Antique Miniature Silver Toys
This week's column focuses on antique miniature silver toys-for example: a 3" tall late 18th century sterling coffee urn by a master silversmith like Paul Revere (Boston) or Antoine Boullier (France). A dollhouse or child's size pot wrought with such precision and microscopic detailing that, disregarding proportions, it looks the same as and often even operates similar to a regular size 18th century silver coffee urn.
Fifteen newspapers just got thrown to the floor and are now being used to soak up puppy pee. I know what you are thinking. "Wayne, the odds of me stumbling into NORMAL SIZE 18th century silver hollowware at the tag sales and country auctions I frequent are about the same as spotting Big Foot on my way to Wal-Mart. What chance do I have of ever finding a piece of period miniature silver?"
Quality pre-1830 silversmith made miniature furniture, tableware (including candlesticks, mugs, etc.) and showcase objects made for fancy dollhouses and filthy-rich tots is a field of such rarity that few seasoned antique dealers will not only have ever handled a single example of it in their careers-most will not recall ever having seen a piece outside a book or museum.
Twenty additional newspapers are now on their way to the recycling pile. Two-balled up and just tossed-are now uncrumpling inside black bag lined trash baskets. "So what's the point?" you say. What are you going to discuss next week, ferreting out Pluto meteorites in rock piles?"
Point one is that miniature silver toys are so rare that when they do show up; few people will spot them for their true value and historic importance. Because of diminished competition, sometimes, scarcities are easier to bargain away than rarities. Point two is what I call "The Long Forgotten Name Principle of Plurality." If someone mentions a title or phrase you once employed frequently but have not heard or uttered a single time in the last ten years the chances of you hearing that same phrase again within the next two weeks is almost a certainty. In other words, the easiest way to conjure up bargains in a particular antique category is to consider that category. It's as true in business as it is in love; genuine interest has its own magnetic qualities. Now, let us get to work!
Dutch silversmiths made most antique silver toys. English wrought pieces are second in commonality. All other countries combined probably come in third place. As to why Americans produced so few objects, Victor Houart states the case clearly in his Miniature Silver Toys: "Rough pioneers of New England and New Amsterdam were hardly the ideal customers for gold and silversmiths. These people had other, more urgent concerns, and silver toys were even less likely to find a market."
Pre 1830 silver toys found today are mostly near exact miniatures of common objects as would be found in a prosperous house. They come in two general size categories: Miniscule-as would be proper in proportion to attire a large multi-room dollhouse and "Poppengoeden," which is a Dutch term for toys sized for little girls' hands. Poppengoeden miniatures will be scaled roughly a 1/5 to a 1/3 the size of normal sizes objects and are probably scarcer to find today than dollhouse scaled toys.
Historically, dealers, historians, collectors and even museums have neglected miniature silver articles as an art form. This inclination is now shifting. Museums have learned that patrons are greatly moved by exact miniatures as they transport onlookers into a fantasy world of fairies and wee-people.
Many antique silver toys will have indistinguishable marks or no markings at all. Makers like Arnoldus van Geffen (Dutch, active 1728-1769), Hendrik Duller (Dutch, active 1776-1811) are two of well over 100 Dutch and English silversmiths that spun and hammered out marked miniature silver objects.
Monks and other medieval transcribers produced entire illustrated books smaller than matchboxes that can be read with the use of a magnifying glass. Undoubtedly, the art of making exact miniatures was more than just a profession of producing toys for children born with tiny silver spoons in their mouths. As was true with glass blowers (producing tiny whimsies) and cabinetmakers (producing miniature and child-size case pieces) and their patient bookmaking brethren, silver and gold artisans aspired to produce paper-thin walled products of astonishing skill and imagination.
Surprisingly, most tiny silver toys sold at auctions in recent years fetch price levels similar too, if not less than, that same type of object in traditional proportions. Even though they are scarcer and undoubtedly more difficult to fashion. Another inclination that is subject to change. After all, size does matter.