Stirring A Passion (Part one)
An Investigation into the collectors' Market for
Antique Silver Spoons, 1500-1800.

By Robert Nevin M.A.

(This is Robert's thesis for his M.A. in Fine Art Valuation, which he passed in December 2003 - Ed.)

This thesis examines both the collecting of and the auction market for antique silver spoons that date from 1500-1800. It is based on ten months of research into a single niche area within the field of antique silver. The main aim of the project (and most specifically the first chapter) is to convince the reader that the (at first) seemingly mundane spoon is in fact an important and interesting document of both our social and historical past. Once this concept has been grasped, one can then appreciate why the spoon has been collected with such enthusiasm and application over the past century.

Evidence of these latter traits is especially apparent in the second chapter of the study, when the reader can learn how these dedicated collectors of silver spoons liase with one another and larger organisations (such as auction houses), in order to build up and fill in the gaps in their collections. Above anything, the fastidious nature of the spoon collector should be communicated to the reader during this chapter, as I use examples (from the bi-monthly journal of the 'Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain') of articles written and problems aired between collectors to illustrate how meticulously they go about the process of collecting.

With the collector forming the bedrock of the dissertation, I felt it important to have a change of direction in the final chapter and concentrate on the market for the silver spoon. More specifically this chapter identifies a number of factors that have both checked and boosted the market value of the spoon over the past century, whilst also giving the reader an informative picture of how the market started and thus how it continues to function today.

Although this thesis focuses on an object which is regarded by experts and connoisseurs as residing in a specialised area of antique silver. The truth of the matter is anyone likely to be reading this, uses the common spoon everyday and has probably seen or used a spoon, which happens to be made of silver at some point. Thus this project is by no means intended solely for a specialist audience, I urge you to read on.

When undertaking the initial research for my thesis, I was concentrating on the sizeable area that is the market for collectable silver or small-work (as it is sometimes termed). I was trying to confirm the whispers in the general antiques press, that it is the smaller silver items (such as snuff boxes, card cases and early spoons) that have become more desirable to the market, rather than the larger more functional hollow-ware (for example rose-bowls, tea services and ewers). Once this aim had been completed, I would then have been able to identify whether or not two separate (yet similar) markets had emerged, one being driven by the collectors and the other by the antiques trade.

However it soon became clear to me that the market for collectable silver spanned too many different types of object to try and focus on, and that consequently I would have to focus on one area of this large field, subsequently I chose silver spoons. It would be hard to pinpoint exactly why I opted for spoons; at my point of decision, they had been receiving a lot of attention in the antiques press. Consequently I attended a sale of 'Silver, Collectors' Items and Early Spoons' at auctioneers Woolley and Wallis on January 29th 2003, from that point on my interest was sparked. Since then I have begun to retail them both at antique fairs and in a shop. Thus such a detailed study into these objects should only serve to heighten my knowledge of the market within which I am operating.

Rather than have one argument that runs prevalently through the thesis, I have a number of opinions and ideas that overlap throughout the study. For example, the fact that the present market for early spoons is healthy is because it is being driven by the wealthy collector, rather than by the silver trade.

I feel that my research is of significance because it explores areas that have until now only been cautiously skirted around[1]. For example no one has yet investigated (in any depth) the repercussions that the reproduction or faking of a number of early spoons had on the market[2]. Similarly I hope this study compensates for the lack of work that has thus far been carried out on the collecting side of the subject[3] of silver spoons. In that rather than offering a descriptive appraisal of the spoons that are deemed collectable, I am always asking the question; why do collectors want these objects? I also think the thesis tackles the market side of the subject from a different angle; it does not merely regurgitate standard prices achieved for certain objects, instead it suggests factors that are themselves inextricably linked with the market both past and present (such as the introduction of specialist sales), and tries to establish how they have affected it. Thus with the help of primary evidence, mainly in the form of interviews, I feel this thesis should go some of the way to filling in these gaps. Which is essential if one is to understand what drives and creates fluctuations in the market for these objects (which is what I will discuss in the final chapter of the study).

Consequently in the first chapter I try and pinpoint the various attractions of the spoon to the collector, thus establishing exactly why people are collecting these objects. Subsequently I identify two very different groups of spoon collectors, those who collect according to the aesthetic attributes of the object, and more prominently those who acquire spoons because of their historical significance.

The collector is once again at the hub of the second chapter, however this section of the thesis is presented in a more factual style (as opposed to the first chapter which adopts a more theoretical approach). One of the main objectives of this chapter is to prove the point that the market for silver spoons is driven very much by the collector rather than by the antique silver trade. Once this observation has been proven I will focus on 'The Finial', highlighting the important function it plays in the activities of the spoon collector, and subsequently pointing out the close ties between the auction house and the collector, and the importance of this, in terms of the continued buoyancy of the market.

