NEW YORK CITY – A rare piece of Seventeenth Century American silver, consigned by a Quincy, Mass. congregation to fund repairs to their church building, set a record for American silver at auction January 19 when it sold at Sotheby’s New York for $775,750 – over twice its high estimate of $300,000. The silver cup is a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The congregation of the Church of the Presidents in Quincy, Mass., an active assembly that dates to 1639, faced a difficult decision: their historic building, a house of worship for over 170 years and the resting place of two American Presidents, was in immanent structural danger. Meanwhile, safe in a bank vault lay heirloom silver pieces, some dating back to the Seventeenth Century, that had become so valuable the church could neither afford to use them regularly in their services nor to insure them. The congregation took a vote, and the decision was unanimous: allow the silver to find new guardians and use the proceeds to fund the future of the congregation and its landmark building.
The 11 lots of historically significant silver pieces sold for nearly three times the presale estimate of $1.3 million, bringing $3,027,875. The church silver is among the most highly prized American silver to appear in many years. In the collection were two silver wine cups by Hull and Sanderson, the earliest New England makers, made circa 1660. The Richard and Alice Breckett cup (est $200/300,000) set a new world record for a piece of American silver at auction, as competitive bidding in the room and on the telephones brought the selling price to a record-setting $775,750.
The William Needham cup (est $200/300,000) more than doubled its high estimate to bring $610,750. Only pieces of Hull and Sanderson silver are known to exist. They were joined by a two-handled cup known as the Joanna Yorke cup, made by Sanderson in partnership with his son, dated around 1685 and valued at $250/300,000. Very active bidding brought the cup to its selling price of $665,750.
The collection included pieces by colonial master silversmiths Jeremiah Dummer, Thomas Savage, John Edwards, Jacob Hurd, Daniel Henehamna, and Samuel Minott with William Simpkins.
While the earliest American colonial silver is highly valued by both scholars and collectors, exemplary pieces rarely appear at auction. Early American silver was made in small quantities and has scarcely survived. They are best preserved in the churches to which they were given. These pieces were often of a secular nature and used first in the home and were later given to the church, often as bequests. Custodianship by a church usually insured that the silver was treated with respect and has stayed in far better condition than that in domestic use.
The Church of the Presidents has carefully guarded their silver ceremonial vessels for centuries, well aware that they were preserving an important part of the nation’s history. Preservation and historic stewardship are an integral part of the church’s mission, along with an abiding dedication to serving the Quincy community through social justice programs. Reverend Sheldon Bennett, church Pastor since 1986, stated, “We view this sale as an opportunity to transform a static asset into a living resource. It will enable us to preserve this great building as a national treasure and to further our mission for social advocacy and community service.”
In addition, on January 18, two days before the inauguration of the nation’s 43rd president, an elephant-form inkwell from the collection of Ulysses S. Grant – which may have inspired the Republican Party symbol – sold for $26,050 at Sotheby’s.
The inkwell was included in a sale of rdf_Descriptions from the collection of Ulysses S. Grant, which had descended in his family to his great-grandson Ulysses S. Grant V. The rdf_Descriptions had been preserved in the Grant family for the last 115 years and have not been seen publicly since an exhibition in San Francisco in the 1890s. The inkwell was purchased by Seth Kaller of Kaller’s America Gallery, Inc., in New York.
The inkwell stood on President Grant’s desk in the White House, where it frequently entertained the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who had been devoted to Grant since the Civil War. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he credited his victory to two factors: “The sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast.” An elephant was first used as a symbol of the Republican party in a Nast cartoon in the November 7, 1874 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon appeared before the midterm elections during Grant’s second term, when fears that he would seek election a third time raised the cry of “Caesarism” from the Democratic press.
A full review of these auctions will appear in an upcoming issue of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.