Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Della Creelman, Mara Escajeda. Della Creelman owns Legacy’s Antiques. It states on her card, “Everything you should have inherited.”
I'm an antique-silver junkie. I'm nuts over silver flatware – knives, forks, and spoons, and the occasional fish fork or aspic server or set of fried-chicken tongs.
Lou McGee: "I’ve had English people tell me, ‘Well, if it’s not Georgian then it’s not really silver.’ ”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
I cruise dirty little junk shops and yard sales and antique stores in search of flatware pieces in patterns made in the last century. I look for Dominick & Half’s Renaissance, first produced in 1894. Renaissance, on the spoons’ heels, features a maniacal male face, that some collectors claim is the face of the North Wind. I hunt for the various tongs in Gorham's Versailles, a pattern first turned out in 1888. Figures on Versailles stems are modeled after statuary in the gardens or art work in the palace of Versailles.
Connie McNally: “I grew up with silver. My mother loved it. And I loved polishing it. It’s instant gratification.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
I am always on the lookout for a gravy ladle in Mythologique that features on its stem a muscular, nude Vulcan. These old silver patterns fascinate me. They boast bugs or berries, angels, devils, fruits, nuts, foliage and flowers, or scantily clad classical figures, Egyptian rulers, lace, geometric or linear designs, animal heads, seashells or sea creatures, real and mythological. Modern flatware pales in comparison. With antique silver, I am a total pattern degenerate. I want to own one of every old pattern ever made.
Ken Freeman: “Now you’re asking too little. I can give you ten for that. If you are too high, I’ll tell you and if you’re too low, I’ll tell you that also.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Like many of my fellow degenerates, I remember designs on flatware patterns better than I remember faces of people I meet. It’s not unlike being a flatware idiot savant or a preadolescent girl who can tell you every detail of Ricky Martin’s life. After a dinner party, I may not recall who sat next to me, but I will never forget that we ate with Alvin’s 1903 Bridal Rose, an ornate silver pattern off whose finials sprouts a blowsy full-blown rose.
Dee Dee and Alan Pagenhart's La Jolla shop is set up in vignettes.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
It’s not lost on me that the drug and antique worlds share a vocabulary. Both worlds thrive on human “have to have it” weakness. Certainly, as it is with junkies, I always want more. One minute the chubby naked cherubs inviting me up the stairs on the back of a Versailles dinner fork (the front, or obverse, of the stem shows a man wearing nothing but a wild boar’s head helmet are the most enthralling silver sight I’ve ever seen.
Dinner fork, Versailles, by Gorham, c.1888
Then I pick up a piece of Schulz and Fischer’s Cleopatra or Towle’s Poviona and I’m off in pursuit of Gorham’s Isis or Whiting’s Berry. Until I fell in love with antique-silver flatware, I never knew I was fickle.
Back of Versailles dinner fork
I love Margaret Visser’s assertion, in Much Depends on Dinner, that “nothing is intrinsically boring, least of all the everyday, ordinary things.” Four years ago, I am not sure I would have agreed. I didn’t even like silver. I didn’t much care for having to polish it — that only added to the burden of living with someone else’s things. Then at an auction I bought a tub of silverware, hoping to get enough to set a table for the holidays.
Olive Spoon, Love Disarmed, by Reed&Barton, c. 1889
The tub turned out to be three-fourths forks, about 475 of them, in at least 107 different patterns. The tools I had used for so many years suddenly became fascinating. A curious, inexplicable passion ignited. Imagine troll dolls or Beanie Babies that will actually have resale value. I began to hear the siren song of silver. Now, I buy food magazines not for recipes but to see pictures of the flatware with which the meals are served.
Medallion spoons: soup spoon by Hotchkiss & Schreuder, c.1870; teaspoon by Gorham, c.1864; demitasse spoon by Wendt, c.1862
For more than 5000 years silver’s been a metallurgical expression of human history, stamped out in repousse, chased, and hammered to the manners of the day.
From left: tea knife, Imperial Queen by Whiting, c.1893; tea knife, Hanover by Gorham, c.1895; coin silver tea knife, Bouquet by Durgin, c.1860; dinner knife, Morning Glory by Alvin, c.1909
Fueling wars and fantasies, silver has been prized by almost every culture from the Aztecs to the Chinese. Silver keeps faithful records of births, weddings, anniversaries, and deaths in a way that cotton can only envy. Silver is timeless, yet mercilessly driven by fashion. Like clay, it has been cast and recast for causes noble and ignoble. We have used it to decorate homes, horses, and our wrists and ears. On our tables the silver spoon transfers food from plate to mouth. Silver is also the only sure way to kill a werewolf.
Teaspoon, Labors of Cupid by Dominick & Haff, c.1900
In the 17th and early 18th Centuries, the well-heeled traveler carried a place setting, consisting of a knife and a spoon of silverware for his or her own use, in a silk-lined leather traveling case. No inn or way station would provide such things.
Berry spoon and lettuce fork, Pomona by Towle, c.1887
Later, in the evolution of flatware, “table spoon” or “table fork” came to designate pieces developed to stay on the table while the others might travel abroad.
Even if you went to the palace to break bread with the king, you brought your own.
Touchmarks on back of Gorham spoon
This overcast, blue-gray morning, waiting at Wendy’s drive-through for my chili, I’m thinking that was a sound custom. Contemplating cloudy skies, my upcoming appointment, the approach of the millennium, and plastic silverware (which I hope Wendy’s staff remembered to put in the bag), I’m struck by two things—that the drive-through empties into a one-way street, going the wrong way, away from I-5, and that the 19th Century’s most innovative and ingenious culture at designing and creating silver flatware is reduced, three generations later, to eating with a plastic “spork” — that half-spoon, half-fork implement that is a direct descendant of the turn-of-the-century ice cream fork.
Ice cream slice, Antique Chased by Whiting, c.1882; berry spoon, Florentine by Wendt, c.1870
In 1910 Americans could choose from approximately 1100 flatware patterns available domestically. “By 1937 the Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone Sterling Silver Flatware Index listed 1300 flatware patterns, of which 908 were still available — and this compilation did not even include silver plate patterns, which were even more numerous,” according to Charles L Venable in Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor.
From left: Bridal Rose by Alvin, c.1903; Amaryllis by Shiebler, c.1880; Cleopatra by Schulz & Fischer, c.1880
By contrast, the English had roughly seven patterns until about 1850, and although those patterns might have many variations — 39 variations to the Kings pattern — the American output and consumption of sterling was to the English, at best, mystifying. In 1878 parliamentary hearings, English makers were questioned about their opinions as to “Why silverware production was so prosperous in America and so stagnant in England.” One witness proclaimed that “Americans are ostentatious people and they like expensive articles that reflect their increasing prosperity.”
More than the number of new patterns highlighted the cultural differences. Until the mid-19th Century an English place setting consisted usually of six pieces. American manufacturers, fighting more to outdo each other than anyone else, created as many as 20 different spoons, 12 different forks, and 10 different knives for one pattern. A complete American flatware set could consist of 57 distinct items. Compound that by the fact that most pieces were made in four different grades or weights to mesh perfectly with the weight of the new porcelain dishes. (Heaven forbid a guest accidentally drop his or her heavy soup spoon back into a Belleek bowl.) If you could not rest until you owned every piece in your pattern, in every weight, your flatware set might consist of 3560 pieces. No wonder so much survives. Yet all the nonsense of the Victorian age, the excess, specialization, and art for art’s sake, is the reason silver flatware is still available. If mass quantities had not been made, I would have no hope of finding, and no joy in the discovery of, the occasional fork too pretty to make a wind chime out of, the spoon so heavy with design that I wonder how they got all the nooks and crannies clean. Collector Sam Wagstaff may refer to it as “the later acts of burlesque and vaudeville silver.” I am not so well-bred.
San Diego County not only is home to several antique-silver experts but also is the site of the editorial offices of the only international glossy publication that focuses on the art of silver, Silver Magazine. When I ask about town for the antique-silver expert, Lou McGee’s name keeps popping up. At least five dealers put Lou forth as the guy to talk to. Considering the professional jealousy that exists among antique dealers, where “I saw it first” is a legitimate claim and not a cry from a grade-school cloakroom, it’s almost awe-inspiring that so many of his peers recommend him. “The dean of San Diego silver,” some call him.
Lou’s house is in a middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood that echoes the same floor plan up and down the block. It’s what I call a My Three Sons Southern California house. Bird of paradise juts its exotic orange and purple blooms over the path I take on the way to introductions. Lou is tall, good-looking, sixtyish, with the manner of a college athlete-turned-country gentleman. His voice is soft and rich when he invites me in. The tiled entryway opens into a living room furnished with three antique chairs, a coffee table, a curio cabinet, a side table, and a couch. The most remarkable thing in the room is the cerulean carpet with a featherlike fan pattern. The couch is not a viable option for sitting — shoe boxes full of slips of paper are heaped there. Lou laughs and explains I’ve caught him in the middle of taxes. The only silver I see is on the coffee table, which is covered with cut-glass pieces, a coffee urn, and a teapot. These pieces have a crowded, working feel to them. The curio cabinet contains nothing shiny; the side tables have good lamps on them but nothing silver. Whatever I expect to see in the home of San Diego’s dean of antique silver. I’m disappointed.
At first, Lou is a study in friendly, precise reserve. Practiced and patient, his manner is a product of dealing for years with the abuse of the general public. Lou makes his living by traveling the antique-show circuit from Baltimore to San Francisco. He arrives a few days before the show, sets up his display, and, over the course of several days, he answers questions, listens to stories, and gives off-the-cuff appraisals, which at times are only educated opinions. At a good show, he may deal with 10,000 people a day. The population of an entire small town.
