Polish and Provenance

Once upon a time, some years ago when I joined the Decorative Arts department at Leonard Joel, I was given the arduous task of polishing silverware in preparation for cataloguing. Up until that point tarnished silverware and I had not crossed paths and I will never forget how the muscles in my hands and forearms ached within minutes of starting. I was surprised to learn that my colleague Chiara Curcio (now head of Decorative Arts at Leonard Joel) relished the task of polishing silver; to paraphrase her, “the more tarnished an item the more gratifying the outcome”. Perhaps Chiara was just humouring me.

Over the years however, I have had plenty of time to discover a joy in the simple act of polishing finely crafted sterling silver. Polishing silverware to remove the tarnish often unveils breath-taking clarity of detail, not to mention the distinctive lustrous quality of the sterling silver. A majority of the silverware that we encounter has been cherished and used over the centuries by its numerous owners, and I like to think that we are returning these items a little closer to their former glory.

The abundance of sterling silver in the market place can be overwhelming. Many enthusiasts looking to start collecting often struggle to focus on a period or category and will often ask us for advice on where to start and what to look for. Identifying categories of interest such as style, era, maker, pattern and type is a good place to start. Deciding on a budget will also help you to narrow your choices.

Sterling silverware, the kind used in everyday life, designed for both use and display is a popular category and one that is easier and more affordable, compared to other categories such as Objet de Vertu. Items designed for everyday use reflect the customs, rituals, and lifestyles of the bygone eras they originated from. Sometimes they bare an unknown monogram, a family coat of arms, or inscriptions shared between loved ones. The thrill for many enthusiasts is in identifying an item and unearthing an aspect of its history.

2018 brought many eye opening results for sterling silverware at Leonard Joel, particularly from two impressive and rare collections; The Estate of Neil Robertson and The Frank and Jill Jones Collection. The silverware in both auctions was a standout category and was coveted by many collectors. The combination of two key factors elevated the results for both of these private collection auctions, those being provenance and rarity. Together these factors demonstrated their importance and impact within the market for sterling silver. It reminds us of the importance behind the history attached to an object and the qualities that make it unique. Similar to the way a thorough polish brings clarity and richness to a piece of silver, so too can an enquiry into its provenance.

Dominic Kavanagh
Decorative Arts Specialist
03 8825 5611