Friday, September 3, 2010

Winning Bid: Silver for the Entertaining Household

This past weekend Boy and I attended a sale at an upstate New York auction house.  In addition to featuring an array of furniture and decorations, the auction included an extensive selection of tablewares up for sale, including china, glassware, and silver.  I am happy to report that we were the successful bidders on a number of pieces of silver that were of interest to us for use when entertaining at Darlington House.

As should be apparent to readers of this blog, we enjoy entertaining, both intimately and on a larger scale, and we do it with some frequency.  In addition to the expected drinks parties and dinner parties, we also throw luncheon and bruncheon parties, and we occasionally throw themed parties--we once gave a birthday party for Pompey where we invited thirty of our friends and their dogs for an afternoon's romp.  Although Darlington is a commodious house, it is not a large one, and we generally limit most of our parties to several dozen guests.  We've had as many as one hundred at a time, but that's the limit for what the house can hold, and even then it's rather a crush.

As our parties have grown larger and more elaborate over the years, so has our need grown for stocking Darlington House with the necessary goods to support the requirements of what I call "the Entertaining Household"--one that entertains at an advanced level and with sufficient frequency to merit the provisioning of its cabinets, chests, and closets with an abundance of china, silver, glassware, and linens to amply support such an establishment's varied and extensive entertaining needs.  And although we are well provisioned at Darlington House with such goods (some of our friends think astonishingly so), we are always looking for interesting and more specialized pieces to add to our collections.

And that is where the beauty of buying at auction comes in.  I'm not referring to serious, catalogued sales of important, rare, or pedigreed offerings, such as those found at Sotheby's or Christie's, but rather sales at local and regional auction houses where good quality, decorative, and useful household goods are sold, often as part of an estate's disposition.  Such auction houses are a particularly good source for the sets of tablewares, linens, and serving pieces that are necessary when throwing larger-scale parties.  Although goods sold at auction are in "as-is" condition, oftentimes all they need is a good cleaning or polishing when brought home to have them gleam anew.  But the best part of buying at auction is that the offerings sold at such venues are often hammered down at prices well below what one would have to pay once said goods have swum upstream and into a dealer's inventory.  Bargains are to be had at auctions for the lucky, eagle-eyed bidder.  

In previewing the lots at the sale we attended last weekend, I identified three silver serving pieces that I thought would be useful to add to our store of entertaining goods at Darlington House.  We were pleased to find ourselves the winning bidders on each piece and especially pleased that we were able to acquire them at what Reggie believes to be very reasonable prices.

Here's what we brought home:

A Good-Size Silver Bowl

We have many bowls suitable for use during parties at Darlington House, in many sizes, most of which are--not surprisingly--made of ceramic or glass.  Our bowls range from perfectly good, modern-day ones found in department and specialty stores to delicate and difficult-to-replace ones bought in antiques stores and shows.  While I am more than happy to put out most of our bowls at parties, I am reluctant to use our early nineteenth century Chinese Export, Coalport, or similar antique bowls at our larger parties for fear of them being chipped or broken--either by a guest or by the person in the kitchen responsible for washing up.  Although we own half a dozen small silver bowls suitable for scattering about tables filled with nuts and candies, we did not have a good-sized silver bowl, useful for holding larger amounts of food.

That is, until we were the winning bidder on this one.  Made by Georg Jensen, the Danish jeweler and silversmith (in business 1904 to the present), of sterling silver in the "Dublin" pattern for the American market, it is a flared and melon-round footed serving bowl of a good, medium size, measuring 8½ inches diameter and 4½ inches tall.  It is more than sufficient to hold several large bunches of grapes, a mound of ice cream scoops, or an abundance of nuts in their shells ready for cracking open.  Unlike our more delicate antique porcelain bowls, however, I have no reason to be concerned that a guest's overzealous clattering of a serving utensil (such as grape shears or a nut cracker) will damage it, nor is there any risk that it will shatter should it be dropped in the kitchen.  A good-size, medium silver bowl is a useful addition to the Entertaining Household, and I am quite happy to now have one.

A Medium-Size Silver Tray

Over the years we have accumulated rather a lot of trays suitable for use at parties.  Initially we concentrated on acquiring large trays, most useful for serving and clearing up, but in the last five years or so we have concentrated on buying smaller trays suitable for use by staff in the passing of hors d'œuvres and for serving drinks during cocktails.  As our parties have gotten larger, the number of staff and serving rotations has increased, as has the need for additional trays.  Although we already had half a dozen medium-size silver trays suitable for such purposes, we found during our last large party that we could have used at least one more.

And that's what we found at the auction.  Made by the Frank W. Smith Silver Company of Gardner, Massachusetts, (in business 1886-1958) of sterling silver in the "Chippendale" pattern, the tray measures just shy of 12 inches across.  It is perfect for holding two or three glasses, or a dozen hors d'œuvres.  Admittedly not as fine as the Jensen bowl, it is nonetheless a perfectly serviceable, handsome tray and suitable for parties.  An assortment of such trays is a must-have in the Entertaining Household, and one really cannot have too many of them in such an establishment.