Asked if he is comfortable with the word “expert,” Lou laughs. He is not “I make mistakes too. I just had a problem with a piece that I thought it was something and in looking at it and going over it, turned out I had made a serious mistake, but you know, you learn from your mistakes. When you get to the point that you think that you’re,” he laughs again, “perfect, then you’ve got a real problem ’cause that’s hard to live up to. Believe me, I didn’t feel like much of an expert on that particular day.” Telling me of this mistake he made, he is so open and vulnerable, I get uncomfortable and end the painful confession by changing the subject. I never do find out what the mistake was, but he tells me later that he contacted the woman who had bought the piece and bought it back from her.
He is halting. “I don’t consider myself an expert, I consider myself... I, uh, I would consider myself more of a connoisseur. I have a vast appreciation for silver, and therefore I equip myself with the tools necessary to know or to find out about this passion of mine. It’s expertise, you know; expertise is probably the same thing with a little different definition. I think experts have to have qualifications. When you start talking about qualifications, that’s in the eyes of the beholder.”
You can’t get an antique-silver degree from a university. Almost everyone is self-taught. Books and guides available are the result of passionate research by collectors, antique-silver dealers, or both. You can read the best guides and still only know facts and figures. You have to hold silver, turn it over, see the marks, feel the edges to know how it was finished.
“You never get to know it all,” Lou asserts. It maybe that the lifelong educational process is part of the attraction of silver. “I have a pretty extensive library in terms of researching things. I read histories so I know the types of work that they have done at certain time periods. I guess you could call me an expert, but it’s not a relaxing terminology. ’Cause there’s a lot of people who do the same thing. There are collectors who, probably, in a particular category—they only collect a specific category — they know far more about these things than I do.
“I would say that for antique silver, 100 years is a good number,” Lou says. “Although the English might have a little different view of that; they think it’s probably earlier than that. I’ve had English people tell me, ‘Well, if it’s not Georgian then it’s not really silver,’ ” he says in a terrible, affected English accent. "I think my interest in silver kinda came along purely by accident. I’ve probably been in silver now 13 or 14 years. I was drawn to silver because of the combination of art and the fact that it sells. It’s with any art form or antique, the more you know about it, the more appreciation that you have for it. Silver is fascinating because, if not abused, it will last forever. It’s like gold, it will not corrode or rust. In its pure form, silver is not affected by the elements. It oxidizes or tarnishes because of the alloy. Silver’s too soft a material to last or to have patterned designs that will last without making it a little harder. So they mix it with a little copper, zinc, or tin, and they call it sterling.” The word “sterling" probably originates from a corruption of an early racial slur. The British used the word “Easterling” to refer to the continental races (mainly the Germans). In roughly 1300 a group of German silversmiths introduced the standard of 925 parts of silver per thousand at the command of King John. That standard was to be indicated by the “King’s mark,” the lion’s head. The British were particularly sensitive to the manipulation of silver in coins and plate since fraud and forgeries threatened the stability of their sterling standard. This touchmark, or hallmark, system guaranteed an item to be at least 925 parts of silver per thousand. Over the course of the next 400 years, the English system of touchmarks evolved into the most sophisticated in the world. By 1720 the system was so well developed that you can tell from the marks where a piece was made, in what year, who made the piece, to what standard it was made, and, in some cases, who was on the throne and the taxes paid on the piece.
The Georgian period usually refers to George, Prince of Wales (Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820 and George IV from 1820 to 1830), who, it would appear from his receipts, was a natural antiquary and heavy patron of the silversmith’s art. Silver from the Georgian period could have six or even more touchmarks. English pieces usually carry four touchmarks, but many items are marked in a checkered manner. If a piece wasn’t made for resale, it may have only the sterling-standard mark and a maker’s mark or the year mark. During short periods of time in both England and America, the work of silversmiths contained an even higher percentage of silver, 958 parts per thousand, the French first-quality standard. In England this standard was indicated by the figure of Britannia (a woman seated on a throne).
“In European countries, like Germany and Austria, they used 800, 839, or 900 parts per thousand — they alloyed it even heavier,” Lou explains. Unless dropped, crushed, or scratched, silver holds its form. Which is not to say silver doesn’t have any enemies. Under the right — or wrong — conditions, it’s reactive. Salt eats it, sulfur (airborne or in eggs) tarnishes it, even the innocuous rubber band will so corrode the surface that a silver-plate item will need re-plating and sterling will have to be buffed professionally.
Lou is a cautious dealer. In silver, as in the stock market, the ideal is to buy low and sell high. Fall in love with something and you may pay too much to get your money back. Lou got a call from a guy in Florida wanting to sell him a Paul Storr teapot for a couple of thousand. He passed. “Paul Storr is a London silversmith, probably one of the most famous from the early 19th Century, but that’s outside my specialty. I don’t handle English silver because I don’t know the market. I don’t know what pieces are worth, I don’t have a clientele that looks to me for that. And I’m not wealthy. I don’t have enough money to where I can actually speculate in a market I’m not familiar with. Basically, my main expertise is American silver.” He could easily have paid too much to have a famous silversmith’s work among his wares.
“Coin silver was the early standard in this country,” Lou says. “It was many years before there was a bank in town. Coins were inconvenient and awkward sitting around in bags.”
People took their bags of coins to the local silversmith and commissioned a mug or a set of spoons or knee buckles. Stolen coins, once turned into something utilitarian, were hard to trace.
Coins minted before 1837 had a composition of 89.24 percent silver, but the actual metallurgy of many objects produced under the coin standard at this time varied from 71.1 percent to 84.8 percent. In January 1837, the silver content in American coins was increased to 90 percent silver, and after 1850 you could count on coin silver items to be the .900 fine standard. Those pieces might be marked “coin,” “pure coin,” “dollar,” “standard,” “premium,” or nothing at all. Americans marked their pieces “sterling” as early as 1800 in Baltimore and about 1860 in most other parts of the country. With the Stamping Act of 1906, the federal government made it law that if it was stamped “sterling,” it met the standard.
Before 1828, the chief spoon-making method was to cast molten silver into bars that were cooled, then surface-cleaned and rolled into thin strips one-half inch wide and cut into spoon-length blanks. At this point they were either worked with a peening hammer and steel stake or shaped with a die or a hand-carved wooden mold. When worked, silver becomes hard and brittle and must be annealed (reheated to a red heat, then quickly cooled to regain its malleability). One coin silver spoon might be annealed as many as nine times in the manufacturing process. Most handmade coin spoons are plain and light. It’s remarkable so many have survived. In 1828 William Gale invented and patented a rolling die press that made ornamentation on the handles easier. Before that, two men working their hardest could produce two dozen spoons by hand in a single day, but haste made waste, and the spoons rarely resembled each other, much less looked like a set. Gale’s invention changed silver-smithing forever. The next development was a mechanical drop-hammer method using flat dies, but much man power was still required to lift the heavy die. About 1853, a steam-powered drop press became available. The drop press allowed John Gorham in ten short years to transform the Gorham Company from a small shop with 14 employees into a leading force in the silver world.
Polishing to a bright finish — a butler’s finish — gives silver the shine most of us think of when we think “silver.” That highly reflective surface was part of the reason silver was so popular for the dining room. Back when the only sources of light were candles and oil lamps, the more reflective the surfaces, the brighter the room. A French finish has a matte appearance.
Many turn-of-the-century silver manufacturers employed a surprising number of women. Tiffany’s workforce was approximately six percent female, all doing the finishing work of burnishing and polishing (a woman’s skin was thought to have a better “texture” for the finish work). They were paid about half the wage of a man doing the same job. One step in the finish work was a ten-minute process called “bobbing” or "brushing,” when scratches and file marks were removed with a solution of pumice and oil placed on either a walrus-hide buff or a hair brush. Sadly, the large, modem manufacturers can’t afford that process now. In minutes, Lou explains centuries of the history of antique silver.
“1 had a shop for five years down in La Jolla, off of Pearl on Cuvier Street. When I opened it,” he says with the rueful chuckle of 20/20 hindsight, “I didn’t sell an awful lot. Generally speaking, when I’d sell something in the shop it was because someone had seen me or met me at a show and happened to be in San Diego and they’d stop in. I closed my shop down there about three years ago.” Now he has showcases in a shop in La Jolla, D.D. Allen, but the shop belongs to someone else. “They have a pretty upscale shop so they get the fine silver in La Jolla. I resign myself to the fact that I can’t buy from them. As much as the things are wonderful, they are not at a price that I can entertain buying them for resale.”
Lou haunts antique malls looking for pieces to buy for resale. He shows me some tea caddy spoons he picked up in San Diego the day before. He isn’t specific as to which mall, and I don’t ask. It’s a code among prospectors — don’t ask, don’t tell — that prevents the appearance of claim jumping. Lou says he does most of his shopping at shows he attends. There the selection is limited only by the depth of your pockets.
I ask Lou what flatware pattern he collects.
“At one time,” he says, “we collected a pattern for about ten years. Imperial Queen by Whiting. Do you know that pattern?” I nod “I think I had the only pair of asparagus tongs I’d ever seen in it. Individual asparagus tongs. I had over 500 pieces and the engine blew in my old truck. I needed money, so I sold it, mostly to other dealers. When all was said and done, I made about $30,000. But it was nice because we collected it over a period of time.”
I ask, “If I were your fairy godmother and could give you a complete set of something, what pattern would you choose?”
“Holy mackerel!” Lou gives it serious thought. “There’s several of the Tiffany patterns, there’s two that I like more than anything else. One would be Lap-over-edge and the other would be Chrysanthemum. ”His short list has four or five patterns on it; he can’t narrow it to one.
How does an antique-silver dealer feel about the new restrikes of the old patterns, Love Disarmed, for instance?
