The Best Policy

Terzameron Day 27
April 16, 2020

Tim Martin



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.

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