Now available to read online
Below are digital versions of our annual catalogs, available to read and download if you wish. Please call, email, or visit us if you have any questions.
An online catalog and exhibition of the Lipton Tea Company Collection.
We are pleased to offer for sale a collection of exceptional English silver tea wares, first assembled some seventy years ago by Eric Shrubsole and the leadership of the Lipton tea company.
Now available to read online
Our annual silver and jewelry catalogs for 2021 are now available for digital viewing. They offer a range of beautiful, interesting, and rare silver and jewelry. Please have a look, and, if anything catches your eye, give us a call.
Our first exhibition since Covid features extraordinary pieces by the greatest Regency silversmith. If you’re able to visit in person, we’ll be very happy to see you here, and will express that happiness in the form of refreshments. Either way, please take a moment to look through the catalog online below, or click here to download and print it if you prefer. You will see some of the greatest examples of Storr’s work outside the Royal Collection. And if we’ve piqued your interest, give us a call. We love talking about these things.
Our 2020 catalogs are now available for digital viewing. They offer a range of beautiful, interesting, and rare silver and jewelry. Please have a look, and, if anything catches your eye, give us a call.
Quarantine companionship for the silver enthusiast
In an effort to alleviate the anxiety, and the boredom, attendant on being a responsible citizen in this very serious situation, we propose thirty days of minor entertainment.
Modelled after Boccaccio’s Decameron, Shrubsole’s Terzameron, or, Thirty Stories in Silver, is unlikely to eclipse that masterpiece. But like Boccaccio’s ten exiles from Florence, we three (Tim, Jim, Ben) are cooped up in a time of pestilence. We need to entertain ourselves. We need to continue to sell silver. And we love to proselytize for this beautiful stuff.
This is a series of 30 stories, told in 30 daily emails, and collected here for your convenience:
Terzameron Day 30Tim Martin
We have more stories to tell, more objects to celebrate, more people to remember, but it will have to wait. Commerce calls. This is the last post of the Terzameron. Thank you for reading it and thank you for all your emails and phone calls! It has been fun to hear from you!
Let’s start with yesterday’s story, and take as the “thesis” of this post (if you’ll forgive the cheap abuse of Hegel) the grand country house, Holkham Hall. Its owner, Sir Thomas Coke, bought everything of value that came in his path, and furnished his pile with every possible treasure seen or heard of at the time. Nevertheless, as we noted yesterday, at the end of his life he seemed…unfulfilled: “It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but my own. I am Giant of Giant Castle, and have ate up all my neighbours….”
Now let’s glance at the antithesis of that life, the earnestly comical and comically earnest account of two years in a cabin by the American hero and “hairshirt of a man” Henry David Thoreau. “I lived alone, in the woods, in a house I had built myself, a mile from any neighbor” he writes. As for the furnishings: “I had three pieces of limestone sculpture on my desk, but seeing that they needed dusting, while the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, I threw them out the window in disgust.”
It won’t surprise anyone that this post is going for a celebration of the synthesis, the middle ground. For although Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately” and to escape the Concord drawing rooms, I’d argue that you can, in fact, live deliberately in a house with running water, and you certainly don’t have to throw your sculptures out the window. In fact, when I started out in this business, I was struck again and again by the care, the earnest thought and consideration, the focus, the looking that went into our clients purchases. I was struck precisely by how “deliberate” collecting is. Once the purchases were made, I was even more struck by how our clients set the stage, as it were, on which the objects would sing.
One client has a Colonial Rhode Island dining room in his New York apartment. It has no electric light, and when you sit in it, with all the candles lit, and the gorgeous early silver and glass glowing on the deep mahogany, you really feel like you are in another era. Another has an entire apartment full of magnificent English furniture, silver, gilt-wood mirrors, blue-john, ormolu, cut-glass and oriental rugs, the whole beautifully laid out to create a welcoming home, but he doesn’t live there. He goes there on his walk home, pours himself a drink, and spends an hour or two in quiet contemplation before moving on to his “real” apartment–which has TV, and stacks of mail, and food in the fridge–a few blocks away. He’ll sometimes drop by the shop in the morning to rave about the beauty of this or that object, having checked it out again the night before. Our greatest-ever collector of Irish silver was John Rowan. His apartment was crammed with silver, hundreds of items, but with the exception of a pair of English candlesticks, it was all stored away in flannel bags in drawers and cupboards. He could tell you exactly where everything was. “Oh, that freedom box? Second drawer down on the left of the desk, fourth from the back.”
Every day for the last month I have gone to the shop. I take care of the banking and the shipping and the billing and the cleaning. It’s different, a bit lonely, but I like it. The solitude is leavened, and I know this is an awful cliché but I mean it, by the company of the things. (I really love my silver!) Each piece (with a few exceptions) just gets better and better under long and quiet contemplation. I long ago realized that in real life, I’m a parent, but at work I’m a foster parent. And, as such, all these beautiful things seem to me like Keats’s Grecian urn, they are unravished brides of quietness, slowly unfolding to the viewer their desirability, their charms and beauties, and they are foster-children of silence and slow time, blooming, like real children under the right conditions, to sing and tell stories. And the days go by, and I think how lucky I am.
With best wishes and thanks again to you all,
Terzameron Day 29
When I was a kid I was interested in Native American life. I was fascinated by “Ishi, Last of His Tribe,” purloined from my dad’s library, about a native American who came out of the mountains in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He was the last survivor of the Yahi tribe. He had been living alone for about five years before being captured trying to find food in what is now the town of Oroville, California. I was amazed that so much knowledge—of language, craft, culture—could be gleaned from the providential appearance of one surviving man, and I thought how different it would be if he had not survived.
So, though obviously trivial by comparison, I love it when we at Shrubsole find something from a lost world, or a lost part of a world—something that shines a light on what must have been in a certain time or place. And rarely in my field is the phenomenon so concentrated as it was when I saw a tankard, very recently, at the Union Club in New York. The tankard is owned by a group of men called the New York Farmers, a social and philanthropic club for gentlemen farmers that was established in 1882.
I’d been asked to give a talk about the Farmers’ silver. Donated and bequeathed by various members over a long span of years, the collection is a mix of utilitarian and decorative goods. The items range from the mediocre to the very nice, with one glowing exception: the tankard shown above. This Terzameron post draws on the talk I gave that evening, but, as the Farmers asked me to give the presentation after drinks and dinner, trust me, it is far more coherent.
Nearly all English tankards are round in section, but this one is sort of cushion shaped, with little pointed corners and bulging edges between—you see this shape in coffee pots and soup tureens by the very best silversmiths, such as Frederick Kandler and George Wickes, but I don’t recall another tankard of this type. This is the only picture I have, so you can’t see the details, but the handle, thumbpiece, and finial are all robust and unusual. The tankard was made in 1741 by John Le Sage, who would later become subordinate goldsmith to the King. In addition to its rare form and its beauty, it is remarkable for its history—specifically, the fact that it exists at all. You see, it is engraved with the arms of Sir Thomas Coke (pronounced Cook), later the Earl of Leicester, and to tell why that matters, I must both digress, and name-drop.
Several years ago I visited the Earl and Countess of Leicester at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. My godmother set it up for me. Her grandfather had been the Earl; she’d been born at Holkham in 1937 and spent her childhood there. The Earl I met was her cousin, Eddie Leicester. Probably the greatest Palladian house in England, Holkham was designed by Lord Burlington and William Kent, and built for Sir Thomas Coke, the original owner of the Farmers tankard. Coke had inherited a vast fortune. He was a grand tourist par excellence, a collector, connoisseur, and even briefly the owner of the Godolphin Arabian. He spent a fortune on the house, until he invested heavily in the South Sea Company and nearly went broke. He recovered, and continued building. He bought up so much of the land around him that late in life he somewhat woefully wrote “my nearest neighbor is the King of Denmark.”
The visit was a real treat. I saw all the pictures by Claude, the amazing collection of antiquities, and the vast and treasure filled library—formerly the home of Leonardo’s “Codex Leicester”. I was on the point of asking if they needed a grounds-keeper when I remembered I already had a job and asked about the silver instead. It was then I was led to “the plate room.” Don’t have one? Pity. It’s an octagonal room, about fifteen feet across, with twelve-foot ceilings and a chandelier in the middle. Each side of the octagon opens to baize-lined shelves groaning with row upon row and stack upon stack of silver—candlesticks, plates, tureens, etc. But when my eyes adjusted, and I’d finished ogling the room, I started to look closely at the silver, and, frankly, it’s a bit of a letdown. Lots of nineteenth century stuff, some late eighteenth, perfectly nice, but remarkable mostly for the quantity. Why would a house bursting with every other kind of treasure not have great silver?
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, if you were as rich as the Cokes, you kept up with fashion, and, unlike ancient statuary, rare books, and old master paintings, silver was a fashion statement. If you had your friends over and wanted to impress them in 1770 or 1820 or 1860 you’d no more have old-fashioned silver than a man on the make today would wear a corduroy suit and drive a Yugo. So, tragically, the Cokes had all their silver refashioned, again and again, until nothing was left from any of the best periods of English silver.
I’ve been dealing in silver for twenty-five years. I’ve been close to my godmother and hearing about Holkham all my life. Up till that evening with the Farmers, I’d seen two pieces of silver that had to do with the place, and both were trinkets given away as sheep-breeding prizes in the 1820s. I’ve also looked at thousands of auction catalogs and books, so I am pretty sure this tankard is the only surviving piece of silver from the early days of Holkham Hall, when Coke and Burlington and Kent were building the place. The form, so unusual and stylish, hints at the wonders that must have been in that fabulous, new-built, ultra-fashionable house at the time. The tankards were like this? Just imagine the tureens, the tea and coffee services, the candlesticks. It makes you realize just how much wealth and beauty have been consigned to the melting pot, at Holkham and elsewhere, for fashion. Amazingly, it survived the melting pot because the man who inherited Holkham, the famous farmer Thomas Wenman Coke, known as “Coke of Norfolk” presented it to his Farm Bailiff in 1782. The presentation of the item by a famous farmer to a farm employee caught the interest, years later, of one of the New York Farmers. In 1927, James Watson Webb gave it to the club in memory of his father, William Seward Webb, at once preserving it, and, till now, hiding it away from general knowledge.
Terzameron Day 28
This is Ben, here with what will be my last contribution to the Terzameron series. And as this is my last chance, I’m going to ask you to indulge a little self-reflection.
Some of you know that I grew up in Tennessee. Owning antiques in the South is a little different from how it is in New York. There, when grandma pulls out the silver for Thanksgiving, you see the family pitching in to polish it and no one rolling their eyes. There’s a ma & pop antiques shop on every town square and every highway exit. And it matters less how pretty and rare and important a piece is, and more what it means to the person who has it. That’s all a bit of a nostalgic picture, but as these are nostalgic times, let me keep it.
Now I’m as nutty as my colleagues when it comes to masterpieces and rarities and everything else that gives a silver enthusiast goosebumps. But there’s another kind of object that packs an extra punch for me. Let’s call it…sentimental silver. Silver that needs to be seen with charity—as James Flecker wrote of an old Persian mirror case: “…look as a saint might look,/ Or as a lover; not for fleck or flaw,/ Not in appraisal, but as waiting spring.” Take this mug:
If your idea of antiques shopping is to sort the Sotheby’s catalog by highest estimate, you’re not going to see a lot of pieces like this. On the Albert Sack scale, it’s not best, or better, or even good. It’s a crummy old mug with a beat-up handle, churned out by some second-rate 19th century silversmith, that has since been, to use a Southernism, rode hard and put away wet. Yet we bought it here at Shrubsole. Why?
