Published: June 27, 2017
A major piece of American presentation silver made in about 1900 came into the spotlight earlier this year, thanks to a small auction house in England. On April 15, Semley Auctioneers offered a rare Tiffany & Co. silver, three-handled cup dedicated to friendly Anglo-American diplomatic relations during the opening of the Panama Canal. The auction house called it right. The Hay-Pauncefote Treaty Cup, consigned to the auction house as the property of a lady of title, easily outperformed its $25/37,000 estimate to bring $91,000, including premium.
The sale delighted both Semley and the cup’s American purchaser, Tiffany & Co. Although it has taken more than 110 years to reunite the cup with its maker, its journey will finally come full circle. Annamarie Sandecki, corporate archivist for the firm, told Antiques and The Arts Weekly in April, “We bought it. We are out there looking all the time and we almost always actively bid on exceptional objects like this.”
When contacted recently, though, Sandecki said she had not yet received the cup, so until she has more information to share, we enlisted Katherine S. Howe, a co-author of Marks of Achievement: Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver, to fill us in. Howe was the founding curator of the decorative arts department at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and until her retirement in 2016 served as the director of Rienzi, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Carroll Sterling and Harris Masterson III Center for European Decorative Arts.
“At the end of the Nineteenth Century, the United States was enjoying a Gilded Age,” writes Howe. “Fed by silver and gold mining in the West, both individuals and scions of industry commissioned extravagant gold and silver presentation works. Thus, Tiffany & Co., with its great resources, wealthy clientele and a stable of extraordinary designers, produced some of the most stunning silver objects in American history. Even the US Department of State was inspired to commission some large, extravagant, silver presentation cups — sometimes called loving cups — to honor heroes, celebrate historic events and other important occasions.
“The designer of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty Cup was probably Tiffany & Co.’s James Horton Whitehouse, who seems to have thrived by designing large, elaborate presentation pieces. He is probably best known for designing the face of the Great Seal of the United States of America in 1884. Whitehouse also chose to use the Great Seal on the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty Cup. The cup is a celebration of unity: Ceres and Fortuna clasp hands, American and English armorial shields face each other, and just below the Great Seal of the United States, fruit-bearing vines all affirm friendship and solidarity.”
It is this last detail, the presence of Whitehouse’s Great Seal on the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty Cup, says Howe, that almost certainly identifies the cup’s designer as Whitehouse.
“It is interesting to note,” she added, “that this was not the first cup James Whitehouse made for the state department. In 1898, President William McKinley awarded a handsome cup, 13¾ inches high, to the French Ambassador Jules Cambon for negotiating the truce ending the Spanish- American War. The following dedication is engraved around the cup’s neck: ‘Presented by the President of the United States to his Excellency M. Jules Cambon, Ambassador of France, in Token of his Friendly Services in the Negotiation of the Protocol of the Peace between the United States and Spain, August 12, 1898.’”
The Cambon Cup is in the White House collection.
One of the best-regarded books on the subject is Magnificent Tiffany Silver by John Loring, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., publishers (2001). The 272-page book has lush, full color illustrations of the pieces that exemplify Tiffany’s breadth and depth of triumphs in the field of American silver design and production. Other good sources are Michael K. Brown, Katherine S. Howe and David B. Warren’s Marks of Achievement, Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver (MFAH and Harry N. Abrams, 1985); and Silversmiths to the Nation: Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner, 1808–1842, by Donald Fennimore and Ann K. Wagner.
Great American silver collections can be viewed at the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Yacht Club, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the White House.
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