unlike furniture, it’s librated from fashion trends because it isn’t dependent on decorating.” Smith describes the market as having been “very stable” up to now. “Why? Constant demand and limited supply.” But the burgeoning international demand has him a bit concerned. At Sotheby’s “Treasures” sale last summer, a 168-pound silver wine cooler sold for £2.5 million, a record for English silver (the record for American silver is $5.9 million for a colonial punch bowl, set in January 2010 at Sotheby’s New York). The winning bidder was a private Chinese collector. Smith was the underbidder. “It’s a little frightening,” he says. “If they become as aggressive in our field as they are in their own, it would make buying harder—but selling easier!”
However, Smith adds, “antiques dealers aren’t the best judges of the market. The passion for the object takes over. Our main reason for selling is to buy more. It’s completely an addiction.” And that addiction can take hold of anyone who happens to see, touch and fall in love with a fabulous piece of sculptural silver.