Well, on the bottom of the mug is a stamped mark: “J.A. VALIANT, PALMYRA”. Don’t get confused, that’s not Palmyra, Syria. It’s the slightly less famous Palmyra in Missouri. The one where John Valiant, native of Maryland, turned up one day in 1848 and opened a silver shop (and started agitating for abolition). The Palmyra that’s 12 miles from Hannibal, Missouri, best known as hometown to Samuel Longhorne Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. In fact, before he made his way to New York, Clemens apprenticed to a newspaper printer from Palmyra.
Palmyra’s population in 1850 was 1,265. The notion that a settlement of that size on the margins of civilization could support a silver shop is as wild as the notion that a little Southern town today could support an antique shop. But there it was. And here, at Shrubsole, is the evidence of it.
I don’t love this mug for any aesthetic or connoisseurial reason. I love it because, in a childlike way, it draws my imagination to a time and place that I enjoy visiting. The rough-and-tumble businessman striking out West—why? was he running away? escaping debts? fed up with society?—hawking silver in between his political meetings. His clients, big fish in a very small pond, marginally successful planters and merchants and their wives who in 1850s Missouri were just starting to build “grand” homes with porches and colonnades that would fit comfortably inside the courtyards of East Coast mansions of the time. Did Valiant sell to slave owners with one hand while fighting them with the other? Did a teenage Samuel Clemens once pause in front of Valiant’s window and wonder if he’d ever be able to afford a mug like this one?
Most of the stories that have transpired around this little mug are impossible to know. But we know a little—enough to make it sentimental.
I’ll leave you with a verse from a little poem that Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (the Justice’s father) wrote to his beloved silver punch bowl:
I love the memory of the past,—its pressed yet fragrant flowers —
The moss that clothes its broken walls,—the ivy on its towers;—
Nay, this poor bawble it bequeathed,—my eyes grow moist and dim,
To think of all the vanished joys that danced around its brim.
Terzameron Day 27
The discovery detailed in yesterday’s post—a mark known since at least 1912 and now attributable to the long-lost scion of Europe’s greatest family of goldsmiths—hinged, as the reader will recall, on the discovery of a photograph of the mark on a crucial object. The reader may also recall the reason the photograph was needed: the mark had been obliterated to increase the value of the object.
Altering an object to increase its value is common in the antiques business, and runs from restoration to wholesale fakery. But while this story, like the last, involves an alteration and a photograph, this story is about candor: specifically, how a lack of it can spoil the appeal of a fabulous thing.
In the limelight today: an extremely rare American soup tureen, shown above. How rare? Well, there are, in Colonial American silver, hundreds of tankards, bowls, and coffee pots; thousands of porringers, spoons, and creamers; but only this one soup tureen. It was made by Myer Myers, the greatest American silversmith of the second half of the eighteenth century. It is the largest surviving example of his work. Important pieces by Myers frequently sell for $300,000, sometimes more. But I bought the tureen at Sotheby’s recently, for about $30,000.
Myers made the tureen around 1760, probably for his great patron William Samuel Johnson. Much later, probably around 1850, somebody took the tureen to another silversmith to have it “decorated.” Specifically, they had the entire surface of the tureen covered with the distinctively repulsive riot of coarse floral ornament most closely associated with the Baltimore silversmith Samuel Kirk. Around 1990, a dealer got hold of the tureen and thought, as I would have: “Holy crap, a Myer Myers soup tureen!? This thing could be worth a fortune! I just have to get that ugly decoration off!” He took it, as I would have, to one of the world’s greatest silversmiths: Ubaldo Vitali.
Now, if you want to know how I feel in Ubaldo’s workshop, think about how a six-year-old feels in Santa’s. Molds, swages, hammers, tongs, pliers, and anvils cluster around a glowing, eighteenth-century forge fanned by a bellows the size of a sideboard. Charcoal, and iron stakes, and great leather pillows and gloves lie around on old carved out tree-stumps. It sets the imagination awhirl. Johnny Tremain. Paul Revere. Ubaldo is known as both a master craftsman, and a massively knowledgeable expert. My stepfather used to rave about his work: “the man is a genius!” (The MacArthur Foundation eventually caught up to Eric and gave Ubaldo one of their famous awards.) If you’re going to restore a Myers soup tureen: he’s your guy. (Also though, if like me the most you usually need is a finial straightened or a bent foot fixed: he’s your guy.)
Ubaldo did a beautiful job. I later learned that he used specific tools that would push the metal back just to where it was—no more no less, so the form is original. It’s pudgy, but no more awkward than some other Colonial efforts at ambitious forms. The color of the metal betrays to the careful observer that work has been done, but if you didn’t know it had been de-chased, you might think it had had some major dents removed.
Enter the grapevine. Have you heard about this supposed Myer Myers soup tureen? someone whispered, with a raised eyebrow and a sidelong look. I hadn’t, but I figured I would, and about two months later the dealer who owned it brought it in to me. I examined it in the back of the shop. It was clear that the tureen, as the ladies say, had had some work done.
“So, what’s with the color?” I asked.
“Nothing, a few bruises, and I took off a nineteenth century coat of arms.”
“Huh. Looks like it was heated up.”
“Yeah, it does,” shrugging “but, that’s it.”
“What do you need for it?”
This is a family newsletter, so I will leave it to the reader to imagine the precise wording of my response. In essence, I said that was impossible, but if he’d let me keep it I’d think about a number. He left it with me, and I got to work.
So, there’s this thing called the internet. For better, or far more often for worse, you can find anything on it, including a 1920 sale catalog from someplace called The Walpole Galleries which includes a handy-dandy illustration of the tureen as it was then: covered with Mr. Kirk’s rebarbative pox of foliage. I had specifically asked what had been done to it, so, as you can imagine, I wasn’t too happy to see that photograph. And, surprise surprise, no one else was either. Everyone that was offered the tureen soon learned that “a few bruises” was a big, fat lie. And so this magnificently important tureen, the only Colonial American silver tureen, did not find a buyer: not because it was fake, and not because it had been restored, but because people don’t buy things after they’ve been lied to. Somehow, through death, divorce, or debt, it came up at Sotheby’s, and everyone thought: “I’m not doing that guy any favors.”
But I can’t bite off my nose to spite my face. While the guy had been foolish (why claim that something isn’t restored when the restoration is a good thing?) the facts were now out. Like the Leonardo recently discovered, it was an important work, in altered condition, very well restored. I happily bought it on behalf of my client. It was and is a unique and highly important piece. I have a thought to retro-actively do what should have been done in the first place, and make a little pamphlet explaining what was done, with photographs, and some explanatory text, and call it “The Restoration of an American Masterpiece” or something similarly grandiose. Do I reckon it $750,000? No. But many times what I paid? Absolutely.
Terzameron Day 26Tim Martin
“Although I have made a prolonged study of all the Royal plate at Windsor Castle, the Tower of London and the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, I have failed to identify any vessels which can be assigned definitely to the hands of Christian van Vianen, or indeed to another goldsmith from the Netherlands, John Cooqus, who made the silver bedstead and other plate, provided by Charles II for Nell Gwyn.”—E. Alfred Jones, 1935.
John Cooqus (pr. cookus) is a name long known to scholars of seventeenth century silver. When he married Christian Van Vianen’s daughter, he became a scion of Europe’s most famous family of goldsmiths. Christian (son of the legendary Adam Van Vianen) had come to London from Holland to work as Royal Goldsmith for Charles I. He fled to Holland during the Civil War, and then returned to take up the post again for Charles II. When Van Vianen died, in 1667, Cooqus took over the business, including succeeding Van Vianen as Royal Goldsmith. For the next twenty-five years, for Charles II and then for James II, Cooqus made many of the greatest works in English silver, including, as mentioned above by Jones, an enormous and exceptionally costly bed for Charles’s mistress, “pretty, witty” Nell Gwyn. The bill for the bed survives. To give you an idea of the scale, well, it was a bed. It had silver models of African slaves crouched at the feet, the posts were decorated with silver cherubs and eagles and had crowns at the tops, and, on the headboard, keeping an eye out for mischief, was an immense embossed silver portrait of Charles himself.
Needless to say, through changing fashions or hard times at the Palace, vast amounts of Cooqus’s silver has been melted down. Nell’s bed was scrapped to pay her debts. And though there are today numerous Cooqus pieces still in the Royal Collection, the attribution is circumstantial. It is known they were made for Charles II or James II; Cooqus was the Royal Goldsmith, ergo, they are by Cooqus. The difficulty, described by Jones above, of finding something that can be “assigned definitely” to Cooqus, arises from curious circumstances that, first, the Goldsmith to the King did not have to send his silver to be hallmarked, and, second, the Goldsmiths Company was notoriously hostile to foreigners, and made it very hard for Cooqus to get things hallmarked.
Nevertheless, in a recent paper delivered at a symposium at the Rijksmuseum, Matthew Winterbottom, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Art at the Ashmolean Museum, revealed that a mark recorded as GC by Sir Charles Jackson in 1912, is Cooqus’s mark. Assigned. Definitely. It is one of the most momentous discoveries in the silver business in the last fifty years. How did it happen?
Well, in the late 1950s two extraordinary jugs “in the Van Vianen taste” came up in a London sale. They were nearly a pair, but on one, the quality of the auricular style (or kwab style) chasing was superb, and on the other it was…very good indeed. The lesser jug was marked, with a mark described in the catalog as IC with a pellet above and a fleur de lys below. But the better of the jugs was so great it was universally accepted as the work of Christian Van Vianen. The jugs were bought by a London dealer. Reasoning that “a pair of jugs by Christian Van Vianen” packed a more remunerative punch than “a jug by Christian Van Vianen with another made to match by an unknown silversmith,” he erased the mark on the lesser jug, and sold them to the Rijksmuseum as, mais oui monsieur, “a pair of jugs by Christian Van Vianen.”
Sixty years later, Mr. Winterbottom, going through an old file in an auction house, found a photograph of the since obliterated mark. I imagine him thinking: “if this is IC, and has also been recorded as GC, and in fact looks more like IGC, and it was struck on an object made in the Van Vianen style, but not made as well as one by Van Vianen himself, doesn’t it stand to reason that this mark would be the mark of John (or Jean-Gerard, his Flemish name) Cooqus?” Clearly, the answer is yes. It is wonderful luck that the photograph survived, and fantastic work to find it. Not only did it settle the question of the attribution of the mark, not only did it allow us to identify several other pieces as the work of this long-lost titan of English silversmithing, but it revealed to us, hidden in plain view, that one of the only three known fully-hallmarked pieces by John Cooqus, was, and is, conveniently, in stock.
Terzameron Day 25
Now, for the other two candlesticks. The pawn broker had been ordered to hold them till the police had done their review. But in order for the police to complete their review, we had to go down to ID the candlesticks. When we got off the plane, we were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Detective Smith, of the Alexandria P.D. “Fancy that Timmy,” Eric whispered to me in his inimitable Audible-Within-Thirty-Feet whisper “a lady detective!” If Detective Smith didn’t know she was dealing with a man from another planet, she would soon find out.
On arriving at her car, she pulled out a file, and out of the file, she pulled a photograph. Specifically, a mug shot. I thought Eric was going to faint. He contemplated the slightly bloated, anodyne features of Mr. Phillips while Detective Smith enumerated the schemes Phillips had concocted: cars, guns, antiques, false mortgages, a home equity loan on a house he didn’t own, and all cunningly devised to make prosecution an uncertain and costly course for those he defrauded. Eric wobbled into the front seat, and I got in the back.
