Published: June 22, 2021
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy South Bay Auctions
EAST MORICHES, N.Y. – The silver collection of Charles C. Williams (1925-1996) was offered at South Bay Auctions in 240 lots on June 12, producing a total figure of more than $700,000. The auction house coordinated the sale of the collection with dealer Mark Gaines.
Represented inside this sterling offering were 240 lots of rare and early American, English and Irish silver.
In the foreword to the catalog, silver scholar and author Catherine B. Hollan recounted Charles and “Demmy” Williams’ journey as silver collectors, labeling it “Charles’ great enthusiasm.” The couple lived in Washington DC and frequented auctions near them, including Weschler’s and Sloans, as well as traveling up the East Coast to silver dealerships in New York and Boston.
Williams was active with collectors in the hobby, stewarding a column in Silver Magazine and lending his knowledge when called upon. He served as president of the American Silver Guild from 1985 to 1995, when his health began deteriorating. Many silver collectors had heard of Williams’ collection, his library designed by architect Bryden Hyde with cathedral ceilings, large bookshelves of silver reference books and a spacious safe to hold his horde. “He still had silver stashed everywhere, for instance, stacks of teawares in a breakfront in the dining room hidden behind thick green curtains,” Hollan wrote.
Williams collected until his very end, some lines of provenance referencing purchases in the same year as his death. Hollan noted, “When he died, Demmy closed over the door on the library and left the silver where Charles had placed it… Charles had always said that apart from a few gifts to museums, he wanted to throw his silver back into the marketplace for all to have a chance at it again, and that is what is now happening.”
Auctioneer Jean-Paul Napoli estimated that Williams had more than 2,000 pieces of silver in his collection at the time of his death. “The most special were in this group,” Napoli said of the sale’s offerings, “These were unique pieces that had tremendous potential.”
The auction was a long time coming. Napoli photographed the collection in February of 2020 in preparation for a May sale that year. The pandemic delayed the auction, but that only served to build a palpable momentum among collectors.
“People were chomping at the bit,” Napoli said, “Some had reserved seats originally for the May, 2020 sale.”
Although he never published his research, many of the lots came with files that Williams had compiled. Receipts, similar examples in exhibitions or museum collections, and literature references were noted and supplied to buyers as if Williams’ passion for silver was resurrected itself.
Hollan wrote, “[Collector] Richard Tousey once stated that Charles Williams was the greatest connoisseur and collector since Hammerslough, and other friends have privately commented that we will never see the likes of such a silver collection again.”
With a fine selection of Southern silver, the firm traveled down Interstate 95 and held a preview at the Engineers Club in Baltimore. Collectors flew in for that, while others waited to preview in East Moriches. Napoli noted that he had numerous representatives bidding on behalf of buyers, in addition to an enormous amount of phone bids. Only 45 percent of lots sold to the internet, a significantly lower share than usual for South Bay.
Napoli noted that Williams was among the preeminent collectors to take note and amass works from Kentucky makers.
“Clearly, Kentucky was the leader,” Napoli said. “We had a lot of Kentucky silver collectors – private collectors and dealers – and we knocked it out of the park.”
Williams held an impressive collection of works by Lexington, Kentucky’s successful silversmith, Asa Blanchard (circa 1770 or 1787-1838), who is also known to have signed his works as Asa Blansett. Though it is unknown who Blanchard apprenticed and trained with, he wrote in a period newspaper advertisement that he “worked in the best shops in Philadelphia and New York to make himself master of his business.” Blanchard’s quintessential Southern silver form, the julep cup, in a group of six, would take the sale’s top lot at $44,400. The cups had a matching monogram of “H” on all six and had provenance to Boston dealership Gebelein Silversmiths. Blanchard is represented in numerous collections, including the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. Not far behind at $30,000 was a teapot by Blanchard, circa 1795. It featured a fine acorn finial above a gallery top and was exhibited twice, the first in 1968 at the Texas Museum of Fine Arts – Houston in “Southern Silver: An Exhibition of Silver Made in the South Prior to 1860,” and again in the 1983 show “Silver in Maryland” at the Maryland Historical Society. The work had early provenance to Dr Fouchet of the early Virginia family, before it passed into the collection of May and Howard Joynt, whose collection was sold at Christie’s in 1990. Blanchard was further represented by a coin silver cann, circa 1800-10, which sold for $23,400. The cann, with a flat-sided handle, seamed body and applied molded lip and base, featured the monogram “WMG.” The firm said it was among the finest and largest Blanchard canns known.
Also from Lexington, Ky., was Thomas Gray, whose top lot made $21,000 with a mug in a tapered barrel form. In the Hiatts’ 1954 title, The Silversmiths of Kentucky, the authors place Gray working between 1818 and 1820, at which point his store on West Main Street burned down. Not far away in Paris, Ky., was silversmith Alexander Frazer, who was born and raised in Ireland. He is first documented working in Philadelphia between 1795 and 1798, Paris between 1799 and 1801 and finally Lexington from 1801 to 1810. A coin silver punch ladle, 15¼ inches long, sold for $15,600.
