Golden prices for silver novelties

Start the new year with a good breakfast – along with a swan toast rack, a sheep cruet set and a cow-shaped milk jug! Yes, it’s true, the trend for novelty silver and gold items in the antiques auction world continues apace. Silver and gold items, as with other antiques, are affected by fashion and the work of certain craftsmen will always be more popular than others. Some goldsmiths and silversmiths are particularly associated with such novelty items. Makers such as Sampson Mordan (1790-1843), a craftsman whose name became associated with unique novelties such as vesta cases, matchsafes and pencils.

During his youth he was apprentice to the locksmith Joseph Bramah (1748-1814), who is worth a mention here. Born at Stainborough, near Barnsley, he famously had a “Challenge Lock” displayed in the window of his London shop from 1790, mounted on a board and containing this inscription: The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced. The challenge stood for over 67 years until locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs was able to open the lock and was awarded the prize. Hobbs’ attempt required some 51 hours, though, spread over 16 days!

Sampson Mordan patented the first propelling pencil, marked “S. Mordan & Co.” Mordan often made his pencils in whimsical shapes that resembled animals, Egyptian mummies and other objects. He was very inventive with the type of silver and gold items he produced and today, Sampson Mordan items are highly collectable. After his death, his sons continued the business until 1941, when the factory was destroyed by a bomb during the London Blitz.

Another name connected with high-value items of silver is Hester Bateman (c.1708–1794), an English silversmith who ran the family business for thirty years following the death of her husband. She was succeeded in turn by her sons, grandson and great-grandson and the Bateman family silversmithing company lasted until the middle of the 19th century. Hester married a gold chain maker and wire drawer called John Bateman in 1732. During their marriage, she gave birth to six children: Joss, Letitia, Ann, Peter, William and Jonathan. Her husband John Bateman died of tuberculosis in 1760, leaving his tools to Hester in his will, prompting her to take over the business.

During the 1770s, Hester Bateman worked to build up the business at 107 Bunhill Row, London, with her sons Jonathan and Peter. They used the latest technology to produce their silverware as cheaply as possible and compete with other companies that were using Old Sheffield plate. They used thin sheets of silver and machines to punch and pierce it. The family specialised in household silverware in a neo-classical style and she expanded the range to include goods such as tea caddies, jugs as cow creamers, salt cellars, wine labels, trays and inkwells. Pieces by Hester and her family are characteristically decorated with bright-cut ngraving. Hester retired in 1790 and was succeeded by her sons.

A novelty item that was fashionable in the era of Hester Bateman, and one that caused a great deal of sickness was the ‘cow creamer.’ A silver cow creamer is a type of cream jug in the form of a cow, the mouth is open and serves as the spout and its curved tail serves as a handle. In some cases the hinged lid is decorated with a fly or a bee serving as a finial. These cream jugs were also made in pottery and porcelain and due to the difficulty in cleaning them they were the biggest cause of salmonella in the 18th and 19th centuries.

After a while the fashion for cow creamers ended, but they enjoyed a revival in the early 20th century and are very collectable in today’s antique auctions. It is not unusual for them to make between £1,000 and £2,000. One of the most important parts of my job as an Independent Antiques Auctioneer and Valuer is to do a “treasure hunt”, which is when I am asked to search through the contents of a property to find the most valuable pieces in order to assess them for suitable sale. I am asked to do this regularly for clients; most frequently in the event of a client downsizing, or for deceased estates. Invariably, novelty silver items are found in dusty cupboards or at the back of a sideboard.

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