Saturday - 25 October 2014

Britton Smith spoons come to the fore

27 December 2008Written by Anne Crane

BONHAMS’ latest silver auction was another sale of two parts. Around a third of it was devoted entirely to one specialist collecting field, early spoons, the bulk from one vendor, Mr Britton Smith.

The remainder of the sale on November 19 was devoted to a general, mixed-owner selection of English and Continental silverwares featuring anything from Victorian novelty cigar cutters to a Tudor Communion cup plus a 46-lot hors d'oeuvre of objets de vertu. Overall, the take-up was a respectable 71 per cent to net just under £450,000 but it was the spoons which carried the day, with all bar seven of the 65 lots finding buyers.

Canadian collector Britton Smith was probably the major player in the field in the last decades of the 20th century. Buying through the specialist trade and at auction, he assembled a massive collection of early spoons. This was Bonhams' second instalment, the first part having been dispersed this time last year. This November's sale covered a similar range and timespan, from the 14th to the late 17th century, and saw a similarly high strike rate, generating almost £250,000 between them.

This is all the more encouraging given that, between sales one and two, news of the fake spoons produced by Peter Ashley-Russell over the past decade has emerged.

Specialist Rupert Slingsby felt that the confidence inspired by a named private collection played a part here, although there was an equally strong take-up for the mixed-owner spoons. These were reduced to 20 lots after nine withdrawals over a question of title but just two failed to sell in this section.

As expected, the highest spoon price was paid for Britton Smith's lion sejant terminal spoon from Henry VIII's reign, carrying marks for the specialist London spoon maker William Simpson 1529, although the £13,500 was more than Bonhams had predicted.

Also above expectations was the £10,500 bid for a diamond-point spoon from five years later which carried an unidentified maker's mark of a pair of compasses.

While such rare specimens attract keen demand from those wanting to fill gaps in established collections, above £10,000 the collecting air is very thin. There are many more buyers below the £5000 mark and, fortunately, Britton Smith's holdings also offered pieces for entry-level buyers. These included a provincial Charles II period trefid end spoon whose reverse showed nice clear marks for York goldsmith Mark Gill, 1681 with a curlicue embellished rat-tail at £650, and the two late 17th century Puritan spoons shown here, which also took £650.

Among the silver that followed the spoons, the big disappointment was the day's potential best-seller, another Charles II, parcel-gilt, two-handled cage work porringer of very similar size, weight and form to Christie's Bodendick version, but, in this case, unmarked. It was estimated slightly lower at £40,000-50,000, but still failed to sell, a clear illustration of how choice affects buyers' attitudes.

Helping to bump up statistics in the porringer's absence was the much higher than predicted interest in an elegantly restrained 24oz French Louis XV ivory handled chocolate pot dated to 1764. This had the magic Parisian name of Germain as maker - not Thomas Germain senior but his son François Thomas, who trained in his father's workshop and inherited his models, atelier and his artistocratic clientele.

Bonhams had given this an extremely attractive £10,000-15,000 estimate but the pot was contested to £48,000, bid by an overseas dealer. 

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