What you see: A parcel gilt sterling silver punch ladle in the Narragansett pattern by Gorham, circa 1880. Rago Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Jenny Pitman, specialist with Rago Auctions.
This ladle dates to 1880. How important was punch then? It was very important and popular in the 19th century. Around that time it was served chilled or even iced. Punch was used not only as a drink but as a sorbet between courses. I found a recipe for Roman punch that had a dollop of meringue. This could have been a punch ladle or a soup ladle, but it was typically known as a punch ladle, and it’s illustrated in the Gorham archive as a punch ladle.
Did everybody in 1880 feel like they needed one of these? In the 19th century, American silversmiths began to take over worldwide. Gorham became the largest silver manufacturer in the world. During the Gilded Age, [clients] ordered extraordinary silver services with hundreds and hundreds of pieces, including flatware. They held multi-course dinner parties and had individual place pieces [such as] citrus spoons and oyster forks. Tiffany and Gorham introduced silver patterns of 40 pieces plus serving pieces. The Narragansett pattern was very specialized and small.
It wasn’t a fully fledged line? It was only about a dozen pieces. It included the soup ladle, the punch ladle–
Two different ladles? There’s a difference of about half an inch [between the two]. There was a gravy ladle, a sugar spoon, a berry spoon, a preserves spoon, a sugar sifter, about a dozen pieces. The pattern, I understand, was introduced in 1884. Some were illustrated in a catalog in 1885. The reason we know so much is Bill Hood, an expert in American flatware, went to the Gorham archive and researched it for an article.
Do we know what this ladle would have cost in 1880? We do. We know this pattern was really quite expensive, about one to one-and-a-half times more expensive to produce. This ladle was $29 in 1887. It was really intended as a showpiece. [According to the inflation calculator at westegg.com, $29 in 1887 amounts to more than $818 in 2018 dollars.]
Was it actually used? I would hope so. I would hope they would use it.
Would this have been the sort of thing that would have been assigned to a servant, who would keep hold of it all night while dispensing punch? [Laughs] If you had the means to afford a ladle like this, you had a servant to ladle the punch.
What can we tell by looking about how it was made? The stem is cast and embellished with marine details. They apply not just to the front, but to the back and bottom of the bowl. The shell [that comprises the bowl of the spoon] is a cockle shell, and it has an oyster for the terminal. The seaweed, fish, and little grains of sand have been picked out in parcel gilt. The purpose of that is to highlight certain elements. It’s a feature of the pattern.
What else can we tell by looking at the ladle? If you compare one [Narragansett] ladle to another, each is slightly different. The person working on the ladle had latitude in putting it together. They’re one of a kind. That’s what makes them so special.
What is parcel gilt, and is this a technique that can be safely done today? Parcel gilt is electro-gilding. It’s like electroplating. It can still be done now.
What kind of condition is the ladle in? It seems to have a lot of sticky-up bits that could snag a sleeve… [Laughs] I guess it could snag on a sleeve, but when they come to auction, they’re in uniformly good shape. They’re probably not used and they’re kept in their original boxes. A lot of special pieces had specially-made boxes.
Does this one have a box? No, it does not.
And this single piece could still go for five figures, without a box, when large, complete sets of brand name sterling silver flatware in their original custom chests go for less? It comes up rarely at auction. This is the third one I’ve sold in my life, and I’ve been in the business for 20 years. Because it’s so rare, it brings huge sums. What’s so amazing about these pieces is there’s a feeling they’ve been plucked out of the bay or the ocean, crusted with sea life decorations. It’s kind of an extraordinary idea, and it captures a sense of ingenuity of American silversmiths in the late 19th century who devoted their expertise and design prowess to flatware.
What’s the auction record for a Narragansett ladle, and for something from the Narragansett pattern? A single ladle sold at Christie’s in May 2014 for $21,250. In January 2019, Christie’s sold a punch ladle with two sauce ladles for $32,500.
Do we know how many Narragansett ladles Gorham made and sold? No, I’m not aware of that.
Was the ladle not popular? I think that the production was limited. Whether it was popular or not, it was expensive. And it was not to everyone’s taste, and it was not a full line pattern.
Was there a matching punch bowl? There was. It’s in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection. It [the ladle] doesn’t match it exactly, but it has shell handles and it’s decorated with sea monsters and fish. [The one in the Boston MFA appears to be the only example.]
How does it feel to hold the ladle in your hand? It feels good. You’d think it would feel awkward and barnacle-ly, but it feels good. The pointy shells encrusting it are on a part of the ladle that you don’t necessarily hold onto. It’s really exquisitely designed.
What’s your favorite detail of the ladle? I like the bowl the best. I’ve seen a lot of ladles in my time. With many designs, the shell is stylized. I love the naturalism of this bowl.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? [Laughs] I’ll tell you what sticks in my memory. How to spell “Narragansett” correctly! Two Rs, two Ts.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
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