DR. CHARLES VENABLE’S MUSEUM-WORTHY SILVER COLLECTION IS ‘PURE GOLD’
By Rhonda Reinhart
Dr. Charles Venable always knew silver was special. The way his grandmother would bring out certain pieces for holidays and other occasions then swiftly stash them away again made that fact crystal clear. But it wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when the future author and museum curator was in graduate school at the University of Delaware’s Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, that he started to appreciate the artistry of American silversmithing, especially that of the late 19th and early 20th century.
“It would literally take weeks and weeks and weeks to create a tureen,” says Venable, author of the award-winning Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor. “You would have one person make the bottom and top pieces, and then another person would do all the casting to give it handles and feet, and another person would do all the engraving and chasing, with another person polishing it up in the end. It was a community of very talented craftspeople doing very specialized jobs who came together to create something really spectacular.”
From there, what was initially a mere interest for Venable became a profession, which became a passion, which became a personal collection of American-made silver befitting a museum exhibition — beautiful and rare examples of the sterling water pitchers, covered dishes, flatware and other prized pieces that brought grace and grandeur to generations of anniversaries, holiday dinners and other bygone family gatherings.
Soon, silver lovers the world over will have a chance to own a portion of Venable’s venerable collection as 100 pieces from his treasured assemblage go up for sale in Heritage Auctions’ Fine Silver & Objects of Vertu Signature® Auction on Nov. 16.
Though the items in the diverse sale range from trays, tureens and tea sets to sauce boats, butter pats and even a whiskey flask and toast rack, they all have one thing in common: Each is an extraordinary example of an otherwise ordinary object.
The reason Venable’s collection contains only the finest pieces is because he considered each acquisition from a curator’s point of view. “I have collected very much like a curator would for a museum because that’s how I was trained,” says Venable, who has held positions at the Dallas Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., and, most recently, Newfields in Indianapolis, Ind. “So I’m always looking for the thing that is rare and special in some way. It has to be good enough to hold up on its own without being part of the glittering stuff you might put on a dining table for the holidays.”
But have no fear. The glittering stuff is there, too. One of the top lots in the auction — and one of Venable’s favorite pieces — is a stunning Tiffany & Co. covered tureen that originally belonged to Marta F. de Batista, the former first lady of Cuba, and was previously exhibited at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Festooned with chased repoussé peonies and foliage decoration, the Chinese-inspired piece is engraved on the bottom with Batista’s name.
Equally dazzling is a rare three-piece Stebbins & Co. tea set from the middle of the 19th century featuring a pot, creamer and sugar bowl created in the form of ancient Greek temples. “We only know of one other set that is very, very close,” Venable says, “and that’s on loan at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.”
Also falling into the glittering category is a large William Gale & Son tray emblazoned with engraved animal images taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth and Animated Nature, as well as architectural scenes such as Conwy Castle in Wales, George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. “The elaborate engraving and international subject matter make it one of the great masterpieces in American silver,” Venable says of the 1851 creation. “From our founding fathers to exotic animals, this huge tray brings all the world together in one place.”
The engraved scenes on the Gale tray, the rarity of the Stebbins set and the provenance of the Tiffany tureen touch on another reason American-made silver from the 19th and 20th century holds such a special place in Venable’s heart: “One of the reasons I loved it was I could learn so much about American history by doing research on the pieces,” he says.
One thing he discovered during his years of research, including his Ph.D. studies at Boston University, was that silver manufacturing in that period was more akin to the workings of General Electric than the image one might have of a single fellow toiling away in a little shop. “The idea that ye olde silversmith made these things lovingly was just a fallacy,” Venable says. “By the second half of the 19th century, America had the largest silver factories in the world, with as many as 2,000 people working in them sometimes.”
Because of that, silverware was prevalent in affluent households throughout the United States, and silverplating made it available to the middle class. “The world was awash in silver objects,” Venable says. “Down to the fact that you could get a cigarette holder or your makeup compact or a little silver stylus to dial a rotary phone.” You could even get sterling silver Gorham Mfg. grape shears or a knife-and-fork set with copper inlay designed specifically to serve slices of melon.
“None of us today would ever even think of chopping up a cantaloupe or a honeydew melon and then having special utensils for it that are made out of sterling silver and gorgeously decorated with Japanese-style decoration,” he says. “It’s bearing witness to a social world full of formal etiquette and storytelling. That really isn’t the kind of world that most of us live in today. We’re so much more casual now.”
Said another way, as Venable writes in Silver in America, a book that, since its 1994 publishing, has had immeasurable impact on the silver-collecting community: “The world that once created and understood such extraordinary objects has indeed vanished forever. Only the artifacts remain as records of that era’s achievements and failures, the bearers of its messages and dreams to the future.”
Though such a high level of formality, for the most part, is a thing of the past, unlike a lot of collectibles, the pieces in Venable’s collection — save for the rotary phone dialer perhaps — are as functional today as they were a century ago. And there’s no denying their aesthetic appeal. “Your butter does look better in a beautiful silver butter dish,” Venable muses.
In fact, it was only retirement and downsizing to condominium life that led the former art curator and museum director to downsize his silver as well. “I just can’t have this much stuff in a 1,450-square-foot condo,” he says. “Even after giving many pieces I dearly love to museums, I have no way to use or display what my husband and I still have. In many ways, though, I’m excited to sell. These special pieces will go to their next home, and their history will continue as people enjoy them.”
RHONDA REINHART is editor of Intelligent Collector.