Wouldn’t You Like to Melt Me Down?

Terzameron Day 20
April 9, 2020

Tim Martin

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.

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