Since the beginning of civilization silver has played an important and enduring role in society, a valuable commodity, which, through the ages, has been and still is revered and judiciously used by man on so many levels. Quite aside from its important role as a means of currency, silver has also been transformed by skilled craftsmen into religious reliquaries to help with worship, or on a far more practical level into the production of decorative items and household wares. Whatever its purpose, silver is invariably associated with wealth, standing and importance. Hence the meaning behind the old phrase “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”, an expression which directly links silver to affluence.
Little was to change over successive centuries, although with the introduction of silver plate in the mid-1800s, silver did begin to lose some of its exclusive allure. The social upheavals and the decline of many large aristocratic houses which followed on from the World War I, combined with the economic hardships of the 1920s and early 30s, all contributed to a fundamental shift in collecting taste. For a number of years and for a variety of reasons, both social and economic, European society started to fall out of love with silver.
Gone were the days of stately homes such as Downton Abbey, with their armies of staff on hand to clean the family silver. We were entering a modern age of convenience – formal dining was increasingly to become a thing of the past. In post-World War II Europe, the wonderful antique silver masterpieces, which had graced the homes of previous generations were frequently regarded as too old-school and frankly too hard to maintain, hence either laid aside or even sold.
As a result through much of the 1950s and 60s silver was commonly sold and purchased at a price dependent on its weight, with little or no account for maker, provenance nor the quality of design and workmanship. It took the emergent new-wealthy Americans to start to re-appreciate the artistry of antique silver. Taking advantage of the deflated prices, they started buying silver from the royal and aristocratic families of Europe. In particular their focus of attention centered on great silversmiths of the mid-18th to early 19th century with prize works by masters such as Paul de Lamerie , Benjamin Smith and Paul Storr being assiduously sought out.
Amongst the many collectors who helped to revive the appreciation of traditional silver, two names immediately come to mind for the depth of their knowledge and the passion of their eye: Morrie Moss of Memphis with his predilection for the work of Paul Storr, and Arthur Gilbert the Anglophile -American whose considerable collection was recently bequeathed to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
At the same time a number of important American museums began to focus their buying power on European silver, resulting in major collections for the public to admire, notably to be found in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Portland Museum of Art, Philadelphia. Not surprisingly America continues to be an important market for the antique silver trade.
Today one of the leading dealers in antique silver is Koopman Rare Art. Founded by brothers Jacques and Eddy Koopman in 1952, Koopman Rare Art has traded from its luxurious premises above the Silver Vaults in the City of London since 1969.
Now recognized as the pre-eminent dealers in antique silver, over the years they have helped form some of the most celebrated collections of silver in the world. These include those of His Excellency Mahdi Mohammed Altajir, the Whiteley Trust and the Australian Kerry Packer, in addition they have sold important silver to major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Lewis Smith, who together with Timo Koopman, the grandson of Eddie is joint director of Koopman Rare Art, explains: “In terms of quality, workmanship, art historical context and often highly distinguished provenances, the antique silver market today is definitely under-appreciated compared with other collecting fields.”
This opinion has also recently been confirmed by Barnebys the world’s largest art and antique search engine. Pontus Silfvertoolpe, co-founder of Barnebys is reported as saying “Antique silver is a bargain at current prices”.
Lewis Smith continued: “It’s been slow in coming, but we are starting to see a long-over due re-appreciation of these superlative art works. What is clear, however is the fact that today’s silver collectors are highly sophisticated connoisseurs. Not only are they extremely well informed, they are constantly refining their taste and appreciation. They understand the importance of maker, provenance, quality of design and workmanship and are prepared to pay for it. Collectors are simply not impressed with mediocrity – they will only buy the best and will also pay a premium for a blue-chip provenance.”
So where are these buyers and collectors based? “In terms of location, the silver market is becoming ever more global, with serious buyers from China and the Middle East entering into the collecting arena” says Lewis. “This interest is driven by a rapidly increasing appreciation for European art and antiques and silver helps to complete the refined and sophisticated look. One also has to take into account that most countries in the Far and Middle East have a strong metalwork tradition so there tends to be an ingrained appreciation for works in silver. Silver-gilt pieces for example are particularly sough-after in China where gold is highly regarded.”
One of the many appeals of antique silver is it caters for all tastes and is also an obvious area for cross-collecting. People who buy silver tend to collect in other fields as well be it paintings, furniture and even contemporary art. Classic silver pieces work well in sleek, minimalist, modern interiors and, as we all know, mixing old and new invariably adds a new dimension and creates an element of dynamism.
And of course with the reassessment of the mid-20th century, which is now much in evidence in contemporary interiors, there is an increasing demand for signed pieces of designer silver, by the likes of more contemporary silversmiths such Stuart Devlin and Gerald Benney, to name but two.
Another huge advantage of silver is much of it is practical. It wasn’t all about ostentation. Silver was designed to be used and enjoyed, and by its very nature is pretty robust and durable.
“The majority of the silver we deal in is elegant and usable,” explains Lewis. “We have stunning trays, candlesticks and candelabra, dinner services, tea and coffee-services and important canteens of cutlery. I am pleased to say most of our clients use the silver they buy – whether it’s in their main home, chalet, beach-house or even on their super-yacht or private jet. Encouragingly formal home dining with stunning silver on the table is once again becoming a feature of 21st century elegant living. Even informal kitchen suppers can be improved upon with the addition of a stunning pair of silver candlesticks.
For example we have one of the earliest silver coffee percolators, made by English silversmiths Emes and Barnard in 1809, the design is elegant, practical and almost modern. On top of which it makes delicious coffee, far better than any machine. The asking price is a mere £7,500 and it will clearly last for a couple more hundred years. What could be better value? That’s another great thing about silver – the entry level is accessible compared with other collecting areas. For example you can buy a small piece by a distinguished silversmith such as Paul Storr from as little as £2,000.”
What makes exceptional silver stand out, however, is quality and design, all of which reflect the style, fashion and tastes of a particular era. It is the exquisite, naturalistic observed modelling, the attention to detail and the breathtaking skill of the silversmith, which takes the trays, soup tureens, candelabra, tea and coffee services, the cutlery excetera out of the realms of the ordinary and mundane and turns them into masterpieces steeped in history.
“Although there is a limited supply of really top quality silver treasures, there are still thrilling new pieces coming onto the market. All these factors help maintain value, interest and excitement. While the majority of collectors buy for pleasure and enjoyment, often the intrinsic value of top quality silver and its investment potential gives an additional feeling of security. It’s quite simple, buy the best antique silver you can afford and you really can’t go wrong,” concludes Lewis.
Barnebys offer the same advice: “It is now time for new generations to start using silver again, to understand and appreciate the value of quality and durability and the intrinsic beauty of this ancient and much valued precious metal.
“There are bargains to be had out there that are both stunningly beautiful works of art and also quite often very functional as dinner services or as decorative objects with intriguing histories. Given that silver prices will doubtless rise again its investment value is another reason to buy silver.”
Koopman Rare Art – www.koopmanrareart.com
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