“Oh, I see it all the time. I don’t deal in it because it’s a reproduction. They did that with Versailles and a lot of the old patterns. They called it the Masterpiece Collection. But the quality of the workmanship isn’t there—you can really tell the difference. I don’t handle much contemporary silver at all, like Grande Baroque or Francis I. ”
Because of the resurgence of popularity in antique silver, many turn-of-the-century patterns are being reproduced by manufacturers claiming to use the original dies. Just one slight problem of authenticity. Many of the old patterns were multi-motifs. The handle of each piece in a place setting might have a different scene on it. In addition, a piece might be the result of multiple dies. The front and the back of your fork, for instance, while designed to complete each other, could be two distinct designs. Versailles, the pattern produced by Gorham in 1888, is reputed to have more than 24 different obverse motifs in a set. Factor in the same number of back motifs and you’re up to 48 different dies for one pattern. I have seen 15 of the motifs of this pattern (30 different die cuts). Over time dies wear out and the patterns become less sharp. In the 1980s some marketing whiz kid got the idea of re-striking the pattern from the original dies and calling it their Masterpiece line. But by then many of the dies, especially the dies for the back sides of the pieces, were lost or unusable. Gorham has produced its “masterpieces” with dies that are different from those used for the original pieces. You have only to hold the old and the new side by side. The new pieces are a crashing and expensive disappointment, but at least they are available. You can go mad trying to find the old pieces.
Lou and I spend the afternoon talking about hackers, morality in movies, kids, and grandkids. His oldest son is 42. Mark, the one in the photo on the curio cabinet, in the Navy cap, is not in the Navy now. He’s a cab driver in San Diego; he’s the free spirit of the family. Lou’s older girl will make the Navy a career. His younger girl is 33. If Lou has a passion for antique silver, he is even more passionate about his family.
“The last salaried job that I had was a residential loan officer with Beverly Hills Savings and Loan. ’Course that was a period of time in the early ’80s, when interest rates were so high it was prohibitive — nobody could qualify for loans. It was very slow, very, very slow. I remember I used to go out on my lunch hour and roam the antique shops. I was a bottle collector. I collected perfume bottles. I first started out as a collector. Prior to that I was a marketing manager for a prepaid health plan. That’s what brought me to San Diego. We’ve been in this house since 1972. Before that, I was a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County for 13 or 14 years.”
I’m surprised that this gentle man was ever in law enforcement. I can’t help asking — “Did you ever have to shoot somebody?”
“No,” he laughs. Then he tells me, “I shot somebody accidentally. (Isn’t that what they all say?) It was a through-and-through wound, it went through his shoulder. I apprehended a couple of guys that broke into a grocery store. One of them attacked me and I had a gun in my hand. Rather than shoot him, I hit him, and when I hit him the gun went off accidentally. That was a situation where I was off duty and it was the grocery store across the street from my house.” The two were using newspaper racks to smash the doors of little neighborhood grocery stores, running in and getting beer and cigarettes and whatever cash might be in the till. “There had been a series of about 30 of ’em all over. So that brought that to a halt. I got a commendation and everything for it. Of course today, with my old, conservative ideas (he’s laughing] I’d probably mind my own business. Then, I was gung ho. But it’s frightening to hear a gun go off when you didn’t intend to pull the trigger.
“You know, I’ve done a lot of things. I really like what I’m doing now. It’s sort of like a hobby. And to be able to work in your hobby is a bonus ’cause we don’t make fortunes, we don’t make an awful lot of money, but if we plug in the enjoyment factor, my life is rich. We plan our own schedule, we go where we want to go, and we get to see a lot of the country and talk to a lot of nice people. So if we add up the rewards and bonuses in that regard—the enjoyment factor — we do pretty well. It’s fun.”
No one who sells articles from someone else’s past can escape stolen goods. “I’ve got a collection of Medallion silverware,” Lou tells me, “that I bought from a dealer who knows that I like things like that, and I bought it. It was very expensive—I paid over $5000 for it — and it comes up that it’s stolen. I was doing a show in San Francisco. A gentleman approached me that was from Porterville that indicated that the silver had been stolen from him. So I expressed my willingness to cooperate with him and so forth and got the detective who was investigating the silver and so forth. I called him up and explained to them all how I had obtained it, who I had gotten it from.” He shifts gears from low to high. “Well, it turns out that the silver had been taken by some people who had been guests in his house during the year. So I’ve got this chest of all this wonderful Medallion silver, over 100 pieces actually, that’s still on police hold. I think it’s going to be resolved in the feet that I will get to keep the silver because this gentleman had insurance on his silver and the insurance company has settled. But he doesn’t want to take the insurance money and buy the silver back. He thinks that they should confiscate it and give it back to him. But the law in California doesn’t say that. Since I bought the silver I’m entitled to the amount back that I paid for it. If he wants it then he should have to pay that for it. If he doesn’t pay it, then the silver is mine. He had an attorney write me a very threatening letter, and of course the police department didn’t know anything about it. They asked me to send them a copy. I faxed a copy to my attorney and he said, ‘Well, you know, the best defense is a good offense.’ “The things that he had stolen were very identifiable to someone who really deals and knows. Medallion silverware is mid-19th-century, around 1864, during the Civil War period. A description of it made it easy to determine that it was the stuff that had been removed from him. Of course, he had a copy of the police report and everything. And I was very cooperative. You know, with things like that you never want to profit by someone else’s losses, and I know that, not so much today, but there was a time when the value of silver was such that there was a lot of it that was being stolen, so that I’m very cautious,” he’s smiling. “I always buy silver at receipted sources and places so that if someone comes to me and says it’s stolen I can prove that I bought it legitimately. I wouldn’t give a thief ten minutes if he approached me trying to sell me something questionable. I’m not even going to give it consideration. I sleep very well at night and I like it that way. I’m not holier than thou, so to speak (interesting that he apologizes for being ethical], but I have to be comfortable with things. I’m very public, very visible. I try not to do anything to anybody and I don’t want anybody to do anything to me. ’Cause I could be very vulnerable also.” Something makes Lou a bit more obvious. He’s black. I notice early on. He brings it up after about three hours. “All of our relatives are somewhat awed by what we’ve been able to do. I don’t like to mention this, but being a black antique dealer is very lonesome out there.” He cracks up. “There aren’t many of us around, I don’t know why. It took me a while to get over the fact that, well, when I had a bad show, it wasn’t because I was black and nobody wanted to buy from me It was because everybody was having a bad show.” He laughs at himself. “I always met enough wonderful people who were encouraging all along the way. It’s so refreshing to be able to say all this stuff and you are what you are and you’re accepted. Knowledge is power. When you know something, nobody can ever take that away from you. A lot of people, when they are shopping for silver, they're looking for the patterns and the quality of the merchandise you have and are you able to converse. They don’t particularly care, it doesn’t even become important, the feet that who you are, whether you’re black or white or whatever. I kind of enjoy that. Nobody ever forgets me. That’s why I made up my mind that I was going to do it right, because if I did it wrong nobody would ever forget that either.” I hadn’t considered that.
“Well, you know I stand out. You talk to people and the description is 'the black guy with all the silver.’ ‘Oh, you must be talking about McGee.’ ” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “I don’t know why I told you that.”
When asked what he would consider his greatest find he gets quiet. “Gosh, I think it was years ago. I found a French soup tureen. Now, I don’t specialize in French silver, but this was a French tureen made by Joseph LeBrun, a very famous French maker. I actually bought it from another dealer and I sold it to a dealer in San Francisco. Subsequently, I saw a picture of my tureen,” he is chuckling ironically, “on the cover of a magazine. I think that was one of the great finds. i didn’t know Joseph Le Brun, the maker — I found that out from the article and the magazine cover. I just knew it was a beautiful tureen. I didn’t sell it at a loss; I made a very handsome profit on it because of the beauty and the taste of it, but had I really known who he was and what it was, the value would have probably been fivefold over and above what I sold it for. But you can’t — you know, you read about the stories about the guy who went to the flea market and bought a picture frame for $15 and opens up the back of it and it’s a copy of the original Declaration of Independence signed and so forth that went at auction for $2.5 million [he tells this story in one breath and then explodes in laughter]... Well, you know, that doesn’t happen often and you can’t know everything. You do things like that and the next time, if I ever, probably never will, but if I ever have another Joseph Le Brun I’ll know what his mark is and I’ll know the fact that it’s valuable and I’ll probably sit on it for two or three years waiting to sell it [he thinks this is delightfully funny, the irony of finally knowing what you’re looking at and waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Right] — waiting for somebody to come along who appreciates it enough to pay a big price for it.” That was one, then there was another. “Couple years ago, two years ago in the Miami Beach show, I found a Kirk repousse scenic [he stresses the word as if to tell me through emphasis how rare it is] dresser set, a mirror, with a picture of a hall, and there were powder jars with bridges and ducks in a pond, and I consider that to be a great find.” Repousse work is the embossing of a design on the outside by repeatedly hammering or punching it from the inside.
It was $2500, and he didn’t think he could afford it. “I let it get away from me. I had never, ever, and to this day never since seen Kirk repousse dresser pieces with scenes on them. I think there must have been 10 or 12 pieces there with scenes on them. Fabulous.”
When asked if he has any pieces he’d like to be buried with, Lou chuckles. “You know, there is always something to replace something. Isn’t that terrible? I love my inventory, I’m always setting up a display that looks nice, but you know, it’s a living, it’s a business. I would like to be a collector.” (He rolls the word “collector” around, making it sound pretty tasty. His eyes are bright and I think he’s inwardly singing “If I Were a Rich Man.”) “To be able to be a collector where I can amass wonderful things—but most of the things I amass are usually for sale. And as long as I have my health and a way of marketing my things, that’s the way it is. I accumulate for sale. If someday I win the lottery, then I can afford to collect and amass, but as you can see, my house,” he laughs again, “is very ordinary. Oh, I have a lot of the things that are on display here,” he indicates the laden coffee table. “They are not necessarily things that I’m fond of; they are mistakes that have been made at one time or another. There’s an ice bucket there with an annealing fracture. No one is going to buy these so they sit on my coffee table. See the bell there? It was a stemmed goblet made by Hawkes.” He spreads his hands wide to indicate the length of the coffee table. “These are pieces that have flaws. Like that big dish sitting there, that’s an ice cream tray and it’s American Brilliant cut glass that was broken in half and put back together.”
