Discoveries: A Silver Flagon, Then and Now

By Mark Stephen
First sold by Sotheby's in 1948, and later sold for £21,250 in 2019, more than double its pre-sale estimate, this silver flagon was consigned using our online request an estimate service.

A silver flagon returned to Sotheby's 70 years after it was last sold here, allowing a fascinating comparison of two very different catalogues and the evolution of the silver market over time. Offered in last year's Style: European Silver, Ceramics, and Objects of Vertu sale – this fine silver-gilt flagon had been in private hands since is was last sold by Sotheby's in 1948, and was offered at auction as the result of a client using the Request an Estimate tool.

The original April 1948 catalogue, in the Sotheby's branded green paper cover, featured an illustration of the flagon on the frontispiece pages, and it would have been one of only a few illustrated lots in the sale. It was also one of half a dozen properties believed worth a mention as star lots in the sale.

The catalogue description goes on to describe the armorial, but did not identify the coat-of-arms, which could either be because it was not thought necessary to do so or because of a lack of specialist expertise at that time. In 1948, the flagon was catalogued simply as having the mark `F.W.’ but we now know this is the mark of Francis Walton. Apart from the historic style and brevity of information, it is interesting to note the rather vague viewing times listed as: 'At least two days previous,' and the note at the bottom that: 'A printed list of prices and buyer’s names will be supplied for two shillings'. Now of course, prices are available online and buyers' names are never divulged without permission.

The 1948 Sotheby's Catalogue Listing for the Silver-Gilt Flagon

The flagon cost £850 in 1948, an impressive sum that, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator of goods and services, would be worth the equivalent today of £30,360. Now, it is estimated at £800–12,000, a large drop after inflation. This is because the market has changed, there are now less collectors and the silver trade is also selective as to what they buy, generally buying on commission as opposed to buying for stock. In 1948 it was our client’s uncle who made the purchase, a Yorkshire farmer who as a young man read law at Cambridge and whose tastes included collecting antique books and eighteenth century watercolours.

Open for Bidding

The great thing about this flagon is the good original condition. It is a typical ecclesiastical communion flagon, of the type often found in church or cathedral plate collections, having been gifted by wealthy benefactors to their local parish church. The gilding is original, and one can even see the tool marks of the agate burnishing tool which the gilder used to fix the gilding after the application of the mercury-gold mix.

The mercury was evaporated with heat leaving just a covering of gold, a technique disastrous for the health of the workers as they breathed in the poisonous fumes. As one would expect, the underside of the flagon and the interior is not gilded which would have been to save money. The arms are beautifully engraved and show a deliberate matting technique in the shield, to contrast with the burnished gilding around it.

Frontispiece of the 1948 Sotheby's Catalogue Featuring the Silver-Gilt Flagon

The arms are those of Robert Cholmondeley, who inherited the title Viscount Cholmondeley of Kells, co. Meath from his uncle. He also inherited property from his father Hugh Cholmondeley (d. 1655) and married Elizabeth (d. 1692), second daughter and coheir of George Cradock of Caverswall Castle, Staffordshire, so was clearly a wealthy individual. He died at his house near St. James’s, Westminster on 22 May 1681.

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