ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver
article # 160
by Dorothea Burstyn
(click on photos to enlarge image)


Book review of S.J.Hough: The Romanov Gold Martelé Tea set by Gorham from the collection of Jacob Hoffman, Cranston,R.I. 2010
This book tells the intriguing story of a gold tea set bearing the Romanov coat of arms. It reads like a thriller - at least for people who enjoy silver research. Consigned to Skinner's Auction House, Boston, in 1996 this tea set was unmarked and had a somewhat nebulous provenance of having been the property of a distant and very eccentric relative of the Romanovs. An "X" mark on the kettle alerted a Skinner silver expert. He suspected it to be Gorham's code for gold work. Skinner quickly consulted the author, Samuel J. Hough. Hough is a well known name in American silver collectors' circles; an authority on Gorham, its history, craftsmen and products. Working since 1985 with the Gorham archives (given to Brown University in Providence, R.I.) he has successfully ordered and inventoried nine tons of Gorham's archival records.
This tea set consisted of five pieces: coffee pot, tea pot, cream pitcher, open sugar bowl and kettle. Closer inspection of the kettle showed not only the X mark but also the marks of 18K, traces of the 1917 Gorham date mark, a faint letter combination (maybe XDWW) and PATENT 1915. One can imagine Hough's excitement when he found the gold costing slip for the tea kettle with an important reference that it was chased in the (model number) X119 style.
Further research revealed that X119 was the code of the sugar bowl of a five piece gold tête à tête set. The overall chasing -another unusual feature for a gold set- was reminiscent of Martelé.
The greatest coup was yet to come: looking through the Martelé photograph albums Hough found a picture of a tête à tête set in 18K gold which was identical with three pieces now offered at Skinner. The original photo of this set also included a pair of sugar tongs and a tray which whereabouts are presently unknown.
The Gorham gold costing book further recorded that all pieces of this set were completed in March 1900, that it was made in Gorham's experimental silversmithing room and was the work of the same designers, silversmiths and chasers as other Martelé silver pieces.
The ledgers for gold hollowware stated another exciting fact: all these pieces were produced for the 1900 Paris Exposition.
It is interesting to read the Gorham costing slips as the length of hours worked on various pieces always surprise. To give just a few examples: the tea pot of this set took ninety-eight hours of work, chasing took another hundred and twenty hours and to turn the ivory handle a craftsman worked for twenty-one hours!



The Romanov Gold Martelé Tea set by Gorham
The Gorham Martelé line was the brainchild of Edward Holbrook, president of Gorham from 1894 to 1919 and designer William Christmas Codman. It was a line of hand-wrought silver originally intended as a form of American Arts & Crafts silver but is stylistically more related to European Art Nouveau. Holbrook was a Francophile who spent many summers in France where he obviously moved in very select circles (His daughter married Count Guillaume de Balincourt of Neuilly-sur-Seine). The Martelé line was to be introduced at the 1900 Paris Exposition to make a grand impression; a plan which worked out beautifully as Gorham received many medals for its silver and E. Holbrook was honored with the order of French Legion of Merit. (Samuel J. Hough is also the co-author with John Webster Keefe of Magnificent, Marvelous Martelé, American Art Nouveau Silver, The Jolie and Robert Shelton Collection, New Orleans, Museum of Art, 2001 which gives a history of the Gorham Company and a detailed description about Martelé, its craftsmen and marks. Its catalogue of the wonderful Shelton collection shows the variety and beauty of this hand-wrought line.)

Despite solving the puzzle of the origin of this unmarked gold set and identifying it as part of Gorham’s Martelé production, this remarkable masterpiece sold for little more than its melting value. Indeed a surprising result when taking into consideration the high prices fetched for silver Martelé pieces. The trade shied away from competing for this set. And indeed there were many open questions. Why had the original marks been deleted? Was the Romanov coat of arms genuine? Had a member of the Romanov family bought this set or had it been purchased by Carl Fabergé, who had been a judge at the 1900 Paris Exposition? Who was the member of the Romanov family who owned this set? And where was this person living when ordering the addition of the 1917 tea kettle, a time when Russia was in war and on the brink of a revolution? Was it smuggled out of Russia or was it part of the Soviet government's silver sales in the 1930s? How did this piece come to Massachusetts? And where are the missing pieces of this set? I don't want to spoil your pleasure, but these and many more questions are all answered in the book which preparation took Hough years of research and were subject of long discussions with other silver experts. In the end – despite the author's enormous efforts - all these answers have to remain idle speculation, unless somebody is out there who can shed more light on the provenance of this mysterious tea set and its additions.
The book is a luxurious hard cover volume with many color illustrations. It is beautifully designed by Gilbert Design Associates, Providence R.I. and features gorgeous photographs by Ben Cohen. The archive photos of this set and other gold sets produced by Gorham for the Paris Exposition as well as facsimiles of the costing records are especially interesting. The book has an edition of 750 copies and is available from The Owl at the bridge – Retail price $ 75.00 plus shipping, there is a dealer’s discount for buyers of multiple copies.
Dorothea Burstyn is the Editor of the Silver Society of Canada Journal
and Administrator of SSC website
- 2012 -