“I suppose after five months nobody could say they didn’t have time to read the catalogue,” joked silver specialist Rupert Slingsby, as the Woolley & Wallis (25% buyer’s premium) silver auction originally scheduled for November 2020 and then January 2021 finally got under way on April 27-28.
He believed the hiatus, during which time the catalogue had been read and reread many times online, had probably helped rather than hindered the market.
The 1060 lots enjoyed a selling rate of 94% for a hammer total of £951,830 (the lower estimate for the sale was £575,080). It was the highest-grossing silver sale that the Salisbury firm has held.
“I think what has been demonstrated here is the genuine pent-up demand for high-quality and especially early silver, which collectors haven’t been able to get their hands on over the past six months.”
Around half the take came from a single source: an estate collection of caddy spoons (see separate story this week) and early silver pieced together, with the guidance of Godalming dealer Alastair Dickenson, over more than 30 years from the early 1980s until around 2017.
Leading this fine-quality selection was a Charles II silver porringer with marks for Benjamin Pyne, London, 1683. It is taken above the norm by the survival of the original cover with a pierced foliate finial and engraved bird and foliate decoration in the chinoiserie taste.
The auction house had sold this piece to Dickenson in 2015 for £16,000. This time round, pitched at £10,000-15,000, it brought £26,000.
This was one of a handful of pieces offered here that Woolley & Wallis had sold in recent memory. The results show that the market for certain items – collectables and early silver rather than standard domestic wares – has improved somewhat in recent years.
The top-selling lot (from a different source) was a William IV silver ice pail or wine cooler by Paul Storr (London 1830) modelled as a coopered bucket. The arms engraved front and back are those of Grant. In 2013 this piece had been sold by W&W for £13,000 but nine years later, guided at £6000-8000, it went to an overseas dealer at £31,000.
From the principal collection, a Charles II silver tumbler cup was engraved with an armorial shield of Garnish or Michell and struck for WF (probably by William Francis) and London 1683.
This piece had sold for a punchy £21,000 at the How of Edinburgh sale at Woolley & Wallis in October 2007 but was guided here at £4000- 6000. “It fetched a massive price in the How sale and we were not expecting anything like that in today’s market,” said Slingsby. “But it went on to sell for £18,000, so quite close to the How figure.”
A William III gold baby’s rattle and coral teether had been a snip in 2008 when it had sold to Dickenson for £1300. It has the maker’s mark as only P (unidentified) but alongside panels of engraved decoration is the contemporary inscription Benjn. Vigor 1697. Thirteen years later, in the era of the ubiquitous use of the internet search engine, two specialist rattle collectors slugged it out before it sold at £15,000 (estimate £1000-1500).
Making a similar improvement on estimate was a late 17th century taper stick with a cylindrical stem, flat circular base and four bun feet. It carried marks (EB with a rosette below) that were identified late in the day as those of the Newcastle silversmith Eli Bilton I.
Newcastle enjoyed a long established gold and silversmithing tradition from the 13th century and a town mark, expressed by one or three castles, was occasionally used on items from the 17th century when as many as 13 smiths worked in the city. However, it was not until 1702 that an official assay office with a date lettering system was opened.
This taper stick by perhaps the best-known Newcastle maker of the period was a quirky form and probably dated from c.1685. An exhibition label read CINOAInternational Art Treasures Exhibition Victorian and Albert Museum, 1962, Exhibit No. 300. Estimated at £1000- 1500, it took £13,000.
Secular Newcastle silver of this date is rare, although a porringer of similar date made by the short-lived Abraham Hamer (an apprentice of Eli Bilton) sold at Chiswick Auctions last October for £6500.
A mid-17th century silver box made around the time of the regicide was formerly part of the Albert Collection, an assemblage of over 600 pieces published in 2004 and later sold by Dickenson.
Sold for £11,000 (estimate £3000-5000) at W&W, the box was unmarked but possibly by Richard Illingworth, and carried a portrait of Charles I within a border of national emblems and a motto that translates as ‘The King Lives. The law guides. The flock prospers’. The sunburst above the head of the monarch may refer to his execution.
Hornbooks, used to teach children to read, were used in homes and schoolrooms in Europe, North and South America from the 15th to the 18th century. Shakespeare mentions them in Love’s Labours Lost.
Most were made in wood, bone, leather and base metal but hornbooks in silver were higher status nursery objects: the example in the collection of the V&A by Thomas Kedder (London, 1703) was given by Queen Anne (her portrait appears verso) to her godson, Master Guy Selbright (his crest appears on the handle).
Another c.1700 was sold as part of the collection of bibliophile Cornelius J Hauck at Christie’s New York in 2006 ($11,400) and reappeared for sale at Heritage in December 2020 when it took $20,625. The example offered at W&W was worked in filigree with the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer engraved to a plate rather than printed on paper. The hammer price was £8500 (estimate £3000-5000).
Another rare form of this era is the ‘college’ or ‘ox-eye’ cup, a drinking vessel most often associated with the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge universities and the London livery companies. The earliest-known example is the Northampton cup, c.1616, owned by the Company of Mercers.
The 4in (10cm) cup here, by George Gillingham, London 1720, carried a Latin inscription that translates as ‘Three times happy are they and more, who are held by unbreakable bonds and whose love, undivided by evil quarrels will be dissolved on the final day’.
It had previously sold twice at Sotheby’s New York, most recently in 2001 when it made $22,600, and sold at £9500 here.