The glass looks perfect from where I’m sitting. I ask him how he knows it’s broken.
“How did I know that it was broken?” He’s looking at me a little like I’m a pumpkinhead. “I broke it.” Does he still get silver fever when he sees wonderful pieces? “Oh, of course, of course, some Arts and Crafts makers, the regional silversmiths throughout the country that produce silver the old-fashioned way. The KaJo Shop, Arthur Stone, Old Newbury Crafters, Allan Adler, Porter Blanchard here in California. Then, of course, I have a fondness for the Danish movements, the art moderne, Georg Jensen, the silver of that vein. Of course, I’ve taken on a special project myself; I’m trying to find the silver jewelry pieces that were made by these craftsmen. The Georg Jensen, there’s a Nelson Fromm from Denmark, Alphonse La Paglia from the United States that made silver jewelry for Georg Jensen USA, New York, and he got a commission from International Silver Company. It’s a challenge. That’s what I search for, to find some of these old pieces.” Lou asks if I would like to see where he has his cases. You bet. He makes a phone call to “the most beautiful antique dealer in San Diego.” He asks, “Is it a good time to come over?”
I follow Lou’s car down Torrey Pines Road, turn left on Girard, right on Pearl, right on Fay. Lou parks and waits. We meet on the sidewalk outside a small house that is now a designer-clothing consignment shop where much of the stock is on racks in the front yard.
Lou and I use the insider’s entrance, the alley. When Lou calls into the shop, there’s a shift in activity. My first impression of D.D. Allen after stepping out of bright sunshine into the dark back room is of stuff rather than people. Stuff is everywhere— glass and silver, trays, paintings, pottery and books, stacked and stored neatly and not so neatly on every surface. Lou and I wait as our eyes adjust, afraid to move for fear of causing an avalanche of art.
An older man comes up behind us wearing a Panama hat, barbecue-style work apron, and Bermuda shorts. He’s carrying a large and, from the looks of it, heavy tray of flatware. I’m torn between getting out of his way and straining both his patience and his forearms by picking through it. I get out of his way. Introductions begin. The shop’s owners are Dee Dee and Alan Pagenhart. The man in the hat is Art, Alan’s dad. His mom, Kay, is a small, well-dressed woman with a lovely smile. Paul is the tall, focused right-hand man. Dee Dee and Alan have just returned from a show, hence the overrun of stuff. “Is this a bad time? Good time?” I ask. Dee Dee is smiling warmly, reassuring us.
Dee Dee and Alan are a young (late thirtyish?), attractive, energetic couple gracious enough to make you feel that you are not a shopper in a commercial establishment but more like an old friend visiting their home. Their La Jolla shop is set up in vignettes. It looks like a photo shoot for one of the better European antique magazines. No matter where your eye lands, you could snap a picture. At the front of the shop they show me a large Tiffany tea set with a tray that has been inscribed with a personal message and date — a presentation date. The date causes some mild consternation. “The numbers [pattern number] on it indicate that it’s earlier than that [the date of the presentation]. And then, of course,” Lou gives the impression of thinking out loud, “this one’s got a warm-milk pitcher. And warm-milk pitchers were not a 1920s thing. This is probably much earlier. See, it’s got a presentation date of September 27,1924. So it was made, probably...”
“... 1885, by the pattern numbers,” Dee Dee finishes his sentence for him.
“The only problem is the lower-case m, ” Lou says, referring to a letter that helps fix a date on Tiffany pieces.
“Edward C. Moore?” Dee Dee asks.
“Well, 1907 to 1937 mark. But still, I would say that you’re probably right.” He still doesn’t sound completely convinced. They sound like lab partners trying to define someone else’s results.
Dee Dee is sure, “The tray was commissioned in 1911 to go with the set. We got it directly from the family. It’s really nice to be able to acquire things; you get a little bit more basis of knowledge from it. It was given as a wedding present in ’24, September 27, 1924. And then each piece on the bottom was engraved with the date of the gift.” The whole tea set is $29,000. “It’s 26 pounds of sterling.” When you are talking about a metal that your own broker won’t let you buy if it’s higher than $6 an ounce, that’s quite a conversion factor. “And as far as polishing, all we did was use the Hagerty.”
“You’re kidding!” Lou is surprised.
“No, we did nothing else to it. That’s how good a condition it came in.”
“It looks like you sent it out and had it done.”
“No, it came in to us like this. And, basically, it just had a little bit of tarnishing on it.”
Polishing is a sticky subject with silver dealers. One thing collectors look for in old silver is patina, the bluish tone that silver develops with age. Much of an antique piece’s value is tied to the patina. Too much or too vigorous a polishing can remove the time traveled by a piece, reducing its value to something shiny and new. Every time silver is polished, no matter what the method, some silver is lost. You can also polish away the hallmarks of a piece over time, another key to its history and value. Always cover the marks with your finger or thumb to protect them. Because of the potentially damaging effects of overpolishing, choose your weapon wisely. You want the most gentle yet effective method available. All polishing is a process, a chemical reaction. Many processes, such as the dipping method sold on television, promise gentle, effortless results. That’s an oxymoron. Many of these products continue to act on the silver until stopped by another reaction or process, such as simple dishwashing liquid. Hermetically sealed museum examples of Paul Revere’s work show measurable loss to the metal from the centuries of care. Machine buffing can mute crisp details In a matter of seconds and devalue an item. But tarnish is not patina. Tarnish, the reaction of silver to the elements around it, will put pits into silver if left untouched. On silver plate, tarnish is the beginning of the end. Every dealer handles the question of polishing differently. As with religion, opinions populate a wide and variable spectrum.
Dee Dee’s experience of sterling is complete. She says she “inhales its essence.” “Sterling’s really...” (she sucks her breath in looking for the right analogy) “it’s like linen, you don’t know it until you get your hands on it and start to polish it yourself. And then you get to know the feel of it, the weight of it, how it’s made. And on linens, when you iron them, they come to life. When I do my linens, you wash them and you know to be very careful with them when they’re wet. When you start to iron them, they come to life, you see the threads, the way they move, and how it irons out all the work.”
Dee Dee is very much into the tactile side of sterling. “I can’t shop anymore without touching something. You can feel so much, like rough edges. I could be talking to you and letting my fingers do the studying. One day it was cold and we went to an estate sale and they didn’t have the heat on and I wore my gloves.” She pauses for emphasis. “I could not shop. I couldn’t tell what I was touching. You may not even realize your fingers are communicating. That is a real advantage to going to antique shows over museums — you’ll see more of the extraordinary at the museum, but nothing is touchable. It’s like when people study gemology, they can do all of their studying in identification, then they send them the real thing so they can touch it and see it and feel it, test it. And without that part of the training they wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Alan reminds her that she can look under furniture at a museum. “As long as you don’t touch it,” he says.
She laughs and drops her voice to the “it’s a secret” level. “Oh yes, I slid underneath a chair once, so I could see it.”
Dee Dee and Alan have dealt in antiques for 11 years. Before that she was a registered nurse and he was a free lance photojournalist. They’ve had a store in La Jolla for four years. “I remember the visual — most of the times I’ll know it's this or I’ll know it’s that. Alan is much better with specifics. We do a little bit of everything here, as you can tell. Sterling is one of my biggest loves. And people are shocked when they come in and see how much we have. I don’t think of it as much. When you go into other stores in the area you don’t see much sterling, they don’t deal in it.” I see a great Mexican sterling tray. “Really a great size, great weight, you have to feel it. Sometimes we say, we knew a piece was good two years before everyone else did.”
Sterling creates connections to legends. There is a beautiful Mexican pitcher sitting on an elegantly plain tray. Dee Dee hints that if I purchase it, she can tell me its provenance. Provenance is another aspect critical to antique-silver value. Everything was owned by someone else. Being able to prove it was Abraham Lincoln and not Abie the fishmonger can mean the difference of several digits. “The owners of the pitcher had owned a beautiful sterling shop in Mexico City. They knew Bill Spratling, they knew Hector Aguilar, he flew in Bill’s plane down to Taxco [the heart of the great Mexican design movement] from Mexico City to pick up some silver jewelry. They bought all their silver jewelry and silver wares from Taxco. But the flatware and the hollowware [tea services, bowls, candelabra] in Mexico City was fabulous, so they didn’t really pick up that much hollowware from Taxco. These two pieces are still part of their collection that we obtained. The sweetest, sweetest people you’ve ever met. They have stories, stuff, and photographs. Mexican silver has a real richness that I enjoy.”
Dee Dee collects Georg Jensen brooches and earrings for herself. The way she met Lou was to bid against his wife at an auction for a Jensen pin. “My first pin, his wife was bidding on and I was bidding on and Lou was watching a ball game somewhere. My first Jensen pin was a fight between his wife and me.”
“I didn’t know that,” says Lou.
“Yeah, she wasn’t going to tell you,” Dee Dee laughs. Lou has been a mentor to Dee Dee and Alan, strengthening the bond among them.
Later, Dee Dee, Alan, and Paul are looking at a collection of seven or eight small items that Kay brought in that morning. “Oh, you found some Georg Jensen.” Dee Dee’s voice carries her excitement. Alan is curious. “Let’s see.”
