Chrysanthemum Tea Set by Tiffany
Ask 1,000 antique collectors what drives them and you're likely to get 1,000 different answers. But, at its most basic level, we love antiques for the same reason we love a good book or a great photograph. It's the story they have to tell, who made them, where they came from and who owned them. It's called provenance, and in many cases, it can mean the difference between a work that is ordinary and one that is simply extraordinary.
Of course quality, rarity, condition, maker and provenance are all important considerations when determining value and historical significance...but it's the history that most collectors find most alluring. On very few occasions a piece comes on the market that embodies all of these qualities...a piece like this Tiffany & Co. eight-piece sterling tea service commissioned by the United States Congress as a wedding gift to the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson...a provenance antique collectors dream of!
This extraordinary tea service tells the story of three incredible men...one of a popular , one of a talented artist, and finally, the story of a legendary. The set is also a solid benchmark for judging the quality of any 19th and early 20th century sterling work and a lesson in why provenance can even affect the quality, rarity and condition of a piece.
The Ultimate Provenance
When Democrat Woodrow Wilson took the office of President in 1913, he had the advantage of welcoming with him a Democratic Congress for the first time in 20 years. Wilson mobilized quickly and pushed through important pieces of legislation. He enjoyed an impressive amount of success in the early years.
Just one year after taking office, Wilson's youngest daughter Eleanor married. To show their appreciation, more for father than daughter I suspect, the Congress presented her with a most luxurious wedding gift...what is arguably the finest Chrysanthemum tea service ever created.
Congress wanted not only to mark the occasion of this youngest Wilson's marriage, they also wanted to express their appreciation and respect for a very popular president. With that in mind, they contacted Tiffany.
Recognizing the overwhelming importance of such a prestigious commission from the country's most revered governing body, Tiffany.
And that's how provenance can affect quality, rarity and condition. Had this been an ordinary commission, Tiffany almost certainly would not have invested the extra time and effort in creating such an extraordinary set. But the United States Congress was no ordinary customer and the President's daughter, no ordinary bride.
You may come across pieces whose importance and value lies solely in who owned it. For example, many of Jackie Onassis' pieces of costume jewelry commanded incredible prices at auction based almost exclusively on the fact that they were owned by this legendary personality. Imagine the excitement of finding a piece whose provenance is two-fold. Commissioned by the United States Congress and owned by President Woodrow Wilson's daughter. Either of these provenances could stand on their own merit, but together they make this set truly exceptional.
Remember, when assessing value based on the provenance of ownership you must also consider how long lasting an impression that personality will have and their overall historical significance. Will that person be recognizable in 20, 30 or even 50 years to a newer generation of collectors?
The Value of the Maker
Ideally, provenance is coupled with quality. It is always desirable to find a work with a significant provenance, but don't lose sight of the piece itself. A work of superior quality hailing from a recognizable and respected company or artist is also very important.
When Charles Tiffany opened the doors to his stationery and fancy goods store in New York City in 1837 could he have known that this tiny shop would soon grow into an empire? Tiffany was a man with a good head for business and a particular genius for marketing. By the end of the 19th century Tiffany & Co., would dominated the American market for luxurious goods and had become a world leader in the production of fine silver.
Master silversmith Charles T. Grosjean joined the Tiffany firm as the Superintendent of Silverware and during his lifetime was widely considered among the most talented silver designers in the world. Along with Tiffany silversmith Edward C. Moore, Grosjean was largely responsible for Tiffany & Co.'s emergence as the world leader in the production of fine silver wares.
In 1880, Grosjean introduced the flatware pattern Chrysanthemum, furthering Tiffany's rise to fame. It was one of the most expensive die-made patterns ever created by Tiffany & Co., requiring an extensive amount of handwork to complete. From the very beginning, however, it was extremely popular and Grosjean turned his attention to creating spectacular pieces of hollowware to complement the flatware, including elaborate tea sets.
Because of its intricate design, higher labor involvement and exceptional weight, Chrysanthemum was available only to Tiffany's wealthiest clientele. An average tea service consisted of seven pieces and rarely included a tray. And, only the largest sets included the ultimate addition of a hot water kettle and stand, which cost almost twice as much as the most expensive piece in the set. In fact, in its most basic form, the average tea service, weighing less than 290 ounces with no tray, would have sold for more than $1,800 in 1891...an enormous sum of money for that time.
The Chrysanthemum tea service shown here weighs almost 600 ounces, and includes both a tray and hot water kettle and stand, making it among the most expensive and impressive tea services ever produced by Tiffany & Co.
Quality, rarity, condition, maker and provenance. These are keywords when assessing the value of antiques. This Chrysanthemum tea service is exemplary in every respect.