A Commodious Silver Chafing Dish

When having a dozen or more guests for cocktails or a buffet-style luncheon or dinner party, one often serves at least one dish that benefits from being served piping hot.  That means having a serving dish that has a heat source in it, such as burner or an electrical heating element.  But we didn't own any such vessels at Darlington House, and relied on our caterer(s) to supply them.  That can be a tricky proposition, however, as one is relying on what said caterer has in their inventory, or is able to rent for the occasion from a party supply company.  And that usually means industrial quality stainless steel.  While that's fine in a corporate setting, or for a public gathering, it is less than desirable for those of us who are as careful in our presentation as we are at Darlington House.  We prefer something finer and more comme il faut for our antiques-filled dining room.  And for us that means silver.

Well, in this case, silver plate.  At the sale we were the successful bidder on a generously scaled chafing dish.  Manufactured by Israel Freeman & Son, Ltd. of London (in business from 1928 until only recently), the dish we acquired measures 16½ inches by 11 inches and stands 8 inches high.  It has two burners to keep its contents hot.  It is perfect for use at large parties, for serving such dishes as my dear Aunt Joanna's Swedish meatball recipe, a particular favorite, as well as other comestibles that benefit from being served hot, hot, hot!  Such a chafing dish is a useful addition to the Entertaining Household, and is well worth owning in such an establishment.

And that is why Reggie goes to auctions.  For it is at auction that he is able to acquire such pieces at a very reasonable price, often for far less than what he would have to pay otherwise.  He understands that buying well at auction requires an educated and informed eye, otherwise mistakes can be made, and he knows that not all possess his level of knowledge in these matters.  But that is one of the reasons why Reggie writes this blog, so that he may pass along to you, Dear Reader, what he has learned.

All photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. LOL, Reggie, much as I love your take on auction bargains, trust me, once you've outbid all the dealers in the room, and paid the 10-20% buyer's premium, you really haven't bought it for that much less, if at all, than it would be in a shop. I consistently see stuff sell at auction---'heat of the moment'---for more than I'd ever dream of charging for it in the shop.

  2. DED: With all due respect, if you knew what I paid for these you wouldn't be so sure. These were end of sale bargains, hammered down long after most of the dealers had left. And one of the pieces--the chafing dish--was bought with no others bidding against me. My point in this post is that certain things, such as silver serving pieces, can be bought inexpensively at auction because the average retail buyer at such sales (and dealer for that matter) isn't interested in them and therefore they can be had (at times) for little money. Reggie does, of course, buy through dealers all the time, and greatly respects your profession. His goal in writing this piece is not to dissuade his readers from buying from dealers, but to help his readers understand that sometimes (if they know what they are doing) they may also benefit from buying at auction, too.

  3. OHHHH Reggie, I am such a Portobello Road girl and besides loving silver, there is nothing like a good auction. I do so love living through you vicariously!

  4. Oh, I wish you had a secret login page for us devotees so we could see the price. And maybe put in requests for purchases you might make on our behalf:). That's OK. I will just dream.

  5. Wonderful finds! I am sure you will enjoy entertaining your guest with these fine pieces!

    Art by Karena

  6. TDED --

    I think you're probably right with regard to furniture and many other things, but I know any number of dealers who won't bid on silver because the margins have become too small. Perhaps it's different up there in New England.

  7. Dept. of Amplification and Clarification:

    The problem with silver is that there's just so damned much of it----and much of it is attractive, but most of it isn't worth what was paid for it once it leaves Tiffany's or Shreve's or wherever (seriously, try to sell that Tiffany set for what you paid for it three years ago). And then, all that wedding present stuff that everyone has. And no doubt some dealers (Antiques Mall dealers are particularly guilty of this) just price the stuff as if it were gold, regardless of quality, but truth is, most old silver at everyday auctions goes to scrappers. There's always a strong market for the rare, the unique, the unusual, but the merely attractive and useful (chafing dishes are a good example of this----there are at least three chafing dishes for every one citizen in America) has a lot of competition for the buck out there. I envy Reggie if his local auctions still have bargains at the end. Not so at all at ours anymore. The competition for the interesting stuff is strong right down to the last nut dish.

    And in no way did I take it as a slam at dealers, worry not.

  8. PS, For all we know, your purchase prices may get reported in M.A.D. The Jensen bowl is lovely, and the tray fine.

  9. Oh DED, I know that you meant it in a friendly manner. Reggie was having a bit of fun with you. Kindred spirits, no?

  10. I love these pieces. Especially the bowl for simply dozens of uses. I made the mistake of purchasing the stainless chafing dishes for entertaining a crowd and cannot stand the sight of them next to my lovely platters and dishes. Oh well, we live and learn. But I really do enjoy your posts. Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend.

  11. Ah, "the scrappers."

    My Silver Story:

    Many years ago, when an elderly relative died, his heirs, myself included, divided his worldly possessions in a way that made everyone more or less content. Sotheby's had crawled through the house for several days, identifying every item of note, and attaching an "estate value" to each. Everyone took turns picking their favorites, and all worked out happily. But that left the silver, which no one wanted but me. To keep everyone happy, I paid a requested sum into the estate -- more than the valuation it had been given -- at which point all the silver was mine.