We proceeded to go see Mr. Phillips’s charming home, just for a little flavor, I guess. As we pulled away to go to the pawnshop, Eric’s first love called to him, and he suggested we stop for lunch. Detective Smith turned gently off the road we were on, into a McDonald’s.
“What are you doing?” Eric asked.
“Um? Stopping for lunch?” she said.
“Oh, I can’t eat here. I’ll get sick. Can’t we go somewhere a little nicer?”
“Eric?” I piped up. “Burger King is really just like McDonald’s.”
After a bit of back and forth about the kind of restaurant His Majesty was hoping for, we settled on Wendy’s—that being as upscale as it got. Detective Smith, clearly tiring of Eric’s patter, pulled up to the drive-through window. The voice in the menu-board asked what we wanted. Eric, after figuring out what was happening, was completely amazed that this was possible. He ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a coke, because that was what the detective ordered. He covertly watched her to see how to put the straw through the plastic lid of his drink, but he missed the part where she removed the paper from the straw, and so jammed the straw in, paper and all, creating a sodden wad of paper on top of his coke. He looked distraught, so I handed him my coke. He opened his burger, and smelled it, and with a lordly air and a look of utter disgust, handed it back to me. He ate all of his French fries, and all of mine.
We arrived at the pawn-brokers, and, having ascertained that these were the very sticks we had sent to Mr. Phillips, Eric, affecting an air of total indifference to money, wrote out a check for $17,500. Despite his bravado, I knew it was the most painful thing he had ever had to do in business. Well, the second most painful, first prize went to smelling that Wendy’s burger.
Now that we had added about $30,000 to the cost of the candlesticks, the question became: how on earth would we get a profit? Eric called one of our great clients, and told him the whole story. He thought it was so funny that he paid us what we paid Sotheby’s, plus our (ahem) incidental expenses, plus a sliver of profit. Eric felt very lucky. He took delivery of his Rolls-Royce a few weeks later and won first prize at one of those concours d’elegance.
Terzameron Day 24Tim Martin
As the days wore on, the phone calls continued to go unanswered. The trail got colder. Clem Conger said that, strangely, Phillips hadn’t been in church last Sunday. Eric grew more and more anxious. And then, one morning, we got a call from the Criminal Investigations Section of the Alexandria police department. Was there, they wanted to know, such a thing as a pair of antique candlesticks worth $17,500? A few days before, someone had pawned a pair of candlesticks for that amount, vouching that they were worth much more. Supposedly they were by a silversmith from Colonial New York: Samuel Tingley. The high value triggered a review, and they’d been told we were the people to ask.
So, the good news was that two of the sticks were safe—albeit at a pawn shop. The bad news was that the other two were still missing, and so was Phillips. The police, learning that the candlesticks hadn’t been paid for and were still legally ours, agreed that the pawn-broker would not be allowed to sell them or to release them back to Phillips. But neither the pawn-broker, nor the police, knew how to find Phillips and the other pair of sticks.
Clearly out of his depth—and, who wouldn’t be?—Eric called his friend Bobby Pirie, whom we’ve met before in this series. Bobby listened to the whole saga, laughing as always, and asked:
“Ok Eric, let’s deal with the important things first: have you had lunch?
“Yes. Fabulous veal chop.”
“OK. Good. Stay in the shop. Someone who can help will be there within a couple of hours. Oh, and Eric? This is going to cost an absolute fortune.”
No more than an hour later, we had a visit from Emmanuel Bartolota, and one of his associates. Now, reading these stories about collecting, and cultivated tastes, and museums, you might be forgiven for thinking that Emmanuel Bartolota was a renowned tenor, or a Neapolitan épée champion, or a designer of fine menswear. No. Emmanuel Bartolota was a private investigator. Bobby Pirie had called Jules Kroll, an old friend from his Skadden Arps days. Kroll, aka Big Julie, had a company, Kroll Associates, that specialized in investigating fraud and recovering stolen property. Kroll sent us Manny. I’m sure Manny’s qualifications were numerous, but the most apparent to the casual observer was that Manny made Duane “The Rock” Johnson look like he could use a protein shake. He and his side-kick (approx: 6’4″ 280) were prepared to retrieve the candlesticks. They just needed a little information. “A phone numba for the suspect. The address to which da cannelsticks was shipped. Yaw phone numba, and you just sit tight.”
“What are you going to do?” Eric asked, ashen-faced.
“As long as he plays nice? Nothin’, we’ll just take the cannelsticks from him.”
“Oh well I don’t think he’ll just give them to you, do you?
“As a matter of fact, Sir, yes, I do. I do. I will call you when I have them. If by chance Mr. Phillips calls you, just tell him: ‘it would be in his best interest to cooperate.’ Don’t say anything else, just that: ‘It would be in his best interest to cooperate.'”
They left, and we all stood around slack-jawed. We were in a movie.
A couple of hours later, the phone rang. Mary said: “Mr. Shrubsole, it’s him.” Eric had been rehearsing for his big moment all day, and, taking the phone, listened to Mr. Phillips for a moment, and then delivered his line with Clint-Eastwood-cool: “It would be in your best interest to cooperate!” He hung up to describe in delighted detail the pathetic, sniveling whimper on the other end of the line “Oh Mr. Shrubsole please, surely there is some kind of misunderstanding Mr. Shrubsole please…” A few minutes later, Manny called: they had the candlesticks, and they hadn’t had to lay anything but an appraising eye on a susceptible looking kneecap. Success. And if you’re wondering why there isn’t an exclamation point after “success” it is because we eventually got the bill from Kroll Associates—Manny’s services, for about ten hours, cost over $10,000.
Now, for the other two candlesticks…
Terzameron Day 23Tim Martin
In 1993, Sotheby’s auctioned an important collection of American silver, including what were then the only set of four Colonial American candlesticks in private hands. (Amazingly, another set of four were recently reunited, but, that’s another story.) They were very beautiful. They were marked by a great silversmith, Samuel Tingley of New York. The estimate, $200,000 to $300,000, was a lot of money perhaps, but, again, they were the only set available for a private buyer. While we were debating how high to bid, we got a call from a man named Bradley Phillips. Phillips introduced himself to Eric as a passionate student of early American history, a conservationist, and a patriot. He had grown up, he said, in Old Town Alexandria. He mentioned knowing Clem Conger, the recently retired curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the U.S. Department of State. He vouchsafed that his love of the period had inspired him to purchase “Bushfield,” a somewhat dilapidated house which had belonged to John Augustine Washington, George Washington’s brother. Phillips was restoring the property as a private residence, but, with the help of some wealthy friends who had agreed to sit on the board of his foundation, he hoped eventually to donate it to the state as a museum. Would we, he wondered, be willing to buy the Tingley sticks on commission, as he felt they would be a great addition to the fine furnishings he had already assembled.
Eric, through his great pal Henry McNeil, had been quite involved with the State Department Reception Rooms, so he knew Clem Conger very well. He called Clem, and yes, indeed, Clem knew Phillips. As a matter of fact, they went to the same church. Phillips seemed very rich—he drove about five different Mercedes-Benzes, all top-of-the-line. Dandy, Eric thought: a rich man who goes to a nice church. He gave him a pass on buying what he called “Nazi cars.”
We went to the sale. We bought the candlesticks for about $225,000. Mr. Phillips was thrilled. Was Eric free that weekend? No? Definitely no? Oh, what a shame, it was just that, as it happened, he was having a big dinner party with all his rich friends. Clem was invited! What a shame Eric couldn’t bring the sticks down in person! But how about another weekend soon? Yes? Great, and look: could we Fedex the sticks down for this weekend? His bank had already confirmed: they had the details to wire the money, and when his friends saw them they might be inspired to buy more great silver!
This was before the internet. You couldn’t google “Bushfield Manor” and see that it was at 367 Club House Loop in Mount Holly, that it was not dilapidated, and that it was owned by someone else. You couldn’t look up the address to which you were shipping the quarter-of-a-million-dollar antique silver candlesticks and see that it was a subsidized housing apartment in the worst part of Alexandria. You couldn’t Google Bradley+Phillips+Alexandria and find, with a bit of digging, that it was an alias, and that the man behind the alias had an occupation, and that that occupation was “Confidence Man.” You couldn’t know that the five Mercedes-Benzes were stolen, with an elaborate scam, from a dealer in Florida.
Absolutely he had sent the money. He was adamant. He would beg our pardon but we’d just have to trust him! A Swiss Bank. Swiss Bank Company. The Swiss don’t do that—much more careful—numbers only. Wrong bank is possible—happens. Could we—please–triple check please. Often takes a long time. Actually Mr. Shrubsole as someone who regularly wires millions of dollars around the globe he would tell us that in fact it often takes ten days…
And then he was gone.
I hadn’t ever seen my stepfather in a sweat. He lived within his means, and he never cared too much about money in the first place. But it so happened that just at this time he had chosen to indulge himself in a long-deferred dream of buying and restoring an important old Rolls-Royce, and every day, for those two long weeks, we would arrive at the shop to find two sets of faxes: one on fake-Swiss-bank-letterhead threatening legal action against us if we continued to fail to look into the missing funds we’d been sent by their very wealthy client Mr. Phillips, and one from an outfit in Connecticut detailing how many seemingly endless thousands of dollars it takes to restore an old Rolls-Royce. It was a nightmare. We had to get those candlesticks back…
Terzameron Day 22
My title at Shrubsole is Director of Research, which on a good day makes me feel like Sherlock Holmes…and on a bad day, Inspector Clouseau. Antiques can be as tricky to interrogate as a conspirator, but this plaque was ready to sing.
As I said yesterday, the plaque above depicts a scene from Henry Irving’s Merchant of Venice—identifiable by the set and costume design. And in a remarkable coincidence, around the same time that we acquired the plaque, we also bought this impressive claret jug and goblet, crafted from two magnum champagne bottles mounted with gilt silver. At the time, we didn’t realize that they related to the very same theatrical production. But that’s why we have a Director of Research!
The bottle bears a droll inscription:
Memento from the Table at Irving’s Supper given on the Stage of the Lyceum, February 14, 1880
This Bottle held Good Wine given by a Good Fellow to Good Fellows And—They liked it.
Now, Valentine’s Day of 1880 happened to be the day of the 100th performance of Irving’s Merchant. And while the show would run for an astonishing 250 performances, the 100 mark was already a record number for any theatrical production in London. To commemorate the success, Irving invited practically the whole of London’s gentry, literary elite, and dramaturgical community to stay after the show and dine right there on the stage. The crowd included Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens the Younger, and Irving’s manager, none other than Bram Stoker. There were also three earls, countless actors, critics, playwrights, and MPs. Each of the 300 guests was given a bound parchment copy of Irving’s text; they ate turtle soup; they listened to a string quartet; and they drank magnum bottles of Heidsieck 1874.
That last detail is important. Because that night, one clever guest snatched two of those magnum bottles. The guest brought them around the corner from the Lyceum to the silversmith Rupert Favell and commissioned him to add the silver-gilt mounts (in Venetian style) and the inscription. But who was the guest? And why the substantial effort?