“Oh, that one, oh I saw that—that’s Georg Jensen?” Paul sounds surprised and impressed all at once. “Oh, my God,” Alan says, “Miss Five Dollars.” Kay is beaming, radiant with her treasure. “I call her Miss Five Dollars ’cause she buys everything for $5.” Kay has found 1930s Georg Jensen earrings, Bakelite, and more signed sterling pieces with unfamiliar marks. “I think you really scored here,” Alan says, smiling broadly.
Kay shows Dee Dee something and there is a sharp intake of breath. “Kaaay,” Dee Dee gives her name emphasis by making it polysyllabic, “we have to get the books out now.” Kay is gleeful. I ask where all this stuff came from, and Dee Dee and Kay look at each other, then look at me, and in perfect unison say “Garage sale” sheepishly, and then they crack up.
“She’s the only one that still does it” Dee Dee explains, “1 can’t get up that early anymore.” Kay comes to her daughter-in-law’s defense just in case I believe Dee Dee is lazy. “She doesn’t have time anymore.”
I ask Kay if she has a showcase. She laughs. “I don’t have a case. I’m just having fun.”
“We always double her money.” Dee Dee and Kay crack up again. What sports. I offer to triple her money. Her laughter is the kind television producers wish they had on their laugh tracks.
“It’s pretty funny; she brings stuff in sometimes and we say, ‘Okay, this is really nice, but you should take it home.’ ” Dec Dee’s half laughing. “We’ve told her don’t buy anything you don’t really like.” Kay has a little Fitz & Floyd bunny that Dee Dee turns down, saying, “It’s too new, I hope you like it at your house.” They both laugh. Clearly any discussion about “feelings” happened, if it ever needed to, a long time ago. These people love and respect each other. Kay, however, defends her bunny to me: “It’s not old, but it’s cute.” Dee Dee laughs again. “We like Kay working here; she buys something every day.”
I ask if Dee Dee and Alan ever cultivate relationships with an eye on the future. “No,” Dee Dee says. “What happens a lot to us is, we’ve been in the business in San Diego for ten years, so we do have a good base. And word of mouth is very good for us. So people will tell other people the experiences they’ve had with us, so we get good referrals. When people come in and tell us they would like to sell some of their things, we tell them to tell their children they are downsizing. That way the children don’t feel guilty getting the things they really want. When the family is finished, we will help them. We strongly believe in families. We’re only children but we are both very attached to our parents.”
In reply to a question about stretching the truth a bit to sell a piece—“Never,” Dee Dee answers in a quick, quiet, that’s-too-silly-to-consider manner, “but,” she quickly remembers something, “there were two women, a mother and her daughter, at a show once that said, ‘Well, tell me a story about it.’ It was our second show, and I had this fabulous Royal Worchester pitcher. And the handle had been broken off. It had been reapplied the old way with the metal around both handles and it was stamped ‘Gumps,’ so it was bought in San Francisco. I could date it to be 1880-something so I told them that. ‘Well, what else do you know about it?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, this was a family heirloom.’ ” She repeats the very elaborate story she told the women of how the piece survived the San Francisco earthquake but sustained some damage. At the end of the story both women were wide-eyed. “They absolutely loved the story and the older woman had to have it. I said, ‘But you know the story’s not true.’ She said, ‘Oh, I know the story’s not true, but I’m going to remember that story and when anybody ever asks me, I’m gonna tell them that story.’ ”
Getting ready to leave, I hear a metallic crash tinkle. “Did something just fall?” Alan asks Dee Dee.
“It’s stainless” is her reply, with not much concern.
Before 1825, meals were served Italianate style. All prepared food was placed on the table at once, in what my mother always called family style. It was a style brought to the French court by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th Century. In 1825, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a Frenchman, wrote a book called Physiology of Taste. He introduced a new order to dining based solely on his own logic and confidence in his own good taste. Suddenly there were courses. If he were alive now he might be the founder of HGTV. He advocated that each course have its own complementary wine and that every meal should be a celebration. His book was only the beginning. Etiquette mongers were everywhere between 1830 and 1911. They published 306 separate volumes dictating manners. That doesn’t include revisions and later editions. Roughly every three months brought a new publication about how to behave properly. And with almost every new rule there was a need for a new silverware tool. American silver manufacturers did their best to entice us to use these new and wonderful tools for anything and everything, including ice cream. Dessert forks are particularly lovely, with cutouts above the tines and bridges between the tines. The flourish of the design is carried deeper into the business end than in other forks. Luxury foods such as oysters, butter, and ice cream were made more available by the railroads snaking across middle America. As refrigeration came into the home, it seemed to create the need for oyster forks, ice cream forks, and butter picks, or spreaders. Delightful serving pieces as specialized as mango forks, ice cream slices, buckwheat-cake lifters, and crawfish knives were new and must-have additions.
It depends on which history you read as to which was first on the table, a knife or a spoon. In fact, for a long time the knife and fingers were the only tools. Even peas were pursued with the blade. The first “spoons” were probably sticks, which were soon shaped to be more accurate and accommodating. Forks are a relatively new invention, thought to have originated in Italy and been brought to England by way of French nobility in the 17th Century. Early forks had silver handles and carbon steel tines, two to be exact, and then three. The four-tine fork was made more common with the invention of the rolling-die press. All-silver forks were rare as late as 1835 and considered a luxury reserved for persons of established wealth.
Miguel de Cervantes coined a now-familiar phrase through Don Quixote: “Every man was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” Victorian etiquette was more about proving who belonged in polite society and who didn’t If you could not gracefully use the right piece of flatware from the possible 22 pieces put in front of you to perform some culinary operation, you didn’t belong there. Cartoons published in Life magazine in the 1880s and 1890s ridiculed manners of the day; sometimes the joke was in favor of the common man, more often than not, it went against him. Because forks were uncommon, cutting and eating with your knife was efficient and acceptable transport. Americans were instantly recognized and ridiculed when they went abroad. Jokes were made about someone being born with a “silver knife in his mouth.” Children weren’t even allowed at the adults’ table until they could prove they could handle their silverware. A child was generally taught table manners by the servants and, when fully schooled and capable, given his or her own three-piece set of silverware scaled for smaller hands.
A design’s success depends largely on the clarity and precision of the dies that cut the designs. Each die, once designed, might take a month to produce. F. Antonine Heller, a French painter, designer, chaser (chasing is a method of impressing a linear design into a piece using a blunt-ended punch, or chaser, struck from the front), and die cutter, worked first for Tiffany in 1873 but defected soon after to Gorham. He created many of the intricate high-relief patterns that are considered true classics. Mythologique, a multimotif design, is a walk through a statuary garden of Greek gods. The pattern was so impressive, Greece made the French design produced by an American company its national silverware. Berry, a naturalistic high-relief, multimotif pattern by Whiting, has handles strewn with plump, juicy berries. The fruit varies according to the piece. On the teaspoons, they’re blueberries; on soup spoons, strawberries. Other pieces are decorated with cranberries, currants, gooseberries. It’s a pattern of increasing impression. It may not look like much in the teaspoon size, but on a larger canvas, say a 13-inch soup ladle with currants so ripe you can see the ribs nestled in the crisp notches of the botanically correct leaves, it is a wonder. Tiffany created a mysterious, exquisite pattern called Vine that was not only a multimotif, but most of the pieces also had terminals (the very end of the handle) that were shaped differently. That may be why so little is known about this pattern. You would have to have a good eye and a lot of confidence to believe the pieces were part of the same set.
After spending the day with Lou, I’m on my own to ferret out antique-silver sources. My search begins at Unicom Antique Mall, downtown in the warehouse district Inside I ask about antique silver, and both women working the first floor refer me to Ken on the second floor. “He loves the stuff,” Anita, the cashier, assures me.
On the second floor, the first few showcases hold nothing that gleams, and, like a rat looking for silver cheese, I continue through the maze. Rounding a corner, I see an older woman in improbable broad-striped brown-and-yellow overalls packing or unpacking a cardboard box. I ask for Ken. “He’s over there,” hands full, she indicates with her head. It’s coincidence that as I round another corner and see four full showcases stacked with silver I hear church bells. Okay, not actual church bells but definite chiming. A group of antique clocks and one cuckoo are sounding eleven o’clock in relative unison.
Ken Freeman, owner of Empire Enterprises, is talking with a Hispanic woman and her mother. Several small jewelry items are laid out on a desk between them. It’s clear from the hushed tones a buy is happening. I shamelessly eavesdrop to get a preemptive feel for who Ken is and how he deals.
“You didn’t pay too much for you, you paid too much for resale,” he explains in a soft, matter-of-fact manner. “I can give you five for it. What do you want for this piece?” Her response is too quiet for me to hear. Both parties are intent. Again, Ken’s voice is clear, “Now you’re asking too little. I can give you ten for that. If you are too high, I’ll tell you and if you’re too low, I’ll tell you that also.” The negotiations continue with no detectable personality involved. The younger woman does all of the talking; her mother is seated, detached, she could be sitting for her portrait. “I can’t use that at all,” Ken says, “sorry.” The price for each item of interest is agreed upon. Then comes the paperwork, which is anything but a lightning round. I had missed the sizing-each-other-up stage of the transaction. Trust is the critical element. Ken’s demeanor smacks of an open “this is the way it is,” a fine balance of tactful bluntness.