The final chapter concentrates on the market, rather than simply reporting on its current good health and stability, which is already frequently being done in the antiques press. I thought it more interesting to pick out three factors that have influenced the market in a significant way (either advantageously or disadvantageously) over the past century. Thus giving the reader a picture of how and at what rate the market has progressed (with the advent of specialist sales and literature being written on the subject) into the way we find it today.

Literature Review
The secondary literature on antique and collectable silverware tends to fall into three broad categories. Object based research; these include stylistic histories and are aimed at enthusiasts, they concentrate predominantly on the wares themselves, for example Eric Delieb's 'Silver Boxes,'2002, or Ian Pickford's 'Silver Flatware, English, Irish and Scottish, 1660-1980',1983, whilst simultaneously giving a historical contextualisation of the objects, usually by means of a chronological survey. World silver research; aimed at the silver historian, or those merely with a growing interest, these are usually glossily illustrated books that guide the reader from era to era and craftsmen to craftsman, they include Charles Truman's 'Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Silver', 1993, and Claude Blair's 'The History of Silver', 1987. The last category of publications concerns either the investing in, or collecting of silver. Books like Stephen Helliwell's 'Collecting Small Silverware',1988, and Eric Delieb's seminal 'Investing in Silver',1967, are split up into different categories of desirable objects, and regularly give advice to the novice or experienced collector, as well as quoting price trends, thresholds and guides to the reader.

With chapter headings in mind and for the benefit of this literature review, I will split the secondary sources and articles into three distinct categories. The first of these being literature that concerns the social history of both collectable and the larger hollow silverwares. I will focus exclusively on the publications that helped shape my argument. For example Ann Eatwell's article in the 'Silver Society Journal', 2000, entitled 'Capital Lying Dead'. This article takes a socio-historic approach focusing on social attitudes towards silver in the nineteenth century. The author states how table silver or hollowware remained a symbol of status for the middle classes for the majority of the nineteenth century, before it began to loose ground to the cheaper alternatives in the form of ceramics and glass.

Most significantly Eatwell uses the primary source of the 'Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company Catalogue' to illustrate the shift of favour, from the larger hollowware, to the smaller more medicinal items such as spoons. She cites 1896 as being the turning point, when thirty pages of the catalogue were devoted to small silverware. Articles in the 'Silver Society Journal' tend to focus on the smaller more 'niche' areas of the silver object, they also tend to be almost exclusively object based. Thus it was a benefit to find an article that focused on putting different types of object into a broader historical context. The article is an aid to both the first and the last chapters of my thesis, firstly as it gives me an idea of why small silverware (in this case spoons) became attractive to the public both as collectable and as functional items. Secondly because it indicates to me the vague beginnings of a market for these collectable items.

The second text I will cite that was helpful both from a historical and from an object-based perspective is Timothy Kent's 'West Country Silver Spoons And Their Makers, 1550-1750', 1992. This was a key text for the thesis as it focuses on 'early' spoons, the latter being the types of spoon that I concentrate on for the majority of the study. Consequently Kent's book was useful to me when I needed to obtain detailed object-based information about these specialist items, for example; how these spoons were marked when being given as wedding or baptismal presents, or when exactly a certain type of spoon (for example a Diamond-point) came into production.

It was also useful to me from a socio-historic point of view, as the book discloses detailed biographies of the many silversmiths involved in the manufacture of these objects. From these one can understand the social climate within which they were working, for example who their patrons were and what their position was in local society. Also because Kent strives to imbue these objects with history, presenting them as markers of time. This approach indicates to me that a large majority of spoon collectors are driven to collect because of the obvious link between the object and the society that spawned it. This concept is consequently one of the main arguments in the first chapter of the thesis. In turn Kent's book would satisfy "not only the silver historian and enthusiast but also the local historian, concerned with the fabric of society"[4].

In a similar vein to Kent's socio-historic approach, Susan M. Pearce's article 'Objects as meaning; or narrating the past'[5], offers a detailed insight into the content of meaning that historical associations give to objects. Although she is not referring to spoons as her object in question, but rather the jacket or 'coatee' of a war time Lieutenant at Waterloo. The common theme of the object being imbued with a definite sense of circumstantial historical fact, in the form of time, place and action, is a concept that often heightens the collectors' interest in a spoon.

The second section of literature I will analyse, is publications which deal specifically with the collector of the silver object. Eric Delieb's work 'Investing in Silver', 1967 is a book that straddles the object-based approach with some market analysis. It was the first work to appear on the market that concentrated predominantly on the smaller more collectable objects rather than the larger hollowares. Each chapter is split up according to object type, at the start of each one Delieb offers opinions to why a certain genre of object has either appreciated or depreciated in value over a period of time. For example he observes that 'spoons have quadrupled in value over the past decade'[6], in comparison to other items of silver that he examines in his book.

