Sure, silver is beautiful to look at. But there’s a lot more to learn beneath that sparkle. Stories in Sterling: Four Centuries of Silver in New York uncovers the stories behind the pieces, from the humble beginnings of a slave-made spoon to the ornate trophies of a corrupt political machine. In this two-part series, we speak with Curator Margi Hofer about some of her favorite stories, and why silver is so important to the history of New York.
It’s amazing that even after the Tweed scandal, Tammany continued to operate this way.
Exactly. This was made about 20 years after Tweed was deposed.
The other piece I absolutely love is this early teapot. It’s hard for us to appreciate what a remarkable survival this is, and how new a teapot was in the 1690s. Tea was only just introduced to England in the 1650s, and the earliest teapot that survives in silver anywhere is from the 1670s. When the Albany silversmith Kiliaen Van Rensselaer III made the teapot in the 1690s there were no models to work with, and few silversmiths knew what a teapot should look like, so he had to do his best with what he knew.
He basically took an existing form, which was a caudle cup, and he added a top and a spout and a handle, and he ends up creating an extremely pleasing, beautiful and functional vessel. The history of this maker is also very interesting. There is a lot of correspondence from his mother to her brother and father about his training as a silversmith, because she was a widow and needed to figure out what to do with her son. We know she had planned to send him abroad to Amsterdam for training, but because of the wars going on he ended up apprenticing in New York City, and then went on to train in Boston. It’s very rare to have an early silversmith trained in two urban centers, and picking up the influences in both. There were very different styles in the two cities.