Fair Trade

Terzameron Day 11
March 31, 2020

Tim Martin



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.

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