Author: Andrews, Isabel
Date published: January 1, 2010
Dealers agree that the market for English silver is smaller than it used to be but has a stronger emphasis on quality. Christopher Hartop, formerly head of silver at Christie's New York, says, 'It may sound contradictory, but the market for English silver has contracted. There are fewer buyers than 30 years ago but prices have continued to go up. Essentially, there is no middle market; bom the top and lower end are very strong.'
There seems little doubt that the market has shrunk, according to dealer Daniel Bexfield. 'Both high-end and small dealers are going out of business and I'm hearing a lot of dealers say there is not much coming up at auction.'
However, Nicholas Shaw, head of Bonhams silver department, says, 'More dealers and buyers are concentrating on better things. In any sale, around 45 to 50 per cent is in the good category, the rest is more commercial.' Hartop says that dealers now play a larger part in this market.
'It used to be a given that when a significant collection came up it would go to an auction house. It was just a question of which one. That's not the case anymore. For example, in 2007 the Albert collection was sold to a consortium. Twenty years ago it would have been an obvious candidate for auction.'
The Albert collection was perhaps the most distinguished set of silver formed by a private individual in Britain in the past 30 years.
At the top end, pieces with particular artistic or historic significance are achieving excellent results. As dealer Lewis Smith explains, 'It has taken many years to get to the level of excitement that we are currently seeing.' Pointing to the Seaton Délavai Hall sale at Sotheby's in September this year, Smith says, 'This was interesting because more minor items made great prices. It illustrates how the top end has lifted up the middle market.' For example, a pair of George UI wine coolers sold for £12,500 against a top estimate of £8,000. 'This lot showed that things once regarded as not top level have gone up by around 30 per cent,' says Smith.
Anthony Phillips of Christie's explains that serious money is made in two categories: very decorative functional pieces, and novelty items. In the former category, a pair of candelabra dated 1792 sold at Christie's in 2007 for £34 1 ,000 on a top estimate of £60,000. The pair was originally part of a set of four, sold in 1967 for £16,000. Victorian novelty items, such as decanters decorated with animals, are particularly popular: for example, an 1882 kangaroo claret jug sold at Christie's in 2006 for £60,000, three times its top estimate.
Other once popular areas have waned. Rupert Slingsby, auctioneer with Woolley & Wallis - an auction house that has cornered the market in 'small silverware' and set records for such objects as nutmeg graters - comments: 'George III top-end silver is making very good money, but a standard toast rack, for example, from the same period, has been a flat market over the last few years. Fifteen years ago a Georgian coffee pot might fetch £1,500 to £2,000. A plain coffee pot by a run-of-the-mill maker might go today for £600 to £800 or possibly £1,200. That's a big drop.'
The recession has revived interest in silver, because people trust its intrinsic value. Smith says, 'I've had collectors back recently whom I started doing business with 30 years ago. It heralds a return to more traditional areas of collecting.' But little is appearing on the market as a consequence of needing to sell. Nicholas Shaw says, 'There are "wait and see" people I know out there, so in 2010 I think we will see more silver coming on to the market as conditions stabilise.' Philippa Glanville, former keeper of metalwork at the V&A, identifies the sale last year at Christie's of the Lord Harris of Peckham collection as a notable exception. The sale united a late Elizabethan ostrich-egg cup with a painting by Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten in which the cup is depicted. Both were sold to the Art Institute of Chicago for £577,250.
Around half a dozen American museums are actively developing their collections of English silver. Hartop, who now acts as an agent working mostly with museums in the US, explains, 'Curators feel silver is rather like porcelain in that it offers a lot of bang for your buck' Chicago, St Louis, Boston and the Minneapolis Institute of Art have all recently made significant acquisitions. The areas sought out by curators are broadening. Hartop explains, 'Now the second half of the 18th century has really developed and overtaken the early 19th century as an area most actively growing, especially neoclassicism. Curators have said to me they want known names, such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and James Wyatt - the crossover of architect as designer.' Last year, Sotheby's sold a George HJ soup tureen attributed to William Chambers for £99,650, comfortably above a top estimate of £80,000. In 2007, a pair of George III sauceboats designed by Robert Adam made £66,000 at Christie's, estimated at £30,000 to £50,000.
Institutional buying in the past few years has often been driven by a desire to return an object to its original setting or collection. For instance, in 2008 the National Trust acquired an epergne engraved with the Phelips family arms for Montacute, the Phelips house in Somerset. This is one of several recent examples of the Trust returning historic silver to its houses.
Antique spoons are a buoyant specialist area. Nicholas Shaw says, 'Dealers and collectors fight over these things. The historical aspect makes them hugely collectible.' In July last year, Bonhams London sold a superb Henry VIII apostle spoon dated 15 15 for £33,600 against a top estimate of £25,000.
Shaw comments, 'It was one of the best apostle spoons we've ever seen. You don't want something that's been buffed to smithereens.' Daniel Bexfield has fostered the Silver Spoon Club for collectors, and produces a bi-monthly publication, The Finial, which taps into burgeoning interest in the history of silver. The journal publishes new research on marks and makers as well as running a postal auction for its members, some as far flung as Ethiopia and Australia. Prices range from £10 to £3,000 (the top sale was for a Paul de Lamerie spoon). Bexfield says, 'The last auction was among the best, despite economic doom and gloom.'
Research on makers and marks has a direct effect on prices, as collectors are always attracted to wellknown names. Top of the list are the celebrated 18th-century silversmiths Paul Storr and De Lamerie (whose Maynard dish made £1.49 million at Christie's in 1991, still the world record for a piece of English silver).
However, at Lyon & Turnbull's sale last year of the Chen collection, which saw some strong results, a number of pieces by De Lamerie failed to sell. The auctioneer Colin Fraser explains that the collection included a large amount by the maker for one sale. 'When that happens the market fluctuates and prices are re-evaluated,' he says.
Performing particularly well today is Gilbert Marks (1861-1905), considered to have produced the finest chasing of his generation. In 2008, his royal presentation Arts & Crafts punch bowl soared past its top estimate of £10,000 to make £51,600 and this year a sideboard dish by him made £35,000 -both at Bonhams.
Shaw says, 'He has taken off. No question about it. Obviously someone wants to build a collection of Gilbert Marks.'
Postwar silver by makers such as Gerald Benney and Stuart Devlin is also increasingly popular. Slingsby says, 'It's the fastest growing area. There are new collectors here and it appeals to a younger generation. People have got in early and bought relatively cheaply.'
In 2006, a pair of beakers by Stuart Devlin, aided by a royal provenance, fetched £13,200 against a top estimate of £600 at Christie's.
What does the future hold? One factor may be the price of silver bullion.
Shaw explains, 'The price of silver has gone up dramatically over the last few years. Today it is £8.50 per ounce. Four years ago it was around £3.'
As Christopher Hartop remarks, 'If this takes off it poses an interesting question: if the bullion price went up to £100 per ounce, where would that leave a Georgian coffee pot that hasn't changed in price for 30 years?'
Isabel Andrews is a staff journalist for Apollo magazine