In London, underground silver vaults are a collector’s dream destination

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Part of the well-organized showroom at Koopman Rare Art, the only business that is above ground at the London Silver Vaults. Koopman sells some items crafted from gold, and many centuries-old, museum-quality silver pieces.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos except where noted. All rights reserved.

Imagine the wealth and plenty of some Victorians, who possessed so much contemporary and heirloom silver that they couldn’t store it all in their stately London homes.

That’s how the London Silver Vaults came into being, in1876, but then known as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. Then as now it is an underground repository for vast collections of fine silver cutlery, tea sets, double-handled serving plates, mirrors, objets d’art, engraved tankards, footed wine coolers, ornate soup tureens, delicate cruet sets, and on and on. Jewelry and important personal papers were also safeguarded here.

The Chancery Lane location is marked on many modern maps, and it is mentioned briefly in some guidebooks, as the vaults are open to the public.

But few visitors to London, especially if they aren’t silver collectors, know about the vaults and rarely explore the antique troves in the subterranean location.

Many months ago, I saw the show “Secrets of Underground London” on my local PBS affiliate, in which the vaults were included. So when planning my recent trip, I thought I’d explore this little-known attraction.

I was not disappointed as I leisurely wandered in and out of the individual vaults for several hours. I saw fewer than 10 other tourists. The experience was a cross between viewing the decorative arts of a less-well-organized Victoria & Albert Museum and a very, very, very high-quality flea market.

The closest tube stop is Chancery Lane, on the Central Line. Follow the signs and it’s about a five-minute walk to the entrance. Holborn and the Inns of Court are one tube stop to the west, and St. Paul’s Cathedral is one stop to the east, so the general area has a lot of interesting history and important buildings to explore. Make a day of it.

About 30-plus vaults, and when I say vaults I mean rooms of varying size with heavy metal doors like you would see in a bank (secured each night), comprise the site.

My overriding thought was: Who polishes all this gleaming stuff? And how often? There is so much of it in each vault that it would be a full-time job for several people, who, just as they got to the end of the inventory would surely have to start all over at the beginning, a never-ending loop of dust, polish, buff; dust, polish, buff — and gently