The rest of what I have to say here is conjecture, but bear with me. One of Irving’s guests that night was his old friend, the comic actor John Lawrence Toole. Toole had a long history of tomfoolery with Irving. Bram Stoker relates the following:
Toole would even play pranks on Irving, these generally taking the form of some sort of gift. For instance, he once sent Irving on his birthday what he called in his letter “a miniature which he had picked up!” It came in a furniture van, an enormous portrait of Conway the actor, painted about a hundred years ago; it was so large that it would not fit in any room of the theatre and had to be put in a high passage. Again, when he was in Australia he sent to Irving, timed so that it would arrive at Christmas, a present of two frozen sheep and a live kangaroo. These arrived at Irving’s rooms in Grafton Street… The kangaroo was sent with a donation to the Zoological Society as a contribution from “J. L. Toole and Henry Irving.”
Doesn’t this sound like the sort of fellow who might have have had a quirky memento made as a thank-you to Irving for a wild party? And here’s the kicker: Stoker’s description goes on to say, “Toole loved to make beautiful presents to Irving. Amongst them was a splendid gilt silver claret jug…”
I can’t say for certain that this was the very jug now sitting next to the plaque in our shop. But I can speculate!
Terzameron Day 21
Yesterday we heard from Tim about the sad decline of the “art and craft” of silversmithing in 19th-century England. And it’s true that an awful lot of Victorian silver is clumsy, overwrought, and gaudy. On a recent trip to London—when you could still get on a plane—I stopped by the Victoria & Albert Museum library and thumbed through design books from Elkington and Co., the prolific Victorian-era silver manufacturer and developer of the revolutionary technology of electrotyping.
It’s hard to describe what I saw in their books as anything but garish. That classic notion of English restraint—the balanced disposition that separates old English silver from its ornery European counterparts—was not merely discarded, it was mauled and left in a ditch. Page after page of chintz, picture after picture of schlock.
And yet…amidst this morass, Elkington was also producing some of the great works of the period. Here, from our inventory, is a piece created by Elkington’s master of repoussé, Léonard Morel-Ladeuil. The scene is from a production of The Merchant of Venice at the Lyceum Theatre in 1879. Henry Irving is Shylock—whom he portrays, for one of the first times in theatrical history, as a sympathetic victim rather than an anti-Semitic caricature—and Ellen Terry is Portia. The show was widely praised, including by twenty-six-year-old Oscar Wilde, who stayed in his seat after the curtain calls to write a sonnet to Terry’s Portia.
This plaque, along with renditions of Irving’s Much Ado About Nothing (now at the Boston MFA) and The Merry Wives of Windsor, are Morel-Ladeuil’s final creations, and they exhibit the best qualities that the Victorian era brought to English art: precision, craft, sophistication, and attention to detail. The scene is beautifully composed, tastefully presented, and executed with incredible skill. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Elkington had drafted Morel-Ladeuil from France, where industrialization was slower to take root and the apprenticeship model still reigned supreme. Morel-Ladeuil himself had apprenticed with the great designer Antoine Vechte.
It’s curious that both ideas could coexist in a single firm: the facility and rigidity of mass production, and the painstaking and elusive process of artistic genius. Yet the same could be said of Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory. It would be decades before the Bauhaus formally united artistry and industrial production, but here in Victorian England the foundations were already being laid.
There’s another chapter in the story of the plaque, involving Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, a remarkable coincidence, and a practical joke…but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that one.
Terzameron Day 20
A few years ago a lady came into the store lugging two enormous plastic bags, both about to tear from the weight they were carrying. She asked if we bought silver. (There’s the smart-alec response, and there’s the right response.) I said yes, we do. So she hauled out, one after another, the endless components of a vast Victorian tea and coffee set. On and on and on. At the sight of the very first piece I started to look and speak in my tone of deepest compassion. It was ghastly, and there was no way on earth I would buy it. Using the helpful old generalization “we rarely buy Victorian silver,” I suggested she try an auction. But she didn’t want to lug it around anymore, so asked if I could help her sell it. I said sure, I’d call a couple of dealers and auctioneers who handle that sort of thing, and let her know.
When I had the offers in hand I called her up and gave her the highest figure. She was very surprised the offer was so low, and pointed out that it was ten percent below scrap. Melt value is never relevant to our goods, so I always assume that old silver in good condition is worth more than scrap. I was as surprised as she was. But when I asked the other dealer, they said the items were so unsaleable that in order to be sure of a profit he had to offer below melt. The lady came and picked it up. I don’t know what became of the service, but the last time I spoke to her it sounded like she was going to melt it herself.
Why? Why was an eleven piece tea and coffee service, made around 1850, and in perfectly good condition, worth no more than the silver it was made of? Well, I guess the short answer would be: industry. I’m out of my depth to say much about it, but everybody knows how industry…well…
revolutionized nineteenth-century England, and it seems that by the middle of the nineteenth century, by about 1840, the industrial advancements in the field of silversmithing had come so fast that even something as crucial as design had been relegated to an afterthought—everything started to look like an ugly lump. As for the finer-points, the exquisite burnishing and chasing, the delicate and inimitable engraving found in previous eras, why, they were nowhere to be found.
And this isn’t just me, opining on goods I don’t deal in. It is a fact. The market has judged it so for decades, nearly centuries. The “arts and crafts” movement was born to set it right: to put a soul back into what had been the “art and craft” of silversmithing but had become just so much industrial excrescence. Earlier than that even, in its own time, Victorian silver was recognized as, well, hideous. Listen to Charles Dickens, describing the silver at a dinner party at Mr. Podsnap’s, in Our Mutual Friend:
“Hideous solidity was the characteristic of the Podsnap plate. Everything was made to look as heavy as it could, and to take up as much room as possible. Everything said boastfully, ‘Here you have as much of me in my ugliness as if I were only lead; but I am so many ounces of precious metal worth so much an ounce;–wouldn’t you like to melt me down?’ A corpulent straddling epergne, blotched all over as if it had broken out in an eruption rather than been ornamented, delivered this address from an unsightly silver platform in the centre of the table.”
The point is, throughout English history silver has been one of the great crafts. Holbein designed silver for Henry VIII, Flaxman for George IV, and, in between, silversmiths were working to brilliant designs like those of William Kent and Robert Adam. Silver has almost always been beautiful, stylish, and innovative, and at its best on a par with the best of the “fine arts”. Industrialization nearly killed it.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, Matthew Boulton, showing James Boswell around his steam-engine factory, remarked “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have: Power,” using a clever double-entendre. So to imitate Boulton, I’ll hazard a double-entendre of my own, and say that while industry killed silvermithing, there were still remarkable silver objects being produced in the Victorian age. These too were products of industry, only, of another kind. This other kind of industry was just as profound a force at the time as the steam-engine and the factory. It produced a long list of astonishingly accomplished people, like Dickens, like Disraeli, like Brunel. This is the industry that is a synonym for hard work, determination, and energy. Of it, and of its products, more tomorrow.
Terzameron Day 19Tim Martin
Too small for active duty, Eric spent the war at Fort McLellan in Alabama. I am sure he blended in seamlessly. Those that knew him will not be surprised to learn his role there: he was a drill sergeant—born for the role. The war had put a major kink in Eric’s plans, but when he got back, in 1946, he was determined finally to realize the dream he had set himself on leaving England: to be what he called a “top dealer.” No more shipping crate-loads of plated chafing dishes to Marshall Fields. No more supplying factory-made tea and coffee sets to Nieman Marcus. He moved in above Stair & Co., in a townhouse at 59 East 57th Street. Stair were one of the best English furniture dealers, and Alastair Stair, another recent English immigrant, had become one of Eric’s good friends. In an effort to draw people in through the door, Alastair let Eric put silver in the street-window, and thanks to this, two years on, Eric had a couple of serious collectors. The dream was in the works.
But as with any business with goods in the window and an entrance off the street, Eric got his share of pointless inquiries, time-wasting idlers, and sketchy characters, one of whom, on a cold November day, put Eric as close as he probably ever was to a make-or-break situation. As Eric told it, the man came in poorly dressed, not wearing a tie (“unheard of in those days”) and carrying large and mostly empty bags. The man was agitated. And as he wandered through the shop, he began brusquely asking prices: “how much is that? And how much is that?” and then: “Is your name Shrubsole?”
“Yes,” said Eric, hesitantly.
“So, you’re the son of a bitch that’s been robbing my daughter.”
For a moment, Eric was too stunned to speak. But when bewilderment gave way to umbrage, he forcefully asked the man to leave.
“Very well,” the man replied “but make no mistake about it, you’ve been robbing my dear Pamela, and I shall order her never to come back! I’ve seen what these items are worth and you are overcharging my child!”
Now, Pamela was the name of one of Eric’s best customers: a young woman who had bought some really exceptional things. And if it was that Pamela, which it obviously was, then this poorly dressed oddity was her father, Norman. And if Norman looked like he shopped at Woolworth’s, he did—to support his family business.
An heir to the five and dime fortune, brought up in England and educated at Yale, Norman Woolworth lived in the gorgeous Ziegler house at 3 East 61st Street, and was a major collector of American paintings. Not the kind of man you want to tell off even if his daughter isn’t your best client. So Eric swallowed his pride, and pleaded: “Sir, if your daughter has been buying seventeenth century silver, I can assure you she has been buying genuine, world-class things, and they are expensive, but please let me explain!”
Norman Woolworth, to his credit, sat down, stayed for an hour, and looked, and listened. He had “looked around” at “comparable items” and concluded Eric’s prices were high. But shown the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly, he got it. He became a great client himself—in 1954 both father and daughter bought stunning sets of Lamerie candlesticks.
I’d heard this story about Norman Woolworth a hundred times, because Eric always lectured us that you can’t judge a man by his clothes. Every time he told it, he would get wistful about all the beautiful things he’d sold Pamela. And then, one day, when I was on vacation in Maine, Eric called. We’d gotten a post-card advertising a sale way up in central Maine, and there, in a little thumbnail photo, was something that he thought was a piece of Pamela’s silver. I was in the car before we were off the phone, and several hours later I was looking at some of the finest things I will ever see. They all quickly went to the great collectors of this generation, some of whom, no doubt, are reading this right now.
Terzameron Day 18
It’s Ben here once more. This is a story of something wonderful that happened to me; yet I suspect something similar may have happened to you. And if it hasn’t, maybe it will soon, and maybe Shrubsole can help.
Why do we fall in love with certain objects? For a collector, it’s a philosophical question, but for a dealer, it’s an existential one. Hundreds of objects pass through Shrubsole each year, and while we find virtue in each (at least the ones we keep), we, like any enthusiast, inevitably latch on to certain pieces.
A couple years ago I visited a client in England who had assembled one of the world’s great private collections of 16th- and 17th-century silver. He owned dozens of excellent objects and a few extraordinary ones (some of them from Shrubsole). I admired them, appreciated them, and enjoyed them, and above all I enjoyed the conversation: enthusiasts sharing their delight. Picture two Red Sox fans finding each other in a Chicago bar and you’ll have some idea of the fun we had.
But there was one object in the group, the tankard pictured here, that I found utterly irresistable. The form is known as a “hoop” tankard. You can find any number of them from the late 18th century, made by Hester Bateman and others. This one, however, is a century and half older still, dating to 1626. And in every respect, it puts the 18th century examples to shame.
This is the only 17th century hoop tankard—in silver, that is. The form was common in wood, and in fact if you browse old master still life paintings, you’ll find plenty of wooden hoop tankards. They mimic barrels, bound with iron hoops to keep in the beer.