Baltimore silver was represented at the top by Samuel Kirk with an askos, or ewer, circa 1835-40. Kirk made the work in a heavy gauge, modeled after the Greek vessel with elaborate chasing, floral repousse and decorated scroll handle. In Classical Maryland, 1815-1845: Fine and Decorative Arts from the Golden Age, authors Gregory Weidman and Jennifer Goldsborough wrote, “This is the most purely classical design made in Maryland silver and is exceedingly rare in American metalwork.” A high-relief angel emerges from the stippled ground of the handle terminus and goats were placed at the work’s mouth, in reference to the goatskins that Greek askos were typically made of.
“The askos had the most activity around it,” Napoli said. “Everyone was talking about how unusual it was. It was a large version, it definitely took off.”
From Baltimore silversmith William Ball came a silver tea caddy, which sold at $21,000. The caddy featured fine engraving with a domed lid surmounted by a bone finial.
Moving up the coast were makers from Philadelphia, Delaware, New York, Boston and Newport. Philadelphia was represented by Peter David, who supplied a silver tankard, circa 1750. The work notably featured a cast cherub terminal to the end of the S-curved handle. It featured the monogram “MWM,” which the firm attributed to William and Mary Murdoch, who arrived in Philadelphia from Ireland in 1735. The auction house wrote, “The convex base band design here is a stylistic match to Peter Quintard’s tankard in the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at Yale University. Peter Quintard was Peter David’s master.” Philadelphia maker John David made a coin silver drum teapot with elaborate cast pineapple finial, circa 1785, that sold for $5,040. From the same city was John Richardson Sr, whose large porringer, circa 1740-50, would sell for $4,920. An identical example or mate to this was in the collection of Maurice Birx, sold at Parke-Bernet in 1955.
Delaware makers included General James Wolf and Piner Mansfield. Wolf’s circa 1815 hand hammered small bowl would take $7,200, while Mansfield’s reverse arm sugar tongs, circa 1810, brought $6,500. The tongs were characterized by a bow with simple wrigglework border, flat horizontal-plane arms decorated with trailing wrigglework and oval nips.
It was Otto Paul de Parisen who led the New York City smiths. His silver teapot with pinecone finial, the body engraved with meandering vines, would sell for $8,160. It held the honor of being the earliest American teapot in the Williams collection. A basting spoon, 14¼ inches long, by Myer Myers was made circa 1765 and sold for $6,720. Silversmith Peter Van Dyck produced a two-part caster, circa 1750, with a pierced top of interlocking circles that brought $6,480. Williams believed it related to a set produced by Adrian Bancker that was exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in a 1937 exhibition. That line of inquiry, produced by Williams, speaks to the depth of his passion and the reach of his research. An early Nineteenth Century military presentation jug with cover was produced by New York silversmith William Thompson. It read, “Presented by…to John Constantine, Late Colonel, of the 31st Regt. of said Brig., In Testimony of his Military Services, New York, March 19th, 1830.” The jug, with cast cannon atop, sold for $5,500.
Moving up to Boston we found John Edwards, whose circa 1710 porringer sold for $4,920. Winterthur holds an Edwards porringer with an identical handle. A cann produced by William Homes Sr, circa 1775, featured a handle with beehive drop attachment and sold for $3,960. The body was monogrammed “MB” in script above an engraved double crest featuring a lion atop a knight. Other Boston makers included Nathaniel Morse, Jacob Hurd, George Gebeilein, Samuel Bartlett and seven others.
International makers found their place in the standings, with $30,000 paid for Dublin silversmith Robert Calderwood’s Irish Rococo candlestands. Circa 1742-43, the sticks featured all over decoration with high-relief floral and shell motifs. A similar pair was featured in the 1982 exhibition “Irish Silver, From The Seventeenth To The Nineteenth Century” at the Smithsonian, while another similar example resides at The National Museum of Ireland. Engraved to these candlesticks in discrete lettering is “Mae C. Plant 1917,” indicating their provenance to the wife of banker-industrialist John E. Rovensky.
More examples were found from London. A set of four George II candlesticks by London maker Benjamin Sanders sold at $21,000. Circa 1740-41, the sticks were notable for their gradrooning of the base and knops. At $11,760 was a pair of sterling silver chinoiserie tea caddies that the firm attributed to William Elliot of London. In a hexagonal bombe-form, the caddies were made in the manner of Chinese garden seats and decorated with birds in relief, trees and flowers.
“What am I doing with furniture?” Napoli joked at the end of the sale, relating that he could and did fit the entire auction into a single van.
The auction went 100 percent sold as collectors snapped at the chance to own a piece from the well-known collector Charles C Williams.
All prices reported include buyer’s premium. For information, www.southbayauctions.com or 631-878-2909.
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