    Now most of this was family silver -- monogrammed, for the most part, dating back a long, long time. (I am probably one of the few people left who has a set of pre-Civil War Tiffany holloware.) But quite a lot of it would have been fuel for the scrappers -- items that I treasure because of their family history, but of no conceivable value to anyone else.

    Anyway, there I was at the house, supervising the collection of my new things. I went through the kitchen and the butler's pantry collecting the silver and piling it on the (Duncan Phyfe) dining room table to be packed for transit. In a final walk-through, I thought to look under the sink in the butler's pantry. There, behind the usual cleaning supplies was a large cloth bag. In it were twelve heavily tarnished silver plates. (A couple of them seemed to bear the remains of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.) But as they were silver, I added them to the pile in the dining room.

    And that is how I acquired a rather magnificent set of 1806 Paul Storr plates.

    (In practice, I only use them as chargers.)

  12. These are beautiful and practical pieces. I especially love the lines of that Jensen bowl.
    Sadly, so much silver goes to scrap.
    I under bid on a set of Christofle a couple of weeks ago, now I am angry with myself for not offering more for it.

  13. Ancient: That is one of the best comments that Reggie has ever had. Thank you for this divine story. Reggie feverishly awaits the day when he will have the pleasure of dining off of said plates/chargers.

    BdeV: One of the things Reggie has learned is that there will be another auction, and another opportunity one day. I am sure that the Christofle you bid on was lovely, and that similar will come to auction again.

  14. well, you sure know how to pick 'em! as a dane, georg jensen pieces ae spotted a million miles away, and i love your bowl! great find, and if you purchased it at a great price, good for you!!

    northern light

  15. Wonderful post, and excellent comments - no surprise, as your followers are a fine group. I bow to Ancient, whose powers of divination are worthy of applause. The find was so stupendous that I can't even be jealous, but I will say that I'd love a dozen Paul Storr plates (or even one, for that matter).

  16. Well done Reggie, especially on the bowl. Jensen never sells at a bargain at our auctions here.

    Having been a "mall" dealer I can attest that what DED described occurs here too. Dealers will bid up marginal pieces and then price them seemingly to ensure they don't sell.

    My favorite personal silver experience: a box lot of plate water pitchers bought for five dollars. Polilshed and displayed all together on top of a chest they flew out of my space - because I priced them at 20 bucks a piece.

  17. Might I ask a favor? I am in the market for everyday kitchen flatware.
    We have fine silver but I wanted to replace our everyday set.
    Do you have a favorite or a go to source. One part of me loves something mod and practical or antique and genteel?
    Any advice?

  18. Hello PVE: Several years ago we traded out our "every day" silver flatware in our city apartment (an assembled set of hotel silver plate) with Christofle stainless steel that goes in the dishwasher without getting pitted or going flat and dull. Must say I've been happy with it. We bought it at Barney's. MD used one of her lesser sets of sterling when I was growing up as her every day, that I had to get polished up professionally when I inherited it. You wouldn't believe how many tea spoons of her set went down the disposal, which I have been slowly replacing in the years since I got it. BTW, I would love to commission you to do a portrait of Pompey in a beach tent on wheels as you suggested a while back. Please email me your thoughts . . .

  19. Reggie,
    Firstly, thank-you. I spotted a lovely stainless set at the Moma store in NY, soho and am thinking something like that, modern lines, but I will look at Barney's. Our wine glasses are from Barney's which I adore, as they fit in the dishwasher and not down the disposal. Ha!
    It would be my honor to capture "Pompey" in an illustration.
    Just send me some images - and I shall work on that "toute suite!"~

  20. Am curious. Where do you house your lovely serving pieces, bowls, glasswares,etc?
    I am a fairly new reader and perhaps have missed a post on your storage space...a butler's pantry, a breakfront or cabinet? If not perhaps that would be an informative post. If one likes to entertain, is a collector, has inheried family silver or all of the latter, finding storage in an antique home, can be difficult.

  21. Dear Reggie

    I am new to your blog and absolutely adore your meanderings. As a matter of fact, I spent last evening scouring the entire contents of your blog. It brought me back to a gentler time in my life and, for that, I thank you dearly. Could you possibly post your Aunt Joanna's Swedish meatball recipe?

    Best regards,

  22. Anon 10:30: Our storage at Darlington is full to the bursting. There were only a few closets in the house when we bought it, which we have augmented with building out as many cabinets as possible. More recently we have relied on using commercial-grade wire shelving in our (finished) basement to store our lesser-used entertaining wares. I wish that we had a butler's pantry, but unfortunately such a repository is but a dream for us, at least for now.

    Bonnie: Thank you for your comment, and I am happy to read that you have enjoyed your "meanderings" (a lovely word) amongst my postings. Unfortunately I have misplaced by dear aunt's recipe, but will gladly post it when I come across it (or retrieve it from one of my cousins).


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