This silver one belonged to the aspirationally-named Accepted Frewen, a loyalist who had his estate confiscated and fled to exile in France. He returned with the Restoration and became an Archbishop and the president of Magdalen College, Oxford. That the tankard survived suggests it must have gone with him to France, one of the possessions so treasured that he couldn’t bear to part with it even in crisis. It’s inscribed with a Latin phrase which roughly translates as, “Drinking in the morning is good for you.” I’d be drinking in the morning too, and the afternoon as well, if I’d been chased out of my country and stripped of my assets.
All this history makes the piece interesting. But what makes it ineluctable is its physicality. Now—describing the color and patina and weight and feel of a piece of antique silver is like explaining color to the blind. So you’ll have to trust me when I say that holding this object is like reading Keats or listening to Bach. Every detail is perfection. It is just large enough to feel right in the hand. The metal’s gauge is heavy enough to satisfy the touch but not taxing to hold. The curve of the handle follows the fingers, leaving exactly enough distance for the thumb to reach and hook the thumbpiece. The engraved hoops are strong and deep but pleasantly soft. The slope of the sides draws the eye across its surface, whose deep and rich color defies photography. The handle, the foot, and the cover are smoothly rounded, leaving no sharp or uninviting edge across the whole object; from every angle and to every touch it is welcoming and comfortable.
On seeing and handling it, I fell in love. So you can imagine my excitement when, sometime later, this collector decided to dismantle and sell his collection. Yes, the tankard came to Shrubsole. And yes, with great pleasure, I’ve drunk my beer from it (in the evening, not the morning, though it may come to that). And when we sell it—perhaps to someone reading this now—I suspect I’ll feel like an animal shelter warden, watching a beloved pet make its way to a happy home.
Terzameron Day 17
Tim MartinWillem de Kooning, “Attic”, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”—Oscar Wilde
A few years after I put my nose to the Shrubsole grindstone, I received an invitation to view one of the great collections of American silver in New York. I gladly went, and, somewhat to my surprise, spent about 2 1/2 hours with the owner. He had a detailed knowledge of nearly every piece he owned: the date, the maker, why it was unusual, who it had been made for, what that person had done, where they had lived—all these radiating tendrils of interest. He also really enjoyed the look and feel of the objects in his collection. He picked them up and held them in the light by the window, admiring this or that aspect and enumerating its merits and flaws: weight, color, form, engraving, etc. The morning was punctuated with expressions of enthusiasm: “oh, now look at this…isn’t that beautiful?..this one has the initials of so-and-so… this guy almost got hanged…New York in 1710, imagine”…and so on.
My visit wound down, and as we walked out, we stopped in the foyer. Hanging on the wall was an immense and instantly recognizable abstract expressionist painting. My host put his hand on my arm, gestured to the painting and said: “you know, Tim, the funny thing is: all the silver which we just spent so much time looking at, and which I love so much, is not anywhere near as valuable as this painting.” He paused “This painting is by a very important modern artist.” He paused again, as I tried very hard to not say something along the lines of “no shit,” and then, laughing at himself: “I can’t remember his name right now but he’s a big artist and… Willem de Kooning, that’s who it is. Willem de Kooning, but…you know, I look at it, and I can admire it, and I think it’s interesting, and I know it’s very valuable, but,” with a shrug, “it doesn’t speak to me the way the silver does.
I ruminated on this exchange as I walked back to the shop. I shouldn’t talk, because I have times when I can’t remember my middle name, but, after seeing his deep knowledge and love of American silver, I was slightly shocked he would be so blasé about de Kooning. But, I came to think, accentuating the positive: isn’t that actually evidence of self-confidence? And isn’t his candor about it, his charming, laughing indifference, just a testament to his comfort with his taste? He is the antithesis of Oscar Wilde’s cynic, for he is “a man who knows the price of everything,” but he also knows the value—to himself, for his life—of everything. And he values the silver more.
I find the story particularly compelling. This collector embodies an American story. He was born in a small, depressed New England mill town. He worked hard in a family business. He went to a state university. Encouraged by his success there, he struck out for the city. He joined a major finance firm and worked his way to the top. At some point along that road, he bought a piece of silver from Jonathan Trace, paying it off over time. I’d say there is a reason that he bought it, and then kept buying more. Colonial American silver—especially seen next to English silver—has a rudimentary simplicity, a best-effort honesty, a slight toughness. It is never grand. It speaks of small luxuries and economies in the face of hardship and struggle. With his personal story, his personal values, it makes perfect sense that one day, without even expecting it, this man would find kinship with this particular craft.
Terzameron Day 16
A few years ago I read an unusually beautiful and well-written book about art. Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, is a tour of human feeling and experience as reflected in art. It advances the notion that people should look to art for counsel, comfort, and empathy—hence the title. The authors argue that in fact this is how most people “use” art, but because museums are organized along art-historical lines, many visitors feel at sea—wandering from a pieta to a still life of dead fish because they were painted around the same time and place. The authors argue that museums should reorganize their collections around human feelings and experience, and so have galleries of Love, Tenderness, Loss, Fatherhood, and so on. Visitors to the museum could get the comfort, counsel, and empathy they seek, by going to galleries where the art pertains to their lives.
Anyway, one of the little essays embedded in the book concerns a Korean moon jar. The authors discuss how this moon jar speaks of honesty, candor, and modesty. It is very simple, yet very imperfect—pocky and blotchy and off-kilter. They propose that, if you focus on this moon jar, contemplate it as a work of art, or, just as a thing, perhaps its imperfections might encourage you to think of your own imperfections. Maybe you could then accept your own imperfections, as the moon jar does, and live with them without apology, no pretense of a better self—in other words, maybe the lesson of the moon jar is modesty, modesty which comes from being honest about yourself. “For a person who is given to arrogance, or anxiety about worldly status,” they write, “the sight of such a jar may be intensely moving as well as encouraging.” And so Walt Whitman, our national courage-teacher is anticipated by an eighteenth-century Korean jar: “Have you surpassed the rest? Are you the President?” He asks. “I exist as I am; that is enough.”
Of course, not every work of art exhorts us in the same way. The object that I am writing about, my stepfather’s marvelous tankard, is also a simple (if costly) domestic object, made with care and cherished for generations. At the risk of jumping into the deep end, I’ll tell you why I love it—which is to say—how it speaks to me; what it means to me. For people who aren’t accustomed to staring at objects and having feelings about them, this may sound bonkers. Here it is again:
You can see that it is relatively simple, and I admire that. It is very old (London, 1708), and hasn’t suffered much from aging, so, that’s something to hope for. It is generous—twice or at least half-again as capacious as its contemporaries. Its surface is beautifully patinated and suffused with the grey color unique to objects that have survived hundreds of years without repairs, so it literally radiates authenticity and integrity. It has beautiful proportions: a merit in and of itself. Unlike almost any other tankard of this type and this period, the handle joins the body at the top rim, and then swirls off again, creating a strong sense of movement, almost play, against the great, solid body. This swirl is echoed in the thumbpiece, which is beautifully proportioned and perches on the edge like a little sculpture. These movements give the tankard a difference, a playful eccentricity, proudly carried. All these—strength, generosity, integrity, eccentricity—are qualities I admire, and strive for.
The moon jar and the tankard are different, but our relations to them are the same: there are things about them that speak to us, and we find their attributes worthy of emulation. So, I know what Oscar Wilde meant when he said “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”
Terzameron Day 15
This follows my last “story”—”how I started working here,” and gets to “why I stayed.” I graduated from college and, the next day, started working at Shrubsole. My college roommate and I had rented a two-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive. In those days you could afford that sort of thing, even on $18,000 a year. Of course I was eating noodles or rice every night. Things went fine for about a year, but the work was dismal: our octogenarian porter slept in the back all day, so my job at this elegant emporium was to do his job—cleaning and deliveries. I was trying to find another job.
I had at some point introduced my roommate to a female friend of mine, and one day I returned home to find the apartment half empty, his room bare, and a note telling me that he was moving in with her, so, I’d be on the hook for all the rent, and, also, the movers had accidentally packed my large, fragile, and (to me) priceless stereo system. He would let me know a good time that I could come get it.
I couldn’t afford the place alone, so I called my landlord. He lived somewhere up near Woodstock, and billed himself, on his letter-head and his answering machine, as “Howard of Tall Pines”—that being the name of his country seat. I’ll never forget the sound of his voice on that machine: “You have reached Howard of Tall Pines (tawl poins), kindly leave a message! He will return your caul!” When he did, his eccentric sense of noblesse oblige was a godsend. Don’t worry about it, he told me, with copious animadversions (shifty! creep!) on my roommate. I could just pay half and do my best to find another place soon, but no rush! Needless to say, I was half-packed by the time we were off the phone, desperate to do right by this—in deed if not quite in title—noble man. I was out by the end of the month, for I shamelessly convinced my stepfather, as a stop-gap, to let me stay at his place.
It was summer, and Eric was only coming in one night a week, so I lived alone, mostly, in his slightly twee apartment, drinking enormous amounts of tea, reading late into the night, and staring around the place from a memorably comfortable chair. I stared at all his little odds and ends: silver, porcelain, brass, needlework, furniture, glass, but night after night, sometimes for a minute, and sometimes for what must have been an hour, I stared at a great big silver tankard. I stared at it—gazed? zoned-out? with the tankard as a focal point?—whatever: I looked at it for so long that I began to love it, and to feel its qualities and its beauty—qualities I couldn’t name, beauty I couldn’t describe. I did not have a vocabulary, or didn’t trust my vocabulary, to do it justice, but I loved its solidity; I loved that it was old; I loved that it was big, capacious; I loved that it had an elegant swirl to the handle.
On one of those summer nights Eric came in to the city and we went to dinner. I told him that this object had become a sort of passion of mine; that I loved looking at it, but couldn’t explain why. Back at the apartment, we looked at it together, and he listened as I tried to explain my infatuation. The next day, before he left back to the country, we had lunch. He told me he wanted me to come with him on his next trip to London, and that he was giving me a raise.
Terzameron Day 14
Veering away from stories of the hunt, the sales, and the characters with whom we deal, my colleagues and I are going to start interspersing tributes, salutes, paeans to particular objects. In my case, I am going to start at the very beginning—answering today the question most often asked of me: “How did you get into this business?” My next post will boil down to: “what made you stay in this business?” and then, as the answer to that question is “I fell in love with antique silver”, I’ll pay tribute to some objects I love. But, fear not, we have more of the funny old stories to come.
When I was a senior in college my mother took me to lunch and asked me “what are you going to do for a living?” Shocked by the question, and more by its cold and unmaternal implications, I answered, from the safety of my mind, “What, mother, would you have me do for this “living” to which you refer? Shall I strangle the burgeoning life of my soul? Grunt and sweat under a weary life? Be bleared with trade, and smeared with toil? Get, spend, and lay waste my powers?” What I said was more like “um, I don’t know, I was going to do some travelling, I guess.” But my mom was in it to win it: “Not on my money you’re not,” she said, ” I paid for your school. I paid for your college. You’ve traveled plenty, and I have done my part. You need to work. Consider yourself independent, as of graduation.” I took the bus back to school, cursing my fate.
The next day my phone rang. “Hi Timmy! It’s Eric!” came that diminutive cockney’s ever-cheerful voice, “Come have lunch!” Always up for a fine midtown luncheon, I got back on the bus, convinced by his sunny tone that I could count on getting what I really needed: a glass of champagne, good food, and some idle chat in a no-judgement zone. But I was wrong, and almost before I sat down, Eric crowed about how it was “hard luck being cut-off like that,” and offered me a job. He pressed two considerations: one, my mother was not backing down; and two, if I didn’t like it I could quit in a year.
