Published: October 3, 2006
An American Pewter Collection: The Collection of Dr Melvyn & Bette Wolf. Preface by John D. Davis, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Written and self-published by Dr Melvyn and Bette Wolf, 2006; 600 pages, 500 black and white and color illustrations, leather bound. To order, send $95 plus $8 shipping to 1196 Shady Hill Court, Flint MI 48532. For additional information, firstname.lastname@example.org or 810-732-6595.
An American Pewter Collection: The Collection of Dr Melvyn & Bette Wolf is dedicated to the authors’ children — Larry, Martin, Mitchell and Andrea — who “grew up in a house full with pewter and never damaged a piece.”
The affectionate inscription seems appropriate for a book that is both an engaging personal account of one couple’s half-century-long collecting odyssey and a practical guide intended for dealers, scholars and collectors of pewter, a metal alloy used in North America to make everything from baptismal bowls to syrup jugs between the Colonial period and the 1860s.
Collectors since 1965 and dealers since 1974, the Wolfs bought their first pieces of pewter at a local auction two years after Dr Wolf opened his orthopedic surgery practice in Flint, Mich.
“Whether or not we were prepared, we were soon to embark upon a lifelong adventure,” they write. Their initial acquisitions, not as valuable as they had hoped, led them to invest in J.B. Kerfoot’s seminal 1924 study, American Pewter.
After acquiring the 100-piece pewter inventory of a retiring Michigan dealer, the Wolfs set out on their first East Coast buying trip in 1965, armed with Carl Jacobs’ Guide to American Pewter. In Branford, Ontario, they had a bit of beginner’s luck, snapping up four pewter plates described as English.
“Making an excuse that my wallet was in the car, I raced out to look at my Jacobs book. To my glee, two of the plates were signed by David Melville,” Dr Wolf writes of his Eighteenth Century Newport, R.I., discoveries.
“Over the next 40 years that experience has rarely ever happened again,” confess the authors, who did best by buying from reputable dealers. “A true find is a fine-condition piece of pewter at current prices. Good dealers are those who are both knowledgeable and honest. Either quality alone leaves the beginning collector at risk.”
Two events changed the couple’s course. In 1966, they joined the Pewter Collectors Club of America, through which they met other experts, bought from major collections and published extensively. At their first PCAA meeting, the Wolfs were introduced to John Carl Thomas, a leading pewter dealer. Soon afterward, they purchased a Boardman plate from Thomas, their close friend and a key source for the next 32 years.
“John was the most knowledgeable person concerning pewter we have ever met,” write the collectors, who visited Thomas, first at his home in Syracuse, N.Y., and later after he moved to Hanover, Conn. In Connecticut, they also called on Tom and Connie Williams in Litchfield and Carl and Celia Jacobs in Deep River.
That so many great pewter dealers have been from Connecticut is no accident. As Dr Wolf explains, “Fully 50 percent of the antique American pewter found today is from Connecticut. Most of the rest comes from New York, Philadelphia and Albany. Cincinnati was the only significant Midwestern center.”
An American Pewter Collection leaves the history of pewter manufacturing to others. Intended mainly as an identification guide, the book is conveniently organized alphabetically by form and maker. Most of the 655 entries illustrate both the object and, if it is marked, its imprint.
Marks are key. Though some pewter forms have never been marked, a mark can increase an object’s value threefold, says Dr Wolf. It can also determine whether a piece is American or English, crucial in a market that attaches greater value to American pewter.
Entries also list provenance and include brief comments, allowing readers to quickly grasp a piece’s most salient features. A color photo introduces each chapter; other illustrations are in black and white. Entries are indexed by maker at the back of the book, which also contains bibliographies.
The rarest forms in the Wolf collection are baptismal bowls and church cups, castors, creamers, sugar bowls, salts, measures, pitchers and syrup jugs, along with miscellaneous items such as boxes, mirrors, nursing bottles, waste bowls, infusion pots, inkwells, teaspoons and shaving mugs. The most common forms are basins, beakers, dishes, mugs, plates and porringers. Candlesticks, chalices, coffee and teapots, flagons and fluid lamps fall somewhere in between.
The Wolfs’ favorite piece is a graceful urn-shaped Federal coffee pot by William Will of Philadelphia. Beaded and engraved, it is said to have been given by Thomas Jefferson to Margarita Schuyler on her engagement to Stephen Van Rennselaer. The vessel was twice published by pewter authority Charles Montgomery, first in A History of American Pewter and later in Towards Independence, the catalog accompanying Yale’s bicentennial display of American decorative arts.
One of the most costly pieces pictured is a flagon by Johann Heyne of Lancaster, Penn. The Wolfs purchased the late Eighteenth Century vessel with cherub’s head feet at Sotheby’s in 1998 for $145,500.
Though pewter has largely escaped media attention, it has been avidly collected since the 1920s and is well documented. The Pewter Collectors Club of America dates to 1934. Following Kerfoot’s initial study, important publications by Charies A. Caider, Louis G. Myers, Ledlie I. Laughlin, Henry J. Kauffman, Katherine Ebert and John Carl Thomas, along with Jacobs and Montgomery, followed.
“Collecting is addicting,” say the Wolfs, whose collection has grown by ten pieces since An American Pewter Collection went to press. Seven hundred examples of American pewter now spill from the couple’s old pewter cupboard and fill their corner cupboard, mantel and many shelves. Fortunately for the kids, not one piece was ever damaged.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm