EXHIBITS : Big Apple Serves Up Historic Silver


You can't sip from it or even touch it, but taking a look at New York's own silver collection will still give you a whiff of the high life during the city's glamorous past.

The Museum of the City of New York on swank Fifth Avenue has taken its finest silver out of the attic. The display of 300 or so sparkling pieces traces the history of silversmithing from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries.

New York silversmiths began pounding elegant objects by hand in the late 17th Century for owners who viewed them as investments and conspicuous evidence of their wealth.

Curator Deborah Waters said business and social groups tried to outdo each other when commissioning elaborate presentation cups and trays to be given at various ceremonies.

But silver "wasn't only for the well-to-do," Waters said. "Even modest families could afford silver spoons and forks."

The earliest dated piece that is known to have been made in New York is a memorial spoon presented to the pastor of an Albany church in 1678.

Production of fine silver proceeded nicely from that point until the British got in the way. It wasn't that they imported genteel silver of superior quality. They simply occupied New York during the Revolutionary War.

After the guns were silenced, however, the Yanks bounced back, and the prewar rococo style was washed away by a vibrant postwar classical revival.

During the 19th Century, the availability of silver ore, bullion and coin increased, and the market broadened. About the same time, artisans began looking back to antiquity for models for household items.

In one strange case of reincarnation, classical funerary urns reappeared in the shape of sugar bowls.

One of the most elaborate pieces in the exhibition is a presentation cup by Gorham that depicts three scenes from an opera by German composer Richard Wagner. A group of notable individuals, including William Steinway and Joseph Pulitzer, presented it to Wagner disciple and Metropolitan Opera conductor Anton Seidl at the end of the 1886-87 season.

Perhaps the most lamentable piece of silver is a presentation tray by Tiffany & Co. that is engraved with a map of one of the city's first subway lines. The president of the Interborough Transit Co. planned to give the tray, decorated with pick-ax handles and romanticized construction scenes, to the subway's chief contractor, but they got into a feud, and the gift was withheld.

The subway, one of the first in the world, was built anyway and was a symbol of New York's glistening world status.

The silver days of the subway are long gone, but the Tiffany tray and other sliver treasures are still around to serve up a taste of New York's past.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World