I decided to take my troubles to my adviser—the kind they appoint for you in college to help you figure out what classes to take. My adviser was (and is) impossibly elegant, and learned, and cultured. He had (and has) a nice apartment and a beautiful wife. I don’t mind saying I wanted to be just like him. He asked me about my options. I told him I’d always figured I would be a professor or a journalist—a professor because his life looked so rosy, or a journalist because that was what my dad and grandfather had been. He told me, gently, that “knowing me as he did” I probably wouldn’t get the hot jobs in academics, and that, as for journalism, the times they were a-changin’… Didn’t I have any other options? And so, with some reluctance because it sounded so…trivial…I told him my stepfather had an antique shop and wanted me to work there.
In a tentative tone, he said, “Well, that could be interesting, where is it?”
And I said “It’s in midtown, on 57th Street.”
And he said, “Huh.” and then, “What’s it called?”
And I said “Shrubsole.”
In a cinematic way that made me wonder, later on, if he and my stepfather had been in cahoots, he leaned forward, shot his cuff, and said: “Oh. I love Shrubsole. I bought these cufflinks at Shrubsole.” And as I sat in stunned silence he spoke the words that have rung in my mind ever since. “Look, Shrubsole could be a really interesting business, and, to be clear: if you told me your stepfather had a Jennifer Convertibles store, I’d tell you to get your Ph.D.”
As Dickens put it: “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Terzameron Day 13
We’ve got a guest for our series today—but don’t worry, she kept her social distance.
Tessa Murdoch is the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Research Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A prolific author and world renowned authority on silver, she was entertained by our earlier stories and kindly offered to contribute! Enjoy!
2018, the centenary of women’s suffrage, was an appropriate year to acquire silver with a woman’s maker’s mark. I was researching Huguenot Refugee Art and Culture for a forthcoming V&A book, and looking out for silver by Anne Tanqueray or Eliza Godfrey, both daughters of distinguished first-generation Huguenot goldsmiths established in London. Anne’s father was David Willaume from Metz and Eliza was the daughter of Simon Pantin, whose family came from Rouen.
Shrubsole’s Spring Catalogue included a pair of double-lipped sauce boats with Anne Tanqueray’s lozenge mark and date letter for London, 1726-7.
Anne, the dutiful daughter, married her father’s apprentice David Tanqueray. After her husband’s death in 1724, Anne continued the business as his widow. Anne is the earliest recorded Huguenot woman goldsmith to register her mark at London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall.
As a Trustee of the Huguenot Museum in Rochester Kent, I suggested that the pair might be acquired jointly by the V&A in partnership with the Huguenot Museum. The Huguenot Museum, established in 2015, had no acquisition fund as yet, so the director, Dr. Dinah Winch, raised an appeal with friends and supporters to acquire the sauce boat in memory of Randolph Vigne, the leading Huguenot scholar who died the previous year. Tim Martin assisted by obtaining a donation from a Shrubsole customer who was proud of their Huguenot descent.
For this “blog in the time of crisis,” here are two sauce recipes from the thirty included in the Huguenot Vincent La Chapelle’s The Modern Cook, published in London, 1733.
“A Sauce with Fennel and Gooseberries…commonly used with Mackarels”
“Take young Fennel, cut it very small, put it in a stew-pan with a little Butter and a dust of Flour season it with Pepper, Salt and Nutmeg, moisten it with a little gravy or Water, your sauce being thicken’d, throw in it your gooseberries blanch’d let it be of a good taste and use it with what you think fit.”
For the Onion Sauce:
“Put into a Stew-pan some Veal Gravy, with a couple of Onions cut in slices, season it with Pepper and Salt, let it stew softly, then strain it off; put it in a saucer, and serve it up hot.”
A saucer? How much sauce would a saucer hold? Then the idea dawned on me that perhaps the handsome sauce boats that Shrubsole had supplied were known as saucers when they were made.
The Oxford English Dictionary confirms that instructions in The English and French Cook published in London in 1664 were to “send with the serving it up some Saucers of green sauce.” Fifty years later N. Bailey’s Universal Dictionary (1728) defines saucer as “a little Dish to hold sauce.”
Just twenty years on in The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse introduces the term sauce-boat for the first time: “You may do half the Quantity and put it into your Sauce boat or bason.”
The challenge now is to find a pre-1740s bill or invoice from a goldsmith for saucers!
Searching for the V&A’s Anne Tanqueray sauce boat online I was fascinated to discover photographs by Paul Tanqueray (1905-1991) a leading society photographer of the 1920s and 1930s. Here is his photograph of the actress Gertrude Lawrence. Was he a descendant of Anne Tanqueray?
Certainly, Tanqueray Gin, founded in the 1830s by a direct descendant of the goldsmith couple David and Anne Tanqueray, remains one of the most popular brands on both sides of the pond!
Terzameron Day 12
Lord Castlerosse, on being criticized for always arriving late to work, quipped, “But think how early I go!”
We’re all working odd hours these days, but in the antiques trade, that comes with the territory. I’d been with Shrubsole for just a few weeks when my phone rang one evening around 7pm. Tim asked, ominously: “What are you doing tonight?”
What I would be doing that night, I was surprised to learn, was driving down state highways for hours through moonlit woods, enjoying a physical freedom that I’d kill for now.
You see, Tim had caught wind of an estate sale which would include a rare and valuable piece of silver. This was not an auction. It was a tag sale, a sort of antiques huckster’s Black Friday, with sticker prices set haphazardly by a local auctioneer. And while the sale was at 9am (“Oh, are there two nine o’clocks in the day?”), the manager would open the doors to prospective buyers in the order in which we’d arrived. And I was not to allow anyone else to snap up that piece before I could get to it.
I blasted the radio to stop my eyes from drooping, slept for three hours at a roadside motel, and navigated to a remote Victorian house, arriving about 3am. That was early enough to be a promising #4 on the list–I just had to hope #1, #2, and #3 didn’t get to the piece before I did. At the opening bell, I sprinted through the halls, finding and buying (for cash, of course) the coveted object. A successful trip, I thought! And it was, regarding the silver, anyway. But later that day, I got a call from one of the pickers I’d met at the sale.
“Ben,” he said, “did you happen to notice that mahogany sideboard in the dining room?” The whole morning was a blur, frankly, but I did have a vague recollection of a nice looking sideboard. The price, I remembered, was $850. The picker continued: “Another dealer came in and bought it. Turns out it’s Duncan Phyfe. Mint condition!”
And I’d walked right by it.
It’s been five years, and I’ve learned a few things since then, about silver, and other fine objects. But what I learned that morning was that in the world of collecting, knowledge is power. Another dealer knew something I didn’t and made a fortune in twenty minutes.
Or, as Will Rogers put it (around the same time that Castlerosse was quipping), “You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”
Terzameron Day 11
One of our greatest clients was Irwin Untermyer, called “the Judge” both because he was one, and because he wanted everyone to know it. After the war, with economies decimated, there were not many collectors of old silver, and the Judge, who had inherited vast sums from his father, was the go-to client for anything remarkable that came along. He had a method. If he didn’t like an object, it was easy: execrate first the object as being unworthy of his collection, and then the dealer as a nervy bastard who was wasting his time. He had a very high-pitched voice. “Mr. Shrubsole this is a piece of garbage, I cannot believe you think it appropriate to call me in to look at such a thing!” If he did like it, it was more fun: “Mr. Shrubsole this is rather nice. I’m sure it is very expensive,” and on being told the price, “What! but that’s a ridiculous price!” and he’d offer half. Untermyer’s silver, the evidence of his exceptional eye, is now the backbone of the Met’s collection.
Another of our greatest clients was Robert S. Pirie. Bobby had started collecting silver while still in college, and became one of my stepfather’s best friends, and later an avuncular booster for me. He was a dynamo, endlessly energetic, a polymath with a hundred enthusiasms and a thousand friends. When he died suddenly, aged eighty, it was like hearing that a thirty-five year old had died, just unimaginable.
The caddies shown above, which are on display in the new British Galleries at the Met, have a funny backstory which ties these two clients together, and which I wonder if anyone knows.
When Bobby was about twenty, finishing the Christmas holidays with his mother in New York, he got a call from the Judge, who was heading up to Boston on business and offered to drive Bobby to Harvard, so he wouldn’t have to take the train. While this was odd, it wasn’t crazy—they both collected silver, and the Judge had been a peripheral figure on Bobby’s mother’s social scene for years. So Bobby accepted. But once they got to Cambridge, and Bobby’s bags were on the sidewalk, the truth came out. The business trip was a pretext. The Judge needed to talk to Bobby. He was going to ask Bobby’s mother to marry him. Now, when Bobby Pirie knew something for sure, he had a very charming way of laughing robustly, and shaking his head as he told you exactly how sure he was on the subject. Here he laughed very hard indeed, and said, “no, Judge, no, you must be crazy, do not, under any circumstances, marry my mother, you will be miserable beyond your wildest dreams!” Disaster was averted, and a lifelong friendship was born.
One of the coolest things the Judge owned was the ceremonial mace of the town of Boston, in Lincolnshire. Made by Gabriel Sleath in London in 1727, it would have been held by the mayor of the town in processions and ceremonies. It had been sold by the corporation of Boston in the nineteenth century, and then bought from the dealers Crichton Brothers by an American lady who lent it to the Boston (Massachusetts) MFA. But that lady then sold it, and William Randolph Hearst bought it, and the Judge bought it at the Hearst sale.
Bobby and the judge spent a certain amount of time together over the years, and whenever they did, Bobby would remonstrate that the Judge couldn’t give the mace to the Met—it should go back to the MFA. And one day, Bobby came home to find a brown paper package tied up with string, and inside it, the mace. It was a gift. How do you repay such a gift? Well, if you’re Bobby Pirie, you buy a very fine pair of tea caddies, and a bucket of ice, and a whole load of caviar, and you load the caviar into the caddies, and the caddies into the ice, and the bucket into a box, and you put a ribbon on it. That way, the Met gets great caddies, and Boston gets its mace.
Terzameron Day 10
In 2013 Christie’s offered the Benson Collection, the great group of English silver spoons set aside over many years of dealing by the villain of our last adventure, that gruff but good-hearted tartar, Jane Penrice How (neé Benson, and so “Ben” to her friends). Ben liked to shoot. She was a beekeeper. At 4’8″, she drove a Bentley turbo, roaring down Pall Mall every morning, and Piccadilly every evening, without really being able to see over the wheel. She adored English mastiffs, and, after the war, when rationing had destroyed the breed and only one mastiff bitch remained, she helped to breed them back and save this quintessential English dog. She collected edged weapons. As a member of the Antique Plate Committee at Goldsmith’s Hall, empowered to enforce compliance with English hallmarking laws, she made that little congress a politburo, and herself a diminutive Kruschev (robust, colorful, cultured) pounding her podium and yelling “It’s Fake! Cancel the marks!” And all the little men fell in line, for her will was not iron, but the anvil on which iron wills were bent.
I’d met her a few times, viewing sales with Eric in London. Her terse (one-word, mostly) pronouncements on the silver offerings were unintentionally hilarious. “Rubbish,” she would growl, “Fake!” “But did you read the catalog entry Mr. Shrubsole? Ab-sol-ute tripe!” But her spoons, of course, were wonderful, they really were.