After the sellers have gone, Ken opens showcases for me. Does he have so much silver because he loves it or because it sells well? Or is it simply something he can buy cheaply that displays well? I ask how he got into silver. Sitting on the floor, turning my fingers as black as any slot-machine gambler by going through about 200 pieces of silver flatware in the bottom of one of his upright cases, I have to look up and to the side to make eye contact. The angle of my perspective may have been skewed, but it seemed to me his chest sort of puffed out and his head tilted back, making his jaw jut out He remembers the incident clearly. It was in the early 1980s, a dark time for silver. He was in an antique store and right there, in the middle of the store, they were cutting up a big, beautiful sterling ladle to melt it down. The Hunt brothers, in their infamous attempt to corner the silver market, had driven the price of silver to an unheard of $50 an ounce. People were bringing in whole tea sets, flatware services, and other family heirlooms to be weighed and melted. The Hunts were responsible for nothing less than an antique-silver holocaust. After a margin call they couldn’t meet, the brothers lost a personal fortune of about $2 billion. There was a trial and an associated scandal, but before it was over thousands of beautiful pieces of the past had turned into scrap. “I was too late to save that one, but I made up my mind to save as much as I could.” He stands above me like an errant knight. Or it may have just been my angle on the floor.
When it comes to precious metals, Ken doesn’t believe anything he reads. He acid tests everything. He lightly scratches a place on the surface of the piece that is hidden, then places a small drop of acid on it. The silver or gold content is revealed in the color the acid turns. Then he quickly wipes it off. “Anybody can get a punch with ‘sterling’ or ‘925’ on it.” He guarantees me that one out of 20 or so pieces marked sterling or 14kt won’t pass the test.
“To own it all? You can’t,” Ken declares. “The object of the game is to stay in business, and you do that by selling your merchandise, not by keeping it. A lot of dealers think everything they own is museum quality and they charge too much. Consequently, they go out of business. The object of the game here is for someone else to own the merchandise.” Ken’s place is a bonanza for someone familiar with marks and patterns. Unlike many places where each piece is researched, then valued, most of the silver I see at Ken’s is valued by weight and workmanship. The flatware pattern might be identified; most of it is not. Too much silver, too little time. Most of Ken’s inventory walks in through the front door. Because of the official forms the San Diego Police Department requires, he’s one of the few dealers in an antique mall who will buy silver from someone off the street. A form must be filled out for every item he purchases. If you come in with eight rings to sell, you have to stand there and fill out eight forms. Your fingerprints are taken, driver’s license number copied, and you sign a statement swearing that you have the right to sell it in the first place. A copy of each form goes to the police department, where someone crosschecks for reports of stolen goods. Over the course of our interview, at least six people of different degrees of familiarity come in to sell him stuff. One young woman says almost nothing, makes no eye contact, and never removes her earphones. Ken recommends she get a copy of Kovel’s book on spotting antiques. Last year, Ken estimates that he bought stuff from more than 500 people, many of them professional “pickers.”
The pickers are the true gamblers who spend their own time and money buying things they hope will interest an antique dealer. If they buy right, they may double or triple their investment in an afternoon. If they buy wrong, they may not have lunch money. Ken has worked with some of the folks he buys from for 15 years. That’s a long-term relationship in any business, but in antiques, it’s pretty rare. That trust thing again. One of Ken’s pickers is Ruben, a medium-height, slightly built guy of indeterminate age and ethnicity. His accent is definite, its origin more complicated. I don’t ask; I am afraid my interest will be misunderstood. It’s clear Ruben is a very accomplished flirt. He even admits to flirting at garage and estate sales to get better prices. “For me, it’s better than sex. Much, much better.” Ruben’s eyes twinkle. He is almost bouncing, radiating energy.
Daryl also sells to Ken. Daryl is an aerospace engineer-turned-carpenter whose hobby is picking. Of medium height, with gray hair and beard, he has a genteel manner and intelligent blue eyes. If you were casting the part of a picker, he wouldn’t even rate an audition. Too improbable. His interest is closer to that of a collector than a dealer. He keeps most of the antique silver he finds and sells Ken the rest. He is working on a collection of Love Disarmed, which seems to be the odds-on favorite flatware pattern among men, described by one as a “naked woman with long flowing hair covering strategic parts.” In fact, she does have flowing hair, but she’s fully clothed. Her gown is close-fitting and flowing. Like the old song says, “a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.” Daryl’s only found two pieces, a spoon and a fork; nevertheless, that’s the pattern he’s working on.
Antique-silver collectors may search for specific patterns, time periods, designers, or pieces, like berry spoons, in any old, unusual pattern. Some collect any and all silver, but all of the collectors I speak to are as cagey as barn cats. Only the promise of anonymity opens the door. “Don’t use my name” is the most common request when I find someone to talk to me about his or her collection.
Nineteen ninety-five was a big year for “Steven.” His girlfriend left him and he turned to Neiman Marcus for comfort. In a little over three months he was $20,000 in debt, but he looked good and he felt better. Sorta. “Buying is great. It made me feel better. Armani, Versace, I bought a $6500 Faberge egg for $2200. I’ve still got it.” Then one Saturday morning he noticed his neighbor’s garage sale. Bored, he dropped by to confirm what he had always thought—“that garage sales are a bunch of old toys, baby clothes, and crap I wouldn’t have.” He was right about that garage sale, but across the street there was another more to his liking. “I picked up a pair of marble bookends that still had the $95 Neiman Marcus price tag on them. I asked how much she wanted and paid five bucks for them.” A pivotal point in his personal history. Steven had discovered the secondary market. As a child, in 1971 Steven had taken his allowance and bought silver dollars. “I’ve always been into precious metals.” Seven years later he sold his collection for $3000. Precious metals.
It was only a matter of the right estate sale before he discovered antique silver. His first estate-sale piece was a sterling footed bowl. He paid roughly $30 and later sold it for $1000. He was hooked. Steven estimates he has more than 5000 pounds of sterling in his home. His collection covers the floors, and he decorates the walls of his bedroom with tea sets, pitchers, and trays.
For one whole year he bought. Garage sales, estate sales, and auctions. After the year-long binge of ’95 he began the purge of ’96, another user-turned-dealer.
It can’t be an accident that the antique-silver trade and the drug world share so much of the same language. Dealers, sources, users. “I needed to start selling or I would be in trouble.” He sold to all the silver dealers in town. “I’ve sold to Connie McNally.” That’s a benchmark he’s proud of. “She has a pretty posh shop. She’s kind of a mother-figure type, pretty plainspoken. She chewed me out once ’cause I let another dealer beat me to a tea service. I really respect her for that.” Kind of a “Thanks, I needed that.” Lou McGee helped him identify a foreign mark on a tray he bought for $12 and sold for $400. He can’t say enough good things about Lou.
“You can’t be attached to your collection. You don’t need 100 of something. I’ll even buy those Franklin plates if they are priced right.” He pays $5 for the “sterling, limited-edition collector’s plates.” It’s the same price paid for scrap but it’s better than most dealers will pay. He loves “turning nickels into dollars. It gives you the treasure-hunt feeling.” Last month was his best ever; he estimates he made $15,000. He still finds the occasional Armani jacket, but now he doesn’t pay more than $20 for it at a garage sale. “You can’t believe how much fun this is. I just get up every morning and slap my knees, I can’t believe it.”
I drive to Rancho Santa Fe on a morning that is warm and misty. Even without direct sunlight I appreciate one of the loveliest places in Southern California. Old, comfortable, and well off, the community looks like the Mexican village set on the Disney lot in the 1950s, all white stucco, wrought iron, and red Spanish tile. It’s quiet with perfect vegetation and almost no parking. I’m late for an appointment with Connie McNally, the owner-editor of Silver Magazine.
When I find a spot to park, it’s off one of the main streets. I still need to find someone to point me in the right direction. I have tried to follow directions given to me by Vincent, Connie McNally’s administrative assistant He patiently repeated them several times over the phone a week earlier, but with no frame of reference nothing is clear. When I finally find myself inside McNally’s Antiques, I must look around even though I’m late. To a real silver lover, the shop has the effect of your first heartbreak. Every gleaming item is almost more beautiful than you can bear to hold in your hand. Small, clever boxes. Coffee pots with heraldic medallions, made about the time of the Civil War, graciously wait to pour out another afternoon tea. Handmade flatware sits on the velvet-covered cushions of a French Regence chair.
“Oh yes, you’re late. Connie had to go into another meeting,” Susie, the small, attractive blonde who manages McNally Co. Antiques Inc., explains. She is seated at a desk in the back corner of the shop. “I’ll let her know you’re here.” I am apologetic and, yes, late, an entire half hour late, because I got lost. I called, but there it is, 30 minutes that cannot be redeemed.
Connie glides down the stairs like a debutante. She is a classic beauty, blond, trim, fiftyish, whose voice has a deep, sultry quality. She extends her hand with a very professional smile. “You’re late.” I explain and apologize again, this is not my best foot forward. “Come on up to my office. I’ve got a little bit of time.” She disappears quickly up the stairs and I dutifully follow.
Connie enters a large room with at least two desks, maybe three, pushed together to create a surface for computers, stacks and piles of paper, and boxes on top of stacks of paper. The walls facing east and west are lined with bookcases and cupboards. I am introduced to the people occupying the desks: Mary, who does the layout for the magazine, and Vincent, who describes his job as what used to be known as a girl Friday.
Connie warms up quickly. She tells me, “I grew up with silver. My mother loved it.” She smiles, remembering. “And I loved polishing it. It’s instant gratification.” Connie is very polished herself. You can imagine her living with any of the beautiful things in her shop. “I love the research, who made it, where it came from. It’s very humbling. As much as you know, you don’t know as much as you think you do.”
Connie is in a perfect position to learn. Her editorial column provides an international forum for obscure quests and questions that can only be answered by other silver addicts thrilled to be able to show off arcane knowledge. Many people who write in to answer questions posed in previous issues are archivists and collectors with family connections going back to the beginning of the industry. Silver Magazine may be the only place to finally, and with some authority, have that one nagging, narrow question answered.
