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A sterling silver footed bowl by Erik Magnussen for Gorham achieved $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium, well above its $3,000-$5,000 estimate, in December 2023. Image courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Spurned when new, Erik Magnussen’s silver designs have found an enthusiastic audience

NEW YORK – Danish American silversmith Erik Magnussen (1884-1961) dreamed up stunning, innovative silver designs in the late 1920s, but he might have been a little too far ahead of his time.
This Art Deco-era footed silver dish for Gorham by Erik Magnussen, having toucan-form handles, made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.
This Art Deco-era footed silver dish for Gorham by Erik Magnussen, having toucan-form handles, made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Shortly after emigrating to the United States and setting up shop in New York City, he was hired by Gorham in Providence, Rhode Island in 1925 to refresh and rejuvenate its silver production line. Magnussen was with the firm only until 1929, but his work was breathtaking.

“Magnussen transitioned from his earlier Skønvirke, or Arts & Crafts, style when he was in America and hired by Gorham to be its chief designer, to lead the way in modernizing the company’s silver designs. This shift led to many avant-garde designs that were not always easy to sell to consumers at the time they were produced, but these objects are extremely sought-after today,” said John P. Walcher, senior specialist for decorative arts at Toomey & Co. in Chicago. “Holloware, including coffee services, candlesticks, bowls, and other serving articles are the most desired now. The lines are clean and in keeping with the Art Deco period, but advanced and modern, almost as if they were produced post-war. Magnussen was certainly looking to the future with his creations.”

An Erik Magnussen Art Deco sterling silver bowl earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.
An Erik Magnussen Art Deco sterling silver bowl earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.

His output for Gorham was a mix of conservative Georg Jensen-eque designs that satisfied the firm’s commercial aims, along with more experimental designs done in small editions or as unique works for exhibition, said David Halpern, the in-house 20th century specialist at Millea Bros. in Boonton, New Jersey and its director of select auctions. “Like a lot of European designers who came to America, Magnussen tried to find an American Modern vernacular that ultimately was a bit of pastiche – freely mixing Cubist forms with Native American motifs, industrial design shapes, adding precious stones and Bakelite – all with a lot of technical skill and difficult handwork, to create something recognizable as Art Deco but distinct from designs coming out of Europe. These rare pieces are what collectors prize. They can sell well into the six figures.”

Magnussen was not prolific – fewer than 150 items of his have sold on LiveAuctioneers to date – so demand for his work has remained relatively consistent across time, especially for pieces created during his tenure at Gorham. In general, the auction market is strong for Magnussen silver but has cooled slightly following a surge in the Covid-19 years, which prompted many of those cloistering in lockdown to entertain themselves by bidding online, Halpern said. “Artists like Erik Magnussen are somewhat immune from the swings in that good pieces rarely come to market, so when they do, they tend to be strong,” he said. “The highest prices occurred about 10 years ago, but that probably reflects the strength and rarity of a few pieces that came to market then. My hunch is that similar rarities would do just fine in today’s market.”

Details of a sterling silver footed bowl with an intricate base by Erik Magnussen for Gorham, which trounced its $3,000-$5,000 estimate and achieved $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.
Details of a sterling silver footed bowl with an intricate base by Erik Magnussen for Gorham, which trounced its $3,000-$5,000 estimate and achieved $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of Schwenke Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Magnussen’s large modernist holloware is especially prized. The highest price on the LiveAuctioneers platform for Magnussen is a sterling silver footed bowl he made while at Gorham, which attained $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium, well above its $3,000-$5,000 estimate, in December 2023 at Schwenke Auctioneers.

Magnussen often incorporated animals into his pieces, including birds, fish, deer, giraffes, camels, and various insects. A jaw-dropping footed silver dish he designed for Gorham had handles in the forms of toucans. It made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers. “The animals he used are often seen as either a finial or as equidistant supports, as the toucans are on the dish we sold,” Walcher said, praising the execution of the dish as “wonderful.” “The toucans are playful, yet refined in design, using their bills to reach back over the bowl, as if to see if there is something for them inside.”