The world of spoon collectors is a microcosm of a microcosm—not silver collectors, silver spoon collectors. The age, the weight, the color; the patination of the bowl, the depth and clarity of the marks; the sculptural or architectural quality of the finials, the engraving, the provenance…everything, or at least, something. Commander How didn’t make this market, but with his lucid, pugnacious, domineeringly-written three-volume Silver Spoons and Pre-Elizabethan Hallmarks on English Plate he synthesized previous writings, added his own vast knowledge, and created a bible for collectors–cultivating and fertilizing a previously wild and weedy field. Right off, on the first page of the Introduction, The Commander starts talking about budgets. A customer had lots of money, he says, and only bought fully-hallmarked London spoons, but he never wanted to pay the huge sums needed to buy one of the rare surviving sets. By the time he was old, he regretted it, wishing he’d been either more broad-minded, or spent more. Which tussle, between the pecuniary eyes and stomach, is the theme of today’s story.
One of the star lots of Mrs. How’s collection was a set of six provincial apostle spoons, the Benson Apostles, probably made in the Waveney Valley, between Suffolk and Norfolk, around 1475. The sculptural quality of the apostle finials is lovely: they move and are expressive in a way that many later apostle figures are not. Christie’s had decided to offer them first as a group, with an estimate of £150,000 to £250,000, and then, if they didn’t sell, to break them up and sell them singly. Because many spoon collectors can’t afford a set, there were no takers for the group. But because breaking a set is a sacrilege, no one bid on the individual spoons either. No one, that is, except someone in China who didn’t get the sacrilege memo, and put in a bid on the fifth spoon, over the internet. I was on the phone with Harry Williams-Bulkeley, the head of Christie’s silver department, and though I’d already spent plenty, when I saw the set would be broken I said “Harry if they’re selling it, bid!” Our competitor didn’t put up much of a fight, and we bought it for the low estimate. I’d only done it to keep the set together, so I suggested the owners (Mrs. How’s heirs) either rescind the sale, or sell me the other five once I’d scraped the money together. They’d gotten great prices for the other spoons, so they decided to keep the set. But, I got a nice thank-you, and some years later, grateful that I’d kept them together, and aware that granny How and old Eric had long since buried the hatchet, they sold them to us. You may have seen them in our catalog, just a few years back.
Terzameron Day 9
Part I: The Commando
At some point just after the war, Sidney Shrubsole (the S.J. of S.J. Shrubsole) found a remarkably rare spoon, something along the lines of that Holy Grail of medieval English silver: the Wodewose spoon. While Sidney’s son Charles (Eric’s brother) had been gaining expertise in spoons and building clients in spoon-collecting circles, there was one firm which bestrode that narrow world like a colossus: How of Edinburgh. With the hard-nosed and punctilious Commander George Evelyn Paget How, of the Royal Navy, at the helm, and his formidably stern partner and wife Jane in charge of ordnance and the books, they were a force. In the trade they were called “the Commander, and the Commando.”
So, what to do with this remarkable spoon? Eric and Charles couldn’t decide. They could sell it to one of their clients, but they were anxious that it might be worth more than they knew. So, they resolved to go to How, ask a “mad price,” and gauge the response.
On a bright, sunny day, they ventured into storied little Pickering Place, off St. James’s, where How had their premises on the second floor, and rang the bell. They heard a window open and a brusque voice call out:
“Who is it and what do you want?”
“It’s Charles and Eric Shrubsole. Mrs. How, we’ve found a spoon you might like!”
“Wait right there.”
And so they waited, not considering how odd it was not to be asked up, until a great slosh of water soaked them to the skin. Looking up to see what had happened, they met the defiant stare of Mrs. How, triumphantly holding a bucket. “Now go away,” she growled “and don’t come back!” And the window slammed shut.
“Bloody hell” said Eric, “what’s this all about?”
Part II: The Commander
Although they regularly crossed paths, and swords, in the salerooms, the parties to this bizarre encounter never spoke of it—inveterate pride on both sides—until years later.
In 1968, the Royal Ontario Museum organized a magnificent exhibition called “Prized Possessions from Private Homes.” As museums aren’t always aware of all the prized possessions in private homes, the ROM asked dealers to help arrange anonymous loans. And of course, at the opening party for the show two of those dealers, Eric and Mrs. How, were seated next to each other. After being assiduously ignored for half an hour, Eric spoke up.
“Mrs. How, do you really mean to snub me? I have no idea what I have done that could ever have offended you, but I do feel you owe me some kind of explanation.”
“Mr. Shrubsole!” she intoned, “Your father sold my husband a pair of fake Dutch dredgers!”
“Mrs. How,” Eric replied, incensed, “but…do you mean to say that your husband, the esteemed Commander How, that infallible expert, bought fakes? Why, that’s shocking! My daddy never pretended to know the first thing about Dutch silver, but your husband, with his level of expertise, to buy fakes,” and here some clucking, and a challenging stare: “I never knew he did that!”
Once, after telling that story, Eric gleefully asked: “Who’s the Commander now?!” In any case, the counterpunch brought détente, which mellowed to grudging respect, and finally ripened into nonagenarian cordiality. Fifty-five years later, when her personal collection came up at Christie’s, that turned out to be a good thing for all parties.
As Boccaccio would say: a domani.
Terzameron Day 8
Struggling novelists, wracking their brains for plot points and characters, may wilt from exasperation on reading of the genesis of the nine-hundred-page debut masterpiece colloquially known as The Pickwick Papers: “I thought of Mr. Pickwick,” Dickens blithely notes, “and wrote the first number.” But when, a few years ago, we purchased the remarkable piece of silver shown above, I wondered: maybe Dickens really didn‘t have to work that hard to invent his characters…
This massive cup and cover, with a salver to set it on, was commissioned from Paul Storr, whose fame, to this day, is associated with the elegance and opulence of the Regency and the reign of George IV–arguably the original Gilded Age. On one side, it has a magnificent rearing horse, cast and applied to the body. This is the crest of the man to whom it was presented. On the other side, it is inscribed:At a Vestry
held in the parish church of Greenwich in the County of Kent
the 24th Day of April 1821
it was unanimously RESOLVED
that a piece of plate of the value of ONE HUNDRED GUINEAS
be given TO MR. HARGRAVE
for his important services in causing a great reduction
in the expense of maintaining the poor of this parish.Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, was published in 1837. Yet here, sixteen years earlier, in this glimpse of the “important services” of “Mr. Hargrave” we find a prototype for Mr. Bumble, the greedy beadle who oversees the workhouse, and who is always on the look-out for ways to get more from those who have nothing. In the donors of the cup, perhaps, there is a real-life committee of Mrs. Sowerberrys. “I see no saving in parish children,” she tells Mr. Bumble, “they always cost more to keep, than they’re worth.” Having just agreed to “keep” Oliver as an apprentice to her husband, she suits the action to the word: making Oliver a generous outlay of leftover food. Left over from the dog’s bowl.
If the story behind the cup were a click-bait headline in tomorrow’s news, Mr. Hargrave could probably count on an angry online mob to besmirch his name, they would “re-tweet” the cheap-shot version (“Grifter Robs Orphanage, Buys Mercedes!”). He would be in the Post. But it’s more complicated. The parish of Greenwich had for many years been paying for the maintenance of the wives and children of the pensioners at the hospital. The hospital’s property taxes were too low to make up for the parish’s expense, so the parish argued that it should not have to subsidize the hospital. The hospital argued that it brought business to Greenwich, and the two parties went back and forth with florid declarations of amity and best intentions for many years. Somewhere in there, Mr. Hargrave did something that got him this marvelous cup. You do have to wonder what, because it is one hell of a cup. Mr. Bumble, who by his own account of his marriage threw himself away for “six teaspoons, a pair of sugar tongs, and twenty pound” would have killed for it.
Terzameron Day 7
My colleagues’ writing hands are getting sore, so it’s my turn at the wheel. This is Ben Miller, Director of Research. You’ve heard stories from Shrubsole’s vaunted past, but what about its vaunted present? In my five years at the firm, I’ve witnessed a good story or two myself–including this astonishingly improbable encounter.
A few years ago a friendly fellow came into the shop carrying a silver bowl. It was an old family heirloom, he told us–but he wasn’t sure how old, or what branch of the family. Could we tell him something about it, and help the family decide what to do with it? It was a form typical of early 18th-century New York; unmarked, but with an engraved monogram that the family hadn’t been able to decipher.
A little Photoshop magic revealed the letters in the monogram: PDL, forwards and backwards, in what’s known as a mirror cypher. And some genealogical digging identified the monogram’s owner, and a direct line of descent: Pieter DeLancey, the Bronx merchant whose brother is the namesake of Delancey Street.
Eschewing the crass commercialism typical of our age, we counseled the family to donate the bowl to the New-York Historical Society, which they happily did. But here’s where things got weird.
While all this was happening, a matched pair of early New York cast candlesticks came up at a regional auction house. It’s an incredibly rare form, with only about eight pairs known–a fact lost on the auctioneer, who had also failed to recognize the maker’s marks, and estimated their value near scrap at $200-400. We bought them for cheap (though not quite that cheap) over the phone, sight unseen, taking a risk that they might be fake. Word had gotten out, and before they had even arrived at the shop, a client called up to ask for right of first refusal. When the box arrived we were thrilled to find that they were right as rain. Moreover, the maker’s mark on one, described by the auctioneer as BB, was in fact a conjoined BLR, the famous mark for the great Bartholomew Le Roux II. And the other was a cast copy made some 20 years later by Thomas Hammersley to replace a lost or broken original.
But also unnoticed by the auctioneer, on the foot of the Le Roux candlestick, was a tiny engraved monogram. The letters P and E under a conjoined D/L. Pieter and Elizabeth DeLancey.
Here we had, in the shop, what might be the only two surviving pieces of early DeLancey family silver. Both hitherto unknown. Both out of the family for the first time in 200 years. Both showing up at our doorstep within weeks.
Not long thereafter, New-York Historical hosted us and the donors for a lunch to celebrate the gift of the bowl. The client who’d bought the candlesticks agreed to loan them to NYHS so they could be shown alongside the bowl. And, at this lunch, it was one of my great professional pleasures to unveil the candlesticks to the astonishment of curators and Delancey descendents alike.
Terzameron Day 6
Today’s tale of a mercenary marriage is even more shocking than yesterday’s, and shocking in more ways than one.
The 1st Duke of Richmond was one of the seven illegitimate sons of Charles II. Like others to the manor born, he was a huntsman, a wastrel, and a very heavy gambler. In 1719, in the Hague, he racked up extraordinary debts to the Earl of Cadogan—the Duke of Marlborough’s right hand man—debts that were well beyond his means to pay. By way of settlement , this paragon unblushingly offered his son, the Earl of March, as a husband for Cadogan’s daughter Sarah. Cadogan, whose earldom had been an up-by-the-bootstraps affair, jumped, thrilled that his little girl would one day be a Duchess.
Charles and Sarah (he 19; she 13) were not pleased. When Sarah was brought out of the nursery (I know, I know) for the wedding ceremony Charles cried out, “Surely they are not going to marry me to that dowdy?” But they were, and they did, so immediately after the wedding the Earl, being a man of action, took matters into his own hands, and left. He spent the next three years on the Grand Tour.
He returned to London. Balancing a total lack of interest in seeing his wife with a healthy appreciation of women not his wife, he went off to the theater. And you know how it is: he’s an Earl, he’s at the theater, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel: he spots an alluring woman in a nearby box and coolly asks who she is and hears: “You must be a stranger in London not to know the toast of the town: the beautiful Lady March.”