The magazine also provides a direct conduit to people who need help with treasures. Connie shares the story of a 75-year-old gentleman who, “because of his age, felt it was time to divest himself of some of his heirlooms left to him by his father.” The gentleman had been fighting in World War II when his father died, and unbeknownst to him, possessions meant for him were on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When he returned from war, the museum neglected to contact him to let him know it was keeping his treasures for him. Years later, he found a copy of the will, and the museum agreed to send his things back. In the carton was a “gold Freedom Box from the City of New York presented to John Jay.” He brought it to Connie and asked how much it was worth. She told me she could have paid the man $75,000 and he would have been happy. Instead she put him in touch with an auction house, which sold it for him for $460,000. “Just holding it actually made me cry,” said Connie.
She and her husband, Bill, bought Silver Magazine when the former owner and editor, Diana Cramer, died suddenly in 1993. Diana had been a woman of dynamic and varied interests. Silver Magazine was only one of them and had been published a bit erratically. The McNallys, like other advertisers in the magazine, never knew when issues would be ready for publication. When Diana’s husband called to ask if Connie and Bill would be interested in buying the magazine, the McNallys thought about it for a while and said yes.
Asked about her biggest regret or mistake as a silver dealer, Connie thinks carefully. Finally, laughing, she says, “letting an author and collector bug me until I sold him some Martele fish forks.” Martele was an art nouveau line made entirely by hand. It was produced by Gorham artists for a very short period of time, roughly 1896 to 1914. Very rare.
I mention to Connie how impressed I have been with the silver dealers I’ve met in San Diego. In a business in which knowledge has an immediate impact on your wallet, they’ve all been open and sharing. She smiles, “Most of us are pretty verbose.”
I laugh. I know what she means. Your passion for the subject can cause you to misjudge your audience. A casual question from someone who looks you in the eye can be completely misunderstood as genuine interest. You begin to answer. When you are dealing with a subject that has a 5000-year history, there are no short answers.
Connie unpacks a carton of antique-silver flatware, piece after glorious piece, while we talk. Finally, I can’t stand it anymore and ask where she came by such a stash. “I bought them from the estate of an older couple back East.”
When I remark on the quality of the collection, Connie smiles. “They were dealers who didn’t like to sell. They had over 3000 pieces.” In answer to my question of spectacular pieces, Connie walks to the cupboard on the back wall, opens one of the doors, and in a laborious motion that indicates an object of considerable weight she sets before me on the table the most stunning piece of silver I have ever personally seen. “It weighs about 20 pounds,” she says proudly, “a wine cooler done by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot.” He was the master silversmith credited with creating and dominating the Empire style in France. Odiot succeeded to his father’s business in Paris in 1785. The most comprehensive collection of his work is owned by the British royal family. This piece is incredible. It stands 12 to 15 inches high and looks very heavy. I have to stand to pick it up. The interior is thick, rough repousse work that creates a naturalistic exterior intended to look like a hollowed-out tree trunk. Vines crisscross with one-inch snails crawling at the base. The detail is perfect. You expect to see the snails inch forward. The handles on the sides of the cooler are the heads of spaniel dogs. Again, the detail is impeccable. You can see each strand of hair on the dogs’ ears. “It’s one of a pair. Sotheby’s sold the other at auction a couple of years ago for $33,000. We may contact that buyer and see if he wants to buy this one or sell that one. They are always more valuable in pairs; that’s how they were made to be.”
When I am walking out of McNally’s, an inscription on a piece in a case catches my eye. “To Murine and Stillman in memory of a perfect party, March 28,1928.” The precise letters of the engraving cut artistically into the smooth, liquid-looking silver surface of a simple 18-inch trumpet vase. Each guest’s name is also there preserving the guest list of a sterling evening for all time. Engraved just a year before the crash that changed so many fortunes and lifestyles, it speaks with a carefree, innocent smugness. Antique silver is not shy in telling you about its previous lives and lovers. It bears their names, initials, or sentiments proudly, sometimes mysteriously, but always in the fashion of the day. Part of the attraction to an old piece can be a cryptic message that you can weave a story around. Like a beautiful woman with a past, you must love her enough to overlook or benefit from her past. Trying to erase the monograms will destroy and devalue a piece faster than anything else you can do, short of running it over with an RV or putting it in the dishwasher. That’s particularly true of silver plate. If you cannot live with someone else’s mark of ownership on your beloved, keep looking until you find an unmonogrammed piece. “I won’t sell it to them if I know they are going to have it demonogrammed. We will keep looking until we find an unmonogrammed piece.” Connie is definite. “The monogram can give you its history.” You also have the option to be creative with explanations of monograms. I wonder if Murine and Stillman sold their wonderful hostess gift in favor of something more practical, like food, after the stock market dumped everyone. Probably not, that’s too dramatic Most likely, it passed downward through enough of the family’s outstretched hands that no one remembered that perfect party anymore and the shiny moment slipped out of the family and into this softly lit showcase surrounded by other beautiful bits of time.
The drive to Ocean Beach is straightforward.. Traffic is light and the haze is burning off. Along Newport Avenue a string of antique stores occupies the remains of what used to be family businesses and grocery stores before the mega complexes killed them. The exteriors have a great dated look, like fins on a car. Inside Newport Avenue Antiques it’s easy to see the antique-silver booth, but the dealer isn’t in. However, the man behind the counter turns out to be a collector who works there. I’ve asked his name. “Roumayne.”
“You are Roumayne...” He starts giggling softly. I catch on. Just the first name? “Yeah.”
He’s worked at the antique mall for seven months. What draws him to the silver?
“I think the quality workmanship that went into it, the care, the design that they don’t have today. I have a ton of different patterns.” Does he mix and match? “No. I am collecting a bunch of sets right now. Once in a while you can find an odd piece here and there in a mall. If someone doesn’t know what it is or what it’s worth, you can pick it up.” He says he has no particular favorites so I pose the fairy godmother question.
“Well, if you could give me a set of vintage Love Disarmed, I’d be ecstatic,” Roumayne says. He’s quick to respond and very definite. He laughs.
“Uh-huh, ’cause they are re-striking it, remaking it and it’s [slight pause] okay, but the vintage is more [another pause] desirable.” He chuckles.
“We had a couple come in and buy a service for 12 in sterling. Each place setting was a different pattern. It was so neat. Basically, I got to build the entire set for them. Boy, that was really fun. I put them on the counter and if they liked it...” He shrugs, “They didn’t turn down one single one that I put up there.” He’s a real collector who looks for Fessenden, a small but high-quality silver house that started producing about 1852. By 1866 it had evolved into Whiting Manufacturing. Then in 1924, Gorham bought it. “I have two pieces. I’m looking for one pattern. I’ve got feelers out across the whole country but no one’s got any.”
What pattern is that? “It’s called Marie Louise. It’s gorgeous. No one’s got one. Half the people haven’t heard of it. It’s a great pattern, pierced. Another great 1800s pattern is Egyptian by Whiting and I found two pieces on my searches. It’s a great [he rolls the word around] pattern. That’s another one the tooth fairy or the magic carrot [he’s giggling again] could bring me.” The tooth fairy? I’m confused. Maybe he means his fairy godmother. “Yeah, that’s who it is.”
Roumayne shows me more items in the case. We also talk silver, collector to collector. “There was a time when Tiffany put their name on a lot of different manufacturers’ patterns. They originally didn’t make any themselves. Here’s a fork in a very collectible pattern, so you can see what it looks like. On the back, too, they have the Egyptian motif — here’s a little Pharaoh. Of course, this was before KingTut’s tomb was found, that was 1928; this is 1875, so...” There is a tension in his speech, he speeds up then slows down like a train moving from a cold start, pulling with slight jerks to advance. “Shiebler’s also very collectible.” Shiebler, the son of German immigrants, was a mid-19th-century designer who experimented with shapes as well as with subject matter for patterns. His spoons don’t simply rest in your hand like inanimate objects. When you hold them, the handles crest and dip back up to hold you back. “Anything by Shiebler, especially the hollowware.” Where does he shop when he goes out? “Oh, all over, I try to hit all of the antique malls. I do a couple here and a couple there. I like to do the shows too, you know, the Del Mar Antique Show.” We talk about the ugliest patterns we’ve seen. “It’s all a matter of personal taste,” he says with diplomacy. “Some of the ones made in the ’60s are pretty bad, ’60s to ’70s, but then, that was a pretty bad design period in general.” He laughs.
Does he have any advice for beginning collectors? “Just be careful.” He pauses and his tone gets serious, “ ’cause it’s a disease.” He suddenly laughs. “And once you get hooked — that’s it, you’re hooked for life I’ve also gone from flatware collecting to hollowware collecting.”
Walking up the street to Newport Avenue Antiques, I find the morning has warmed enough for me to take off my sweater and tie it around my waist. It will also provide more cushion for the next sit-in. Chris, a dealer there, doesn’t collect much anymore. “I started collecting when I was 10 years old.”
I’m incredulous. “Ten years old?”
He looks like he’s about 35. “It’s something that I don’t collect anymore. Mexican silver, or hollowware, or some jewelry, that’s about the only thing I collect in silver anymore.” So does he appreciate Mexican sterling? “Oh, yeah,” his voice is emphatic. “Unfortunately, I started collecting way too late.” At 10? “Well, I wasn’t collecting Mexican silver. It’s only taken me, I don’t know how many years now, to figure out what I want to collect”
Most Mexican silver is heavier than American silver. San Diego is filthy with it. It has great appeal tor those with the ability to see its beauty. They' may not form a large group, but what they lack in size they make up for in selectivity. Collectors of Mexican silver are almost totally designer driven. Ten years ago, according to Dennis Spotz, a dealer in Escondido, you could get a Spratling bracelet for $200 to $300. Now you’ll pay $1200 to $ 1500 for the same bracelet, and that’s if you can find one.