This is of as special relevance to the market chapter of the thesis, in which I cite Delieb's book as acting as part of the catalyst for soaring prices in the market between 1960-1975. Delieb also offers a selection of dealer's retail prices for certain objects. The latter is especially useful to me, as he does not do this exclusively for the top end objects, but for wares on each strata of the market for which a substantial part of my thesis will focus. In terms of secondary literature, out of all the sources read, 'Investing in Silver' is probably the most market based (this is not surprising as the author was a dealer himself), thus it is of special importance to me, in light of the dearth of secondary material available on the market. The one downside to Delieb's book is that it was published in 1967, despite this it acts as an invaluable comparative source between today's market and the market then

In contrast to this Peter Waldron's 'The Price Guide to Antique Silver', is purely a price guide that is intended to be a working manual to assist the collector in his purchases. The first edition of this publication was written in 1969, since then it has been constantly revised in 1982, 1985, 1992, 1997 and most recently in 2001. Without doubt then it is the most recent guide to the silver market. Similarly to Delieb's 'Investing in Silver' the book is split into sections of different types of functional and medicinal silverwares. With each genre of object receiving a separate appraisal as the author methodically comments on its' hallmarks, condition and price. This publication is a price guide in the purest sense, by this I mean that although it quotes general prices, it offers little explanation for the figures that it quotes. Indeed it is these latter two sources from which my thesis aims to fill the gaps. I can use these collectors guides as a basis to suggest why, and to what extent the market for spoons is replacing the market for the more traditional hollow-ware. Except for the revision of Waldron's 'Price Guide' there is a significant gap in this area as Delieb's 'Investing In Silver' and Helliwell's 'Collecting Small Silverware' (published in 1967 and 1988 respectively) illustrate.

The third area of literature I will discuss is publications, articles and journals on the collectors of these smaller silver items. This area of literature is especially important as it provides the reader with some of the reasons why collectors purchase these objects. Consequently such factors add substance to one of the main arguments of the thesis; that there is a division between spoon collectors, in that some collect as a result of the objects historical significance, where as others collect as a result of the object's aesthetic appearance. John Booth in his book 'The Art of Faberge',2001, focuses on the many qualities of the object, offering some pointers to the desirability of the intrinsically valuable Faberge box. Claiming that it is the diversity of materials used in their construction, coupled with the fact that the pieces were so well constructed, that the hinges of each box were invisible, whilst the case would close perfectly at the touch of the catch (which was usually a single cabochon sapphire!).

It is however John Traina's book 'The Faberge Case, From the Private Collection of John Traina', 1998, which gave me the biggest insight into the mind of the collector. The fact alone that the author is writing first hand about his own collection makes this book an invaluable source. Although written with an air of self- reverence, once one accepts this, the book makes for a fascinating read. Traina cites the huge variety of shapes and sizes of the boxes, as well as the historical interest that they imbue as factors for collecting them. He also points out that the researching of each object is as important to him as the collecting itself, this latter point is certainly the case with spoon collectors and is a concept that I focus on in the second chapter of the thesis.

In a similar vein to the latter book, an article that appeared in 'The Times' on May 18th 2002, entitled 'Spooning with a Passion' by Clare Stewart, gives factors that attract (in this case) silver spoon collectors to certain early spoons. The article is of considerable use to me, firstly because it is relatively current, but also because the writer interviews both Alexis Butcher (head of the silver department at Wiltshire auctioneers Woolley and Wallis) and Henry Willis (a silver dealer of national repute, who specialises in early spoons). Both these figures are thus practising within the industry at present; consequently they provide a contemporary view of the different characteristics collectors are currently seeking when they are acquiring their spoons.

The last source I will highlight on collecting is aimed specifically at collectors of silver spoons. Entitled 'The Finial' it is the bi-monthly magazine of the 'Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain'. As this publication is examined in detail in chapter two, I will highlight its uses to me briefly. Firstly it gave me an idea of how closely spoon collectors liaise with one another, working off each other to solve problems of attribution and identification, when they have a query over an object. It also illustrated to me the area that the collectors were most interested in; which was the identification of hallmarks, as-well as how seriously they approach their subject, which is especially prevalent in the detailed and academic nature of the articles they write. Finally 'The Finial' illustrated to me how closely the auction houses and the publication itself work together. In terms of the exposure the auctioneers receive through the publication, and consequently how this is returned; through the high number of condition reports and commission bids the auctioneers receive on behalf of the readers of 'The Finial'.

(Part two in the next edition of The Finial - Ed.)

1. This point is explored in full in the Literature Review.
2. This concept (commonly known as the Ashley-Russel affair) is investigated in the third chapter of the thesis.
3. As I highlight in the Literature Review, the majority of research that has been carried out on spoons is largely object-based.
4. Glanville, Philippa, in Kent, Timothy, West Country Silver Spoons And Their Makers, 1550-1750, (J.H. Bourdon-Smith Ltd, 1992).
5. This article can be found in 'Interpreting Objects and Collections', (London, 1994).
6. Delieb, Eric, Investing in Silver, pp.34, (Barrie and Rockliffe, 1967).


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The Finial, March/April 2004

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