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Gilbert Silver Shines Bright at LACMA

Times Staff Writer

Timothy Schroder kneels to peel off a shipping label from a silver-sheathed howdah , a ceremonial seat that was harnessed to an elephant’s back so that 19th-Century Indian nobility could travel in appropriate splendor.

The howdah is the last object displayed in the exhibition of the Gilbert Collection of Gold and Silver, on view through Nov. 6 at the L.A. County Museum of Art. It was acquired only a couple of weeks before and was whisked into the show, its “dog tags” still stuck on it.

Schroder has discovered the neglected label as he surveys the exhibit one morning. The curator of decorative arts can’t help feeling a certain proprietary pride at the huge, silently shimmering assemblage.

It is the first time the Gilbert collection, which is valued at $30 million, has been exhibited in its entirety, and its existence is in good part due to Schroder’s vigor. Of the 195 objects collected by Arthur and Rosalinde Gilbert over the last 20 years, Schroder has guided them in making half of the acquisitions.

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From his former work in the silver department of Christie’s in London, the 35-year-old Englishman was called to the museum four years ago with the assignment of compiling a documented catalogue on the collection. Preparation of the impressively detailed 688-page tome proved a catalyst for an accelerated purchasing pace.

An English-born real estate developer, Arthur Gilbert, and Rosalinde, his wife, first focused their collecting on 19th-Century grand gilt display pieces, then moved to English works of the 18th Century. Schroder has encouraged additions of 16th- and 17th-Century objects principally from the Continent. All told, the collection encompasses the 15th through the 19th centuries and includes silver pieces made for domestic uses as well as those crafted as works of art.

“A lot of collections have strengths in one area,” says Schroder. “But there is no private collection in the world that spans such a broad period and does it so fully.”

For Schroder, each piece represents a sleuth’s search for missing links of authentication, documentation and provenance, plus a plethora of historical memorabilia that lend each object a special aura. As he reviews the collection, each twinkling piece of silver seems to spark a tale.

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Take the little 16th-Century silver-gilt casting bottle, used for sprinkling scented water. Unprepossessing to the untrained eye, it is nevertheless one of only four of its kind in the world (the other three are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), as most domestic objects were consigned to the melting pot when their owners, sooner or later, ran short of cash.

The Gilbert bottle is the best example of the lot, being the only one that retains its original chain. Yet for a time, it belonged to the art world’s class of fabled forgotten objects. Thought to be brass, not silver, it was sold by an antique dealer for 80 pounds, or about $135. It is currently valued in six figures.

In “The Treasury” exhibit of gold and silver works of art, Schroder points out a late 19th-Century French Gothic chalice in gold, enamel and pearls as one of the great gems of the collection, and stops in admiration before a rare terra cotta model for an ewer, made by the celebrated Italian goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.

It is a rock crystal tankard, however, whose acquisition probably brought him the greatest gratification.

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“I feel particularly fond of pieces I’ve had to do some hard persuasion to see enter the collection,” Schroder says with a grin.

In the case of the tankard, he was keen on the acquisition, but the piece was cracked and the Gilberts were not eager to have a damaged object. Schroder argued that the tankard was fissured before it left the workshop. When the collectors continued to hesitate, the ever-persistent curator set about compiling a catalogue of famous cracked rock crystal vessels in major collections throughout the world, marking each photograph in red to delineate the crack. Finally, he made his point.

Among the original owners of the Gilbert pieces, none is more idiosyncratic than William Beckford, referred to by one writer as a “genius manque” and “one of the most colorful individuals in the history of English art collecting.” A photo of him as painted by Joshua Reynolds hangs in the exhibit, looking romantically Byronic as he seems to gaze at one of his cherished objects, an oval silver-gilt basket designed in the form of plaited ears of wheat.

During the first decade of the 19th Century, Beckford built Fonthill Abbey, a Gothic landmark topped with a spire taller than that of Salisbury Cathedral. He then devoted himself to filling his home with works of art, until the failure of his West Indian sugar plantations forced him to sell most of his possessions. The new owner sold the house’s contents the following year in one of the most famous auctions of the 19th Century.

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Also in the 19th-Century collection are the stately ranks of the late Duke of Norfolk’s serving dishes and the Duke of Cumberland’s soup tureens by noted silversmith Paul Storr, which Schroder calls “one of the grandest examples of Regency silver.”

Silver by the renowned 18th-Century Huguenot, Paul de Lamerie, ranges from a restrained salver to one of the Gilberts’ stellar pieces, a densely decorated ewer and dish. Large sideboard display pieces, by which the patron’s taste and wealth could be determined, the ewer and dish were originally passed after dinner for hand washing, before forks were introduced to England in the late 17th Century. Eating with a fork, in practice a century earlier in Italy, was long viewed by English travelers as an effete manner used by those too precious to pick up their meat with their fingers.

Wending his way to the end of the exhibit, Schroder passes a pagoda-capped epergne centerpiece with detachable sweets baskets, a vase lit with candelabrum branches and sanctuary gates from two Kiev churches, “the only such gates outside Russia,” he pauses to comment.

Yet with all of these treasures, a curator’s appetite for acquisition remains insatiable; Schroder would like to fill out the 17th Century more and add French Rococo silver to the collection.

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For the moment, he’s heading off to Paris, where a late 16th-Century rock crystal bowl that’s up for sale has captured his attention.

“I get a great thrill out of finding an important new object to acquire,” he says, and laughs. “It’s a process without an end.”


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