Collecting Silver

Ritz Magazine 00-02-1986

The original silver services from the founding days of London's Ritz Hotel have recently been rediscovered. Christopher Long, a self-confessed silver spoon-collector was given a sneak glimpse...

By Christopher Long

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In our day-dreams most of us must have wondered what it would be like to discover a hidden hoard of treasure. Here at The Ritz just such a hoard was discovered recently – a collection redolent of an opulent era and which is soon to be put on show in its original surroundings.

To be honest, Julian Payne, manager of The Ritz, and his managing director Michael Duffell, had always known that the hoard existed somewhere in the bowels of the hotel. What brought the discovery to light has been a determined three-year policy by both men to conserve as much as possible from the hey-days of hotel genius César Ritz and to restore the building and its contents to such an extent that Ritz would feel quite at home here 80 years later.

Downstairs in the basement, past the massive kitchens, store rooms, pantries and larders, there was a silver store. In the silver store, in their original boxes, they found what they were looking for. Tarnished by the passage of time were the superb dressing-table sets created specially for The Ritz by the most famous of all Paris silversmiths, Christofle.

Neatly packed away were the pairs of silver hair brushes, the combs, the clothes' brushes, the hat brushes, the pairs of button-hooks (in two sizes), the silver-topped powder jars, the tooth-brush holders and the vanity sets that were once carefully arranged in every bedroom. Along with these were items which we would hardly recognise nowadays: special methylated spirit lamps, for example, which gentlemen then used to heat and temper their cut-throat razors.

In other boxes were beautiful tea-pots on swivel stands (again with spirit lamps to keep the water hot) and trays, sugar bowls, and cream jugs to match them. As with every other item in the collection, even tiny silver tooth-pick holders carried the lion crest of The Ritz Hotel – just as it does today. And every matching item has the same delicate chased border motif which can be seen reflected in the decorative ceilings of the dining room.

Here too Ritz believed that his guests deserved nothing but the best. To this day you can see a massive, solid silver carving trolley, conservatively valued at £5,000, which is in daily use in the dining room even now. Elsewhere in the hotel, guests would have found silver pen trays surmounted by silver-topped ink-pots. The crumbs from their tables would have been swept into silver crumb-scoops. Their morning eggs would have arrived in silver egg-cups and even their tip to the waiters would have been discreetly dropped into a large, heavy silver tronc box with a specially recessed slot in the top – complete with silver lock and silver key.

"It has been a rather exciting discovery," says Julian Payne, manager of The Ritz. "Obviously we've had to take a lot of trouble to clean, polish and restore many of the pieces but ultimately I rather hope we'll be able to display some of the collection in the hotel."

Although he's uncertain what it's all worth, he says it will never be sold in any case.

"Everyone is determined that the hotel will continue to conserve and cherish our very rich heritage here. In fact, it's because so much of the original hotel still exists that we're constantly reminded of the standards we have to maintain every day!"

Of course there will be many of today's guests at The Ritz who might feel their stay would be all the richer for eating a boiled egg from a silver egg-cup – and with a silver soon in their mouths too. In which case they should not despair because the more observant will notice that The Ritz still regularly serves its dishes from some of the finest English silver-plate to be seen in any hotel anywhere.

For obvious practical reasons pure silver serving dishes would not survive the constant use and scouring that they would get in a large and busy hotel. But César Ritz quickly gave up using his Paris silversmiths, Christofle, in the early years of this century, turning instead to two of the greatest name in modern English silver-smithing, Mappin & Webb and the Goldsmiths Company.

The two firms soon supplied much of the sterling silver used throughout the hotel and also supplied vast quantities of the magnificent plate still in use today. A trip to the kitchens and pantries is now a mind-boggling sight. Piled up all over the place are thousands of dishes in hundreds of different shapes – each with a specific purpose. Alongside them are dozens of intricate candlesticks and scores of menu holders, table number stands and matchbox holders. There are parma ham stands, wedding cake stands, meat dishes, vegetable dishes, salad dishes, sardine dishes and untold numbers of other assorted vessels. Perhaps only a chef such as David Miller would know precisely which should be used for what and when.

What all these items have in common is the same crest, the same decorative motif and the same distinct style that can be seen in the recently discovered hoard of original Ritz silver. And because nearly all of it has been in use since the earliest days, it's somehow strange to reflect that almost every piece has been used to serve kings and queens, princes and statesmen, for the past eight decades; that there's been scarcely a single celebrated name throughout the century who has not dined from these self-same dishes.

All of which may make you think about seeking out a silver horde for yourself. The chances of finding one by accident are slim but the opportunities to buy one in London are superb.

There is probably nothing that the English have done so well and for so long as the making of superb examples of the art of silver-smithing. By common consent the English have been the masters of this art for centuries. Within walking distance of the Ritz Hotel, in salerooms, specialist dealers' shops and in antique markets you'll find everything from Tudor apostle spoons (c.1500) to the art deco masterpieces of the 1930s.

The English have been 'good' at silver for several reasons. Firstly their growing empire in Tudor times gave them access to the raw material (though they were happy to steal it from the Spaniards if there wasn't enough!). Secondly, they benefited from hundreds of skilled Protestant silversmiths who fled from persecution in Europe and became refugees here. They were known as 'easterlings' because they came from the east and gave us the word 'sterling' as a result.

Thirdly, from the 14th Century onwards there has been a consistent system of assaying (hall-marking) silver items so that the marks not only identify the maker, the date, the town where it was assayed, but the quality of the silver itself was controlled. Furthermore, because England has never been invaded since 1066 AD, vast quantities of silver and all other antiquities have remained undisturbed in Britain.

Apart from the fact that so much silver is so attractive in itself and so interesting because its history and provenance is stamped on it, investing in silver has proved to be profitable for a long time. Provided that one always buys the best of what is available, the value of silver items has outstripped inflation by a very long way – and looks likely to carry on doing so.

The choice for collectors is huge. From just a few pounds to several thousand pounds there are items to suit all pockets and all tastes: spoons, bowls, candlesticks, decanter labels, coffee pots, salvers and swizzle-sticks all exist in bewildering and glittering profusion. Without too much difficulty you'll even find dressing sets to match the ones recently found in The Ritz.

And where should you go to find them? Well, there's always great pleasure to be found in street markets such as Portobello Road on Saturday mornings or the Caledonian Road. In addition to these there are innumerable antique shops all over the West End of London. But my advice to those who are looking for the best (though by no means necessarily the most expensive) is to start by visiting the London Silver Vaults in Chancery Lane – just to see silver in all its forms and to get an idea of what's available.

Better still, perhaps, is to visit the great specialist dealers. Spink & Sons in King Street, SW1, and Tessier in New Bond Street are both delightful and fascinating places. Here you will find helpful and courteous experts who will be delighted not only to show some of the very best early English silver, but also to offer sound and reliable judgment.

For the best modern silver you could no better than to visit the companies that César Ritz preferred. Mappin & Webb have branches in Regent Street and Brompton Road while the Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company are also in Regent Street along with Garrard & Co who are jewellers to the Queen.

By and large there are very few fakes in circulation although one should be more wary of small items of old silver like snuff-spoons, caddy-spoons and vinaigrettes.

In the end, however, silver collecting is best done with two maxims in mind. Buy what you really like and always buy the best. All things being equal you will then get great pleasure from something that quietly makes a nonsense of inflation.

Written for a predominently North American, tourist readership.

© (1986) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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