Copperware’s burnish belies its usefulness

Three pieces of French tin-lined copper cookware brought $2,050 in October 2015 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – Many professional chefs and avid cooks stock their kitchens with copper cookware, which is favored for its cooking properties as it cooks food quickly and evenly while providing an elegant ambience. Their gleaming surfaces makes them well suited to use as decorating touches for a kitchen. Antique copper kitchenalia is well made, remains as functional today as it was when made (with proper care) and has that “wow” factor.

Antique copper pots and wares were made for an array of purposes and in many forms, including fondue pots, saucepans, crepe pans, preserve pans, funnels, kettles, wine coolers, bread baskets, chocolate pots (English examples versus French ones are especially hard to find and valuable), whiskey measures, fish poachers and ale jugs.

This Tiffany Studios copper tea service attained $3,500 at Morphy Auctions in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Coppersmiths would take sheets or rolls of copper and form them into cooking pans, the more talented craftsmen would hand-hammer the copper to give an attractive speckled finish.

“All early copper vessels were created by hammering the copper into the desired shape. It required great skill and many years of practice to deliver perfectly proportioned products, and kitchenware created by this method remains the most desirable,” according to commentary on the website of French Kitchen Antiques.

A grouping of Henning Koppel, Taverna cookware by Georg Jensen, 1971, sold for $3,250 in October 2017 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Copper kitchenware is designed for the preparation and cooking of foods, but many excel at multitasking and can be used in decor. Ale jugs are well suited for displaying floral arrangements while diminutive Guernsey jugs of English manufacture, standing only a few inches tall, can serve as charming bud vases, creamers or for measuring. A bread basket could house a small collection of paperbacks (perhaps even recipe cards in keeping with the kitchen theme) and small measures could hold succulents or be turned into an herb garden, from which herb clippings are added to the recipes.

A group of 18 copper, brass and pewter kitchen items, including ladles, measures and pitchers sold for $1,400 at Schwenke Auctioneers in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

European copper is highly desirable and choice pieces are sought out from Scandinavia, France, England and the Netherlands. Some of the well-known makers that knowledgeable collectors seek include Ruffoni of Italy, Gaillard Paris and Mauviel of France, and Benham & Sons of London. Among American companies, Revere was the go-to name for many years.

The most desirable of copper pots feature a hand-hammered finish, and in the case of serving items, like coffee pots, they will often have turned wooden handles (original is always best) and sometimes enhanced with finials. Pots meant for cooking will usually be fitted with cast-iron handles. Because better-made pots are thick, look for those with a fair heft to them and decent thickness to the walls and the bottom.

This fine copper vessel, hammered, tin-plated on the inside, brought $569 in April 2017 at Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH. Photo courtesy of Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GmbH and LiveAuctioneers

When it comes to cookware, copperware should always be lined (usually with tin) to prevent copper toxicity. Antique pots that have copper peeking through the tin lining should be relined before using. In mixing bowls, however, unlined copper is fine for food preparation. And when it comes to making meringue, many chefs swear by the use of copper bowls as the copper will produce a desired reaction with the egg and denature its proteins, leading to a better-quality meringue.

Martha Stewart, the doyenne of fine living, has a large collection of copper pots and kitchenalia, in her homes, ranging from cooking pots to molds, that she wrote about in an article on her website. Her collection spans all sizes and uses, from a 30-inch hammered stockpot, said to be her favorite for cooking, and varying size sauté pans to a circa 1780 Welsh kettle and a rare and large antique English skimmer. She also uses and displays on her wall a striking variety of copper molds perfect for serving salmon mousse or ice cream.

A lot of assorted copper cookware, well used, earned $750 at Kaminski Auction in April 2017. Photo courtesy of Kaminski Auction and LiveAuctioneers

And to keep your copper gleaming brightly, one can buy products made for this purpose or go the DIY route. Apply a mixture of salt and lemon juice or vinegar and salt to remove the oxidation, use a lot of elbow grease to rub the mixture in and then polish with a soft, dry cloth. Keeping your pieces in good condition will ensure years of enjoyment.