Chris recommends I get in touch with a guy who’s “been in business forever and a day. He would be a good person to talk to and get information from.” He’s talking about Lou McGee. Behind the cash register is a very sleepy and expressive Boston terrier by the name of Mogali. He is wrapped in a blanket with only his face showing. “He goes under the covers and puts his head on the pillow, just like a person.” I envy Mogali his contentment, but I must continue the search for antique silver.
Joan Montalto is one of three women who share a space they call Elite Antiques at the Olde Cracker Factory on West Market. Joan and her partners are active in the pursuit. “It’s a lot of running around. It’s really like a seven-day-a-week job. ’Cause if you’re not here, you’re at home marking, cleaning, polishing something. So it looks glamorous but it’s not. People think we walk into a store and say, I’ll take this and that, but it doesn’t happen that way.”
Where is she from? “Brooklyn,” she looks sheepish. “How could you tell?
“We check reference books, sometimes the style, and there’s marks on things. On silver it’s not as easy as on porcelain, but there are marks on them. Now if it’s sterling, it’s easy. Some will say 925, which is sterling, some have 800 marked on them, some will just be silver plate. Like these are old Victorian napkin rings,” she is pointing to a silver-colored napkin ring attached to the figure of a baby chicken, “but these will say ‘plate’ on them. These are valuable because of their age and people are looking for them. Workmanship on Victorian plate is the same as sterling, it’s just that sterling is sterling. They have started reproducing them, and the newer ones are much, much cheaper.”
Does she see much reproduction? “In some things, and we mark them if we know it’s a reproduction. Sometimes we’re fooled too — we’re not experts by any means.”
I ask if she knows any silver experts and she names Lou McGee. He can tell ages and patterns immediately. “Silver gets nicer as you use it. The more you use silver, the nicer it gets.”
Does she use silver?
“Some. I don’t like polish. It looks beautiful when it’s polished, but it takes a lot of upkeep. It’s gratifying when you get something that’s dark,” she admits, “and you polish it [she does this with a piece of old flannel] and you get that intense, bright color. I don’t have a silver cloth,” she laughs, “we do everything the old-fashioned way. It makes more sense to us. A lot of people dip old pieces and they make them look new and you’ve lost the patina on it.
“I use some things. I use sugar spoons, demitasse spoons, things like that. Bigger pieces, I don’t use as much unless I’m doing a lot of fancy entertaining. Serving pieces are the nicest.”
Flatware pieces were produced as part of two groups—“Fancy work,” the serving pieces, and “dozens work,” the individual place-setting pieces: forks, spoons, knives.
“I try not to collect it because I would never make any money, and I deal with this so much that I like to go home and be plain. You know? I only have a couple of pieces in my house that are antique. I like them, but I don’t want to live with them all the time. We’re in the business to make money; we try to buy and sell it.” Her strong Eastern accent makes it hard to catch some of her words. “Or else, we bring it home, enjoy it for a while, then turn it over and get something different.
“In this area we deal with a lot of tourists. We do have locals that do come in, but by and large our business is tourists. They do have a want list. The collectors are very good because they know exactly what they want and they will pay for it. So it’s nice to deal with them. Young people are getting into it because it’s something different. When I was first married I got into it because I didn’t want to have what everyone else had in their house.”
Do more men than women buy it? “No,” she’s quite definite, “I would say it’s equal. We have a lot of men collectors, and they really want what they want. They see something and they’re very particular. A woman might be a little more flexible, but I don’t find the men to be so.”
Going through a showcase full of old silver, Joan introduces me to one of her partners, Mara Escajeda. “All this sterling is mine,” says Mara, with a strong European accent. What happens to a damaged piece? This comes into question because a beautiful silver-plate teapot handle came off when it was set on the counter. “Nothing, we don’t repair it before it’s sold. Unless somebody is adding to their set and they want to use it, it’s mostly for collectors and it’s not that important.” She doesn’t find that collectors are fussy. “Not on the older pieces.” Does she have any silver that she lives with? “No, not really. I have a silver set that I use on a regular basis, but I’m not a silver collector.” She assures me twice that she really likes silver. She took a continuing education class in silver at San Jose State when she was young, and from a very well known antique dealer and collector. “She was wonderful. She specialized in English silver. This was 30 years ago and she was 83 at the time. She lived in Los Gatos in a fabulous Victorian mansion filled with antiques.”
I point to a row of all-silver knives in the case. “Can I see those?”
“Yes, these are all master butters.” (She says it slowly for obvious reasons, but with her accent, I think it is still a dangerous statement.) “Not individual butters, these were the master butters.”
“Tell me about the master butters.” I also say that very carefully, never wishing to pry into someone’s personal habits.
“It went together with the butter dish.” She looks around the store for one, finally spotting an old, domed Victorian silver-plate example with two upturned hooks on the side about an inch apart. “These would hold the knife for a spreader’s convenience and sometimes they had the individual butters with each place setting, like this — let me show you.” She digs through her showcase. “On a lot of the butter dishes, the finial was a cow. The Victorians could be quite obvious or they could be very subtle.”
Joan assures me any purchases are “food for the soul.... It’s pennies over a lifetime.” The joys of rationalization.
“Who’s sorry now? Who’s sorry now?” Connie Francis asks the musical question of conscience as I leave Elite Antiques in the back room and enter the softly lit front room of the old ware-house-turned-antique mall. Mood music. The music is also a very effective way to cover the creaking of wooden floors. Sunlight is softened through the sheer curtains on the tall windows. It highlights the intricate pattern on the handle of the silver teaspoon in Della Creelman’s hands. She places it on the glass top of the oak showcase and moves it toward me, presentation style. I flip it over and read the back, “James W. Tufts AI.” I’m not familiar with the pattern or mark. That name, however, rings a far-off bell, and I study the spoon while I mentally go through the files. All I can remember reading is an obscure reference that there are “many collectors ofTufts’s work.” The spoons are worn to the base metal at the heel, a minus for condition, but only $5.50 apiece, a plus for price. I deride to take a chance and spend the money I had set aside for lunch, purchasing all three.
Later, when I have looked them up in a pattern reference book of silver-plated flatware, I discover I have done well with my crapshooL The spoons are a pattern called Tufts 1, named after the designer and maker, James W. Tufts, an interesting character who in the last half of the 19th Century started his professional career as a pharmacist. He became a silver plater to further enhance the impressive beauty of his marble soda fountains by silver plating the fountain’s visible parts. He incorporated in 1875, produced an extensive line of silver-plated items, and was out of business by 1915; not, however, before he founded a resort town in North Carolina named Pinehurst. I had paid very little for a tenuous but direct and utilitarian connection with this country’s past.
Della Creelman owns Legacy’s Antiques. It states on her card, “Everything you should have inherited.” She is a small, slight, older woman with a young manner. She has collected silver, she says, “most of my life. My mother liked silver, and the fun thing about silver is to pass it down. Silver is a wonderful thing.” (Connie Francis is now lamenting being somebody’s fool.) “There’s a resurgence in popularity of it. The styles and the artwork are wonderful. It’s as pretty today as it was then and it’s useful. If you like a pretty table, silver is almost a must I like a pretty table. I find that people are always pleased being treated to pretty pieces of silver when you’re serving something. And the popular thing today is to mix the patterns. I use it all the time. Every day is a special occasion. You have somebody in for something, you give them a pretty fork or a pretty spoon with a pretty teacup and I think they appreciate it. With my children, we never had plastic in the house.” A friend had a Tupperware party once. “I went to it, but I didn’t buy anything,” she laughs.
“Silver collecting is one area that men are very big in, and you’ll find the big silver dealers at the shows are men.” She mentions Lou McGee. “I think women always buy pretty. Men are looking more for solid, sturdy, you know, unusual, but we’re more likely, with something that hits our fancy, to say, ‘I could use this for that and whatever.’ You should gather eclectically.”
Upstairs, past pictures and frames, I meet a gentleman manning a booth for a dealer who is off at an estate sale. He’s been in antiques for 30 years but never bothered to collect silver “unless it happens to be such an unusual piece. If it were art deco in the form of a statue or such like that, I might be tempted.” But he uses it daily. Ed Conlon is probably in his 70s. He is about five foot seven with the voice and diction of an old radio performer. What makes him use it every day? “My age. Why not, why should I take it out only on Easter and the holidays or for company when I own it and can enjoy it!” Ed moved his family to San Diego from Pennsylvania.
“So you moved from the East to the more casual West and decided to use your silver every day?” I’m surprised.
“I decided I was going to enjoy what I owned and enjoy what life I have. I knew nobody in San Diego when I moved here, so I wasn’t setting a formal table for friends or family. And it was going to be for me, as simple as that.”
Later, as I stand on the sidewalk outside a Coronado restaurant, the hand-lettered sign in the window tempts me with homemade pasta. I’m starving. The restaurant is stylishly done in soft colors and it’s clean. The only other customers are two women sitting at a high, round table. I’m not much of a counter dweller, but I hate to make more work for the help. The counter is set with stainless, of course.
My waitress is a cute blonde who may be as old as 20. Her conversation with me is politely inquisitive: “What are you here for? Silver, huh?” Meanwhile, she carries on a real conversation with a fellow waitress about getting drunk with her mother on champagne in the front yard the night before. As I pick up my Alfredo order to go, she tells me she inherited a set of silver. “Someday when I have a nice house...” I remind her that life is unpredictable and she might not want to wait. She smiles and says,
“You remind me of one of my teachers.” Well! ■
— Patricia Hoesch
Patrica Hoesch is a freelance writer and silver and antique dealer from New Mexico. She has served as promotions director for a television station and as the national marketing director for a living trust company. (She says she grew tired of writing about “stiffs and gifts.”) Currently, she lives in northern Nevada with her husband and son.