Keeping It Together

Terzameron Day 10
March 30, 2020

Tim Martin


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.

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