Cowan’s Corner: 19th-Century Silver

New York City silver manufacturer Wood & Hughes crafted this coin silver game tureen in the mid-1800s. It sold for $10,000 at Cowan's Auctions in October 2007. Image courtesy Cowan's Auctions Inc.

New York City silver manufacturer Wood & Hughes crafted this coin silver game tureen in the mid-1800s. It sold for $10,000 at Cowan’s Auctions in October 2007. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc.

An area of the antique collectors’ market that has enjoyed a quiet surge of interest is silver. Though today’s June bride avoids sterling, this romantic precious metal is an investment, especially silver from particular manufacturers and of a particular style period.

Serious collectors have long scoured the market for hollowware, such as teapots, bowls, pitchers and trays. Consequently, new collectors may wish to start with flatware, keeping an eye out for great serving pieces.

The most collectible style in silver at the moment comes from the Aesthetic Movement, the 19th-century period between 1870 and 1890 that was characterized by a reaction against the excesses of revival styles – the Rococo, the Renaissance, Gothic and Classical revivals. The period was marked by an attempt to return to purer values and artistic tastes – tastes to be enjoyed by the masses, not just the well to do.

The Aesthetic Movement was heartily influenced by its predecessor, the Arts & Crafts Movement, and by many things Japanese. It was aided by manufacturing innovations that helped make more goods accessible to more people. Publications and magazines of the period focused their attention on lifestyle changes and a trend toward the development of more pleasing surroundings. Influenced by new and creative ways of advertising, the public was stimulated do more with less in furnishing their homes, and to choose objects of beauty and good taste.  

Silver firms producing the finest collectible works in the Aesthetic Movement style were Tiffany & Co., Dominic & Haff, Gorham Manufacturing and Whiting Manufacturing Co. Designers at these firms embraced Japanese asymmetry and geometric borders, as well as the Japanese technology of applying decoration and combining metals in their creations.

Drawing on the simplicity of the Arts & Crafts Movement, silver designers adapted melon shapes, hand-hammered surfaces and the appearance of visible construction. The Japanese influence fascinated the design world with a use of natural motifs not previously employed – bugs, for instance.

A Dominick & Haff tea service is an outstanding example of applied natural motifs of insects, birds and aquatic life, burnished in copper and gold on hand-hammered surfaces. Consumers were charmed by its freshness and elegant simplicity. It was a nod to yearnings for both the handcrafted, and the newness of naturalistic design.

A Whiting Manufacturing Co. tea service has a basket-weave surface with the appearance of a stitched-on spout on the creamer and wire-wrapped handles. Accenting the piece are shoots of bamboo and leafy peonies in silver, applied on the ‘basket,’ with copper-highlighted leaves. Mixing the metals – the copper with silver – creates the dual feeling of warm richness and contrast. The service was arguably less formal; the implication being that life was less socially rigid.

Flatware and serving pieces of the Aesthetic Movement share many of the features shown here. Most are equally engaging and less pricey than larger hollowware forms. If you choose to collect this silver, it’s best to develop a sound understanding of the movement and to learn what the objects of this short-lived, but fabulous movement were all about. Then, go shopping.

Solid sources for silver research:

  • In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Lambourne.
  • The House Beautiful by Clarence Cook.
  • The Aesthetic Movement Prelude to Art Nouveau by Elizabeth Aslin.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An expert on historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. Wes holds a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Kentucky, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan. He is a frequently requested speaker at antiques events around the country.