Old Pewter

Valuable old pewter is marked by simplicity, good outline, and an absence of excessive decoration.  Perhaps that is why it has long been coveted by antique collectors in the States.  Those qualities are the foundation of American design.  Pewter has been cast, turned, and hammered-out since before the time of Roman Empire, however, most collectible pieces encountered here today were made between 1750 and 1850, when the industry was superseded with the advent of electroplating.  Unlike many categories of antiques, most old pewter was marked with a "touchmark" that can be used to identify a piece as to maker, age, and place of origin.  In London, such was law. Often, these maker marks are worn so that only a fragment remains.

Most touchmarks made before 1820 are sophisticated and artistic.  After 1825, they lost their character and appear as unadorned names.  The subject of touchmarks is immense.  Fortunately, comprehensive reference books are available at all major libraries that can help a collector identify the impressed symbol on a discovered piece.  Much of the pewter used by our forebears, and still found today, is English in origin.  In 1760 the value of London pewter exported to the "new world" exceeded that of furniture, silver, and tinware combined.  America's high regard for English pewter prompted some Colonial makers to stamp their wares with the words "London" or "Old England" to increase sales.

I discovered such a plate at an antique show several years ago and winched it away from the unknowing dealer for a cheap English fare.  More than any other category of antique, pewter that was "Born in the USA" brings premium prices.  A choice 18th century American tankard or pear-shaped teapot can bring $10,000-$15,000; ten times that of a comparable European example.  The great hope of every collector scoping tag sales, flea markets, shops, and country auctions is to come across a pristine marked example by one the great Colonial pewterers like that of William Will(1742-1798) of Philadelphia or Frederick Basset (c.1740-1800) of Hartford, CT, and New York City.

After origin and reasonable condition, age is the third most important consideration in attaching a price to pewter.  Objects fashioned after 1820 are more common and seldom command the huge prices of choice earlier examples.  By then, facing heavy competition from glass-gaffers and potterers, pewter smiths hardened their alloy and made it more silvery in appearance by adding more antimony.  This innovation was first developed in England and they humbly attached a patriotic new name to their product, Britannia metal.  Americans were quick to use it.  Thinner walled objects were mass produced in the beginning of the industrial-era by spinning sheets of the metal around chucks on a lathe.  This mostly supplanted costly processes of casting pewter in bronze, brass, or soapstone molds.

Plates, dishes, and basins constituted the bulk of the old-time pewterer's trade and they are less costly now.  Pre-1820 English plates can be purchased from $100-$200.  American examples are considerably more.  Keeping age, origin, and condition in mind; the more distinguished the form, the more valuable the piece.  Just as an antique dealer might well charge you two weeks wage for a "Federal Period" lighthouse-shaped teapot with a gooseneck pouring spout and a carved wood handle, so too did Israel Trask(1786-1867) charge such a fee at his shop in Beverly Massachusetts.  Few families could afford such a richly-sheened beautiful pot and so it is rare and prized today.  As I do with furniture, I attach a premium value to old pewter objects in worn, grungy, unpolished condition.  It gives me extra clues to fight off the fakers and restorers.