Old silver is a classic collecting field, one that combines the aesthetic pleasures of imaginative design, fine workmanship, and history. In the often hotly competitive field of American silver, the latest area to fire the acquisitive imagination seems to be the arts and crafts style.
Origins and style
The idealized image of medieval craftsmen lovingly, indeed religiously, producing works of art by hand greatly influenced the production values in the arts and crafts movement workshops of the late nineteenth century. Whether these shops were producing silver, furniture, ceramics, textiles, or jewelry, handcraftsmanship was held up as a healthy antidote to mass production. But while the designs themselves frequently had visual ties to medieval ideas—stylized floral motifs inspired by illuminated manuscripts and intricate patterns adapted from Celtic artifacts—by the heyday of the arts and crafts movement, from the 1890s through the 1920s, motifs derived from American Indian, Hispanic American, and American colonial design were also being filtered through a contemporary lens.
Indeed, one reason that arts and crafts silver is so appealing is that its combination of historical and modern sensibilities gives the pieces enormous versatility as decorative objects.
Collecting arts and crafts silver
Because the influence of the arts and crafts movement absorbed so many American and English influences and lasted for at least four decades, collectors can follow several routes toward assembling a collection. You can focus on a particular genre or form—flatware, hollowware, candlesticks, for instance; or you can collect purely decorative pieces; or you might seek out desk and library furnishings such as inkstands, picture frames, and paper knives. You could also focus on a particular decade of the movement—the 1890s or 1900s, for instance—or on particular makers or designers, such as the group that worked for Chicago’s Kalo Shop, established in 1900. Instead of specializing, you can, of course, become a generalist and let destiny guide your hunt.
The best pieces of arts and crafts silver by the best-known craftsmen now command prices upward of $10,000. An excellent example is a pair of American silver condiment dishes offered by the silver dealers Spencer Marks of Southampton, Massachusetts (Fig. 1). Based on a design of about 1900 by Charles Robert Ashbee, the British architect, designer, silversmith, jeweler, and founder (in 1888) of the Guild of Handicraft, they were produced around 1905 by Marcus and Company, the prestigious New York jeweler and retailer whose mark they bear.
The bowls are “hand-raised from the flat,” meaning that they were meticulously hand-hammered from a flat sheet of sterling silver. Because the hammering marks were not entirely buffed away, the bowl surfaces have a delicate shimmering quality typical of the best arts and crafts silverwork. The gracefully elongated loop handles, made by bending two lengths of sterling silver wire and hammering the ends flat where they are soldered to the bowls, are characteristic of Ashbee’s work. Inspired by gem-studded coronation regalia and medieval church plate, Ashbee often included amethyst, turquoise, and other gemstone ornaments in his silverwork. Here, each handle is set with a cabochon amethyst. The cabochon is mounted in a collet (the silver band that keeps the stone in place) with beading that echoes the beaded rim applied to the bowl itself. As compositions in design, the dishes exemplify the refined and restrained ornament that is a hallmark of arts and crafts style, as well as a precursor of early twentieth-century modernism.
Priced at $11,500 each (at this writing one of the dishes has already sold), they are superb examples of a major designer’s oeuvre. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has an example of a similar dish by Ashbee, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a two-handle version by Marcus and Company.
Arts and crafts silver made by less familiar names can frequently offer admirable style and craftsmanship at a less exalted price, especially pieces from the 1920s and even the 1930s, the movement’s twilight years.
For $1,100 Spencer Marks offers a sterling silver sandwich tray, made during the late 1920s by Frans J. R. Gyllenberg and Alfred H. Swanson (Fig. 2). Like the Ashbee condiment bowls, this tray is handmade, the central dish hammered from the flat. To emphasize the beauty of the metal itself, the ornament is extremely restrained. In addition to the applied ring on the dish rim and the applied border on the shallow foot, the tray has two delicately pierced “keyhole” handles, a direct allusion to the pierced flat handles on eighteenth-century English and American silver porringers. According to the silver historian W. Scott Braznell, the creative adaptation of colonial designs to modern uses was an important trait in Boston arts and crafts silver.
Spencer Gordon (whose first name, together with that of his business partner Mark McHugh, forms the Spencer Marks trade name), notes that,”Gyllenberg, a Swedish emigrant, was one of only seven silversmiths to be elected a ‘Medallist,’ the highest honor bestowed by the venerable Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston.” He also notes that an identical sandwich tray is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
❖ It is important to familiarize yourself with the metal itself and with the various styles of silver, both arts and crafts and works that preceded and followed the time period. In the field, terms such as aesthetic movement, Eastlake, and even art deco can be confused so it pays to learn to recognize stylistic attributes on your own.
❖ Because pure silver is too soft to withstand daily wear and tear, coins and decorative objects have generally been made of a more durable alloy of silver and a small amount of copper, with standards usually based on divisions of one thousand. Sterling silver, composed of 925 parts silver and 75 parts copper (hence the markings 925, 925 fine, or 925/1000 frequently found on pieces), was declared the legal standard for wrought silver in England in 1238. By law, American sterling silver has been marked “sterling” since 1851, when Tiffany and Company first introduced that standard here.
❖ Other silver standards include: the so-called “common” standard, 800/1000, long used in Germany and other European nations; coin silver, 900/1000, often used by American silversmiths before 1870, when much silver was made here from smelted coins (pieces are usually marked “coin”); and the Britannia standard, 958/1000, softer than sterling and used at various times in England and the United States, especially for luxurious handmade pieces during the 1890s and early 1900s, most notably for Gorham’s Martelé line.
❖ Just because it looks like silver does not mean it is. The arts and crafts style was applied not only to handmade solid silverwares, but also to machine-made silver and to electroplated ones, which themselves are often worth collecting for their imaginative designs. Indeed, the greatest American silver manufacturers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Tiffany and Gorham, made silverplate and used machinery to fashion much of their superb mainstream work, while limiting handmade silver to the most luxurious pieces. Nevertheless the difference in value between these various levels of work can be significant.
❖ There really are no shortcuts to learning to tell the difference between solid silver and electroplate, or between handmade silver and machine-made pieces. It pays to familiarize your eye and your fingers to the look and the feel of solid silver as opposed to electroplate and between handmade silver and machine-made pieces. For example, machined “hammer marks” were often introduced as a deliberate design element in manufactured pieces, but they look formally laid out compared to the random patterns of genuine hand-hammered marks.
❖ Training your eye means looking at a great deal of silver, and holding actual pieces so that you can feel the differences. Electroplated pieces, which only have a skin of silver on base metal (most frequently so-called nickel silver, white metal, or copper) are frequently heavier than sterling. Because base metals were so much cheaper, more was used in an object to provide durability. They also tend to feel harder to the touch than sterling. And when electroplate wears, the base metal shows through, copper showing red and other metals showing dull gray.
Fig. 1. Condiment dishes or loop-handled cups based on a design by Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942), c. 1900, marked by Marcus and Company, New York, c. 1905. Stamped “marcus & co./sterling” on the bottom, engraved “s.l.h.”; Fig. 2. Sandwich tray marked by Frans J. R. Gyllenberg (1883-1974) and Alfred H. Swanson (1899-1985), Boston, late 1920s. Stamped “f.j.r/a.h.s./sterling/292” on the bottom. Photographs are by courtesy of Spencer Marks, Southampton, Massachusetts.