Update: The Russian silver and champlevé-enamel cockerel-form covered presentation cup sold for $33,800.
What you see: A Russian silver and champlevé-enamel cockerel-form (aka rooster-form) covered presentation cup, made in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. Freeman’s estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
This cup is believed to be a wedding gift. Why would a rooster be an appropriate motif for a couple who are getting married? “The rooster symbolizes a new day, and it symbolizes good news. That’s why it’s an appropriate wedding gift,” says Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, who leads the English and Continental furniture and decorative arts department for Freeman’s, which covers silver. He adds, “It’s a tradition of the family [who owned it] that it was a wedding gift. We stop short of saying it was a wedding gift because we don’t have a letter saying that, but we have no reason to disagree.”
Silversmith Alexander Nikolaevich Sokolov designed the cup, and the lot notes say it is “likely derived” from an illustration in a popular Russian book from the time, Antiquities of the Russian State. Was Sokolov trying to evoke the medieval-style illustration? “He’s making as realistic a cockerel as he can given the design of medieval Russian works,” he says.
What’s up with the rooster’s tail? It’s a good example of what Nicholson means when he talks about Sokolov balancing realism against the medieval sensibility of the book’s illustrations: “The tail devolves from natural feathers, to braided feathers in a strapwork pattern, to strapwork on the tail–an amazing deconstruction.”
Did Sokolov’s workshop do other rooster-shaped presentation cups? “He did others earlier, but they were not as fully evolved as this one,” Nicholson says. “We don’t know how many he made, but it was clearly a form he liked.”
It’s a presentation cup, so you’re not really supposed to drink from it. But if you wanted to, how would you do it? See the broad band around the top of the rooster’s body? The hinge is in there. The head and neck of the silver bird tilts backwards, and the comb rests on its tail.
This is fresh to market, directly from the descendants of the people who received it. How unusual is that? “Many things that have been sold were confiscated by the Russian government,” he says. “This was brought over by the family and preserved through the generations to be offered at auction for the first time.”
What else makes the Russian presentation cup special? “It’s such an extraordinary piece of silver,” he says. “We have lots of good silver in this sale, and they all have their own stories, but this piece… the story makes it exceptional. So many Russian objects are just stolen. It transferred from an old Russian family [that became] a Russian emigre family and [then became] an American family of Russian descent, who wants it to go to a collector who understands its value.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Freeman’s.