Charles and Sarah were happily married for the next 31 years. They had four extraordinary daughters, but that’s another story.
Terzameron Day 5
I came to my love of English silver through English history (social, economic, heraldic) which will gently infuse my stories.
Yesterday’s installment concluded with the happy marriage of the Victoria & Albert. Having introduced the topic of marriage, we now step back into the 18th century when, quite frankly, marriages were often made for all the wrong reasons, money and social status being two of the worst. Such marriages could come out well or poorly, as we shall see.
One of the greatest silver patrons of the century was George Booth, the 2nd Earl of Warrington (shown above along with his home, Dunham Massey). He eventually purchased over 1000 pieces of silver by various London-based Huguenot silversmiths, including a large wine fountain of 1728, a set of six wall sconces of 1730, and a rather more modest silver chamber pot, also of 1730, that was with us here at S. J. Shrubsole a few years ago (below). It is all characterized by tremendous quality, heavy gauge, and fine taste.
To say that he was obsessed may be an understatement: he didn’t have just one silver chamber pot but a set of twelve. In 1750 he meticulously wrote, in his own hand, a seventeen page document entitled “The Particular of my Plate & its Weight”, recording his collection of over 25,000 ounces of silver.
When he inherited the title from his father, in 1693, the earldom was swamped in debt, so how did he afford all this luxury? He made his money the really, really old-fashioned way: he married it, taking as his wife Mary Oldburg, the daughter of a rich London merchant who had a massive dowry of £40,000. It did not go well. As his contemporary Philip Bliss wrote: “Some few years after my lady had consign’d up her whole fortune to pay my lord’s debts, they quarrelled, and lived in the same house as absolute strangers to each other at bed and board.”
Warrington was not one to suffer in silence, and published Considerations upon the Institution of Marriage, with some thoughts concerning the force and obligation of the marriage contract, wherein is considered how far divorces may or may not be allowed. Not surprisingly, he was in favor of divorce based on “incompatibility of temper”.
Terzameron Day 4
We make our share of exciting discoveries, but credit for this one goes to the redoubtable Cantabrigian scholar John Bourdon-Smith, of the eponymous silver shop in St. James’s.
I saw the silver greyhound (above) in an auction, and thought: what a pretty dog! So beautifully modeled, so graceful, in such perfect condition…I should buy it! After the hammer fell I got a call from my friend Edward (Bourdon-Smith), John’s son. He wanted to know, had I bought the greyhound, and, as the answer was yes, would I like to sell him a half-share, for they too had been interested but hadn’t wanted to pay so much. I agreed, grudgingly, and sent them a bill for half. But what I’d thought was a costly but prudent greasing of the wheel of Commerce turned out to be a remunerative greasing of the wheel of Fortune, for a few months later I got a call from these same penurious, cadging layabouts with some very good news.
John had been browsing a reference book when he saw—on the base of a centerpiece in the Royal Collection, a greyhound.
“Edward,” said he to his son (bossily, I’m sure), “I think that’s our greyhound.”
“Well father,” the almost-ever-tolerant Edward replied, with only a hint of an eye-roll in his tone, “that is certainly A greyhound.”
“No.” came the confident rejoinder, “That’s our greyhound.”
A hawk eye is one characteristic of a great dealer, and John had somehow recognized the dog in a grainy black and white photo four inches high, a photo, I must point out, of an object two feet tall, and the dog isn’t even in the same pose. Several xerox enlargements and a visit to the Royal Collection later, the verdict was in: the greyhound in our sculpture was the very same greyhound as on the centerpiece—wens and all. She had a name, Eos, and she was Prince Albert’s beloved pet, more than once depicted by Garrard’s, and frequently painted by Landseer. Further research in the Garrard Ledgers at the V&A confirmed that this little sculpture was Victoria’s twenty-first birthday present to Albert, “with which he was,” in the words of her diary, “much pleased.” They had been married six months, and I think the thoughtfulness of the gift shows in some small measure the love and devotion she felt for him, in life and beyond.
I recently wondered why I cry watching movies on airplanes. I looked it up on the internet—I’m not the only one!—and one theory is that there is some sense of anxiety, heightened stakes, impending doom, that triggers heightened emotions. Like Elvis Costello, I don’t want to get too sentimental, but I am enjoying contemplating this object now that we are all confined to our families and homes: a loving couple, a beloved pet…just to heap it on thick, here’s Victoria’s next birthday present to Albert: Landseer’s picture of Eos with their first child, the little Princess Victoria at ten months.
Tomorrow’s email may come from Jim or Ben—the other duo of the terza in the series name. I’ll be home with my wife, my kids, and my dog.
Terzameron Day 3
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve bashed my head against a wall about a client not buying something that they so obviously should buy, I’d probably have…[calculating]…five dollars and CTE. When you are a dealer you look on every really great purchase as a brilliant buy and a fine investment. Clients don’t always see it that way: to them investments are shares taken in wave-making companies like Apple and Oracle, Enron and Tyco.
Sometime around 2000 I went to lunch at Partridge’s, the vast Bond Street antiques emporium. They had a great cook, and a dining room where they served bibulous lunches on a table set with white linens and silver and flowers, the whole presided over by potty-mouthed Rosemary Partridge, who thought everything was really f*#@ing funny. The thing was, the Partridges were canny: in addition to the dirty jokes and the claret that seemed to refill itself, they also placed in front of you, for the duration of the meal, an object they thought you might like.
On one occasion, the object was one of a pair of livery pots known as the Rothschild-Rosebery livery pots (above left)—massive silver-gilt baluster flagons made in London in 1602 and—here I throw down my gauge: the finest pair of livery pots in the world. By the end of the meal….so fine was the food! so inexhaustible the decanter!….Reader, I bought them.
If you hear the Bronte echo it is because a couple of years later I felt that I hadn’t so much bought them as married them. Everyone I offered them to balked, offered too little, wanted to trade something for them that I didn’t want including, and I am not making this up, a vintage Ferrari…So I decided to do out loud what I’d been doing in my mind: grab a client by the lapel and say “what the hell’s the matter with you?!” The lucky client was Rita Gans.
At 4’11”, Rita was a little small for roughing up. Instead, I told her to meet me Monday morning outside the Met for what I warned her would be an awkwardly convoluted sales pitch. I walked her into the British Galleries, and showed her the Paston Livery Pots (above right). Very nice they are. Very special. One of the great pairs of livery pots, and illustrated in the famous Paston Treasure painting, but, I told Rita: hold them in your mind and we are going back to my shop.
You know where this is going. Back at the shop she saw the Rothschild-Rosebery pots (bigger, much heavier, fabulous gilding, just…beautiful) and she bought them. As she should have. They are now among the marvels at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Terzameron Day 2
Many years ago, at an antique show, I spent about fifteen minutes in increasing desperation, trying to sell something (something amazingly beautiful and perfectly preserved) to the loudest, most obnoxious man I think I’ve ever met. As he bellowed his way back into the aisle, leaving me sweaty, hoarse, and penniless, I suddenly felt a sense of calm, and turned to find one of the few people in the world who I would characterize as the obnoxious man’s exact opposite: the quiet, joy-filled, sensible and sensitive English dealer, Jonathan Harris. Jonathan, with a smile of kindness and amusement, said “Hello Tim,” and, nodding in the direction of the bellower, “that can’t have been much fun.” I laughed with relief and said that I didn’t understand why he never bought from me (he was a well-known buyer) and Jonathan said that next time I should get Eric to deal with him because he was a “respecter of persons.” I knew the phrase “God is no respecter of persons” but I’d never heard it used so perfectly, for indeed this guy was a major-league name-dropper, always bragging about what he’d bought from whom.
If you are familiar with the phrase from dreary-if-apposite-applications like “Death is no respecter of persons”, and “Disease is no respecter of persons”, fear not: I know you did not come here to read about Covid-19. But it leads to a little tribute to a person in my life who was so far from being a respecter of persons that you sometimes wondered if he wasn’t just….ignorant. My stepfather.
There are several such stories, and another may come down the pike later, but for now, since I started writing about failing to sell a masterpiece, I’ll take one tied to the theme. We (Eric and I) walked into Chantilly (the late, lamented, three-star French Restaurant next door to our old shop) for lunch one day, and as we took our seats Eric nodded to Philip Johnson. Stunned, I asked, “How do you know Philip Johnson?”
Eric, also stunned, asked: “Who?”
“Philip Johnson. You just nodded to him.”
“Oh him. Bought a major piece from me once. Eats here all the time. I don’t know how he can afford it. He’s a desecrator.”
“He’s not a decorator, he’s an architect, and I’ll bet he can afford it better than you.”
“Oh. Well. Let’s have a drink.”
When I got back to the shop, our manager Bard Langstaff explained to me that yes, some years earlier, Philip Johnson had come into the shop because he had seen the Huntingdon wine cistern (above) in the window, and had thought it would make a nice statement in the lobby of a house he was designing in Dallas, and so convinced his client, Henry Beck, to buy it. Eric had heard the word “designing”, assumed that it meant “decorating”, and so never had the slightest idea that this was, well, Philip Johnson. To his credit, when I pointed out that he was one of the most famous architects in the world, Eric still didn’t care. No respecter.
Years later we got the cistern back—briefly, and just after 9/11. It’s not the easiest thing to sell, being about the size of a side table and weighing seventy pounds, so in the short time we had it we couldn’t find a buyer and the family, generously, decided to donate it to the Dallas Museum of Art. One of the people who looked at it at a show was that same loudmouth. He had since learned that I was the boss’s kid, and had become a client. He was very impressed by the whole Philip Johnson thing.
Terzameron Day 1
The new British Galleries at the Met are full of marvels, but this striking display of doll-house miniatures reminded me of a time I attended a cow, tractor, and household goods auction in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I found, in a box of silverplated spoons (lot 86), an extremely rare, fully hallmarked miniature hearth, London, 1705 by George Manjoy—the very one illustrated in the book on the subject. I’d recently bought one in London for something like $16,000, and here it was with an estimate of $50-100. As the auctioneer was loosening up his patter with the first few lots, I saw another dealer—with whom I occasionally butted heads—menacingly enter the arena. He walked straight over to the silver, and in a minute or two picked up the fire-grate, louped the marks, and with what I took to be a performative lack of interest, dropped it back into the bin. “Damn,” I thought to myself, using a much worse word.
In short order, the crying of lot 86: “Twenty-fie dollas thirty dollas do I hear forty dollas” and so on up to $300…when it was hammered down to me. Not only was it hammered down to me, but a girl brought the whole box over to me, handed it to me, and said “$330 dollars please”—immediate payment, apparently, being the custom of the country. My business done, and turning to go, my rival dealer accosted me with: “what the hell are you doing buying a bunch of plated spoons and—what is that—a busted up piece of old Judaica?”
It surprises us now, but these miniatures were not for children. Whole houses full of furniture, rugs, curtains, paintings, and porcelains were commissioned piece by piece, and to the most exacting standards, by adults as a hobby—a way to pass time, but also a way to engage with friends and family. Then as now, silver miniatures were expensive luxuries. Petronella Oortman’s famous doll-house (now at the Rijksmuseum) cost as much to make and furnish as it would have cost to buy and furnish a real house on an Amsterdam canal.
So, as we are all house-bound and perhaps gathering hearthside to talk, read, watch TV, let’s hope staying home is its own delight. It may help to think that we can’t have changed that much since the seventeenth century, when people built dollhouses because staying home was so delightful they wanted to do it for real, and do it again in “a world of pure imagination.”