Detail of one of the toucan-form handles on an Art Deco-era footed silver dish for Gorham by Erik Magnussen, which made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.
Detail of one of the toucan-form handles on an Art Deco-era footed silver dish for Gorham by Erik Magnussen, which made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

As a newcomer to New York when skyscrapers began dotting the city’s skyline, Magnussen was inspired by its architecture, as seen in his famed Cubic coffee service, which is in the collection of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Providence. While not as radical, a pair of sterling candlesticks he created in the late 1920s for Gorham also was inspired by skyscrapers. Bringing $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018 at Regency Auction House, the pair has round stepped bases below lofty columns with goblet-form capitals. The candlesticks are made more alluring thanks to the dramatically incised lines Magnussen added that run both vertically and horizontally.

A pair of Erik Magnussen sterling candlesticks for Gorham brought $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Regency Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.
A pair of Erik Magnussen sterling candlesticks for Gorham brought $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018. Image courtesy of Regency Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

A bowl for Gorham, this one lidded, which claimed $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at Millea Bros. Ltd., ranks among Magnussen’s creations that demand sustained attention. “This is a nice piece that at first glance seems indebted to Jensen, but on closer scrutiny really fits into his more experimental work,” Halpern said. “The berry and leaf decoration is modern and reductionist, built out of ball-bearings on a simple scrolling band. The saucer shape and incising are elegant, but clearly fit into an industrial design vernacular.”

This Erik Magnussen for Gorham sterling silver centerpiece bowl with repousse borders and vertical lines took $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.
This Erik Magnussen for Gorham sterling silver centerpiece bowl with repousse borders and vertical lines took $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2023. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.

A bowl for Gorham, this one lidded, which claimed $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018 at Millea Bros Ltd., ranks among Magnussen’s creations that demand sustained attention. “This is a nice piece that at first glance seems indebted to Jensen, but on closer scrutiny really fits into his more experimental work,” Halpern said. “The berry and leaf decoration is modern and reductionist, built out of ball-bearings on a simple scrolling band. The saucer shape and incising are elegant, but clearly fit into an industrial design vernacular.”

A lidded bowl by Erik Magnussen for Gorham took $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018. Image courtesy of Millea Bros Ltd and LiveAuctioneers.
A lidded bowl by Erik Magnussen for Gorham took $2,250 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2018. Image courtesy of Millea Bros Ltd and LiveAuctioneers.

Bowls tend to comprise the majority of Magnussen’s commercial wares, although he also designed thermal carafes, dishes, coffee and tea services, and pitchers. A hand-hammered sterling silver bowl of his is notable for its overall plain surface that contrasts with the applied scroll-form supports holding jade balls. It earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Auctions at Showplace.

Details of an Erik Magnussen Art Deco sterling silver bowl that earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.
Details of an Erik Magnussen Art Deco sterling silver bowl that earned $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021. Image courtesy of Auctions at Showplace and LiveAuctioneers.

Checking off all the boxes for the ideal design of a vase is a lustrous sterling silver example standing 10in tall. Its fine sheen is accented by the lack of decoration, save two horizontal lines near the rim and a pattern of vertical lines at the base. Quintessentially Art Deco, this Magnussen vase realized $2,700 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.

A sterling silver vase by Erik Magnussen for Gorham realized $2,700 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.
A sterling silver vase by Erik Magnussen for Gorham realized $2,700 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2018. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Despite Magnussen’s imaginative and meticulous work, Gorham found it difficult to convince buyers to purchase his most avant-garde pieces. After parting ways with the Rhode Island company, he launched his own firm in Chicago and then Los Angeles before returning to Denmark in 1939. But time has been kind to his American silver designs. What was once far too daring and unconventional for the tastes of standard silver customers now delights contemporary collectors who see the beauty in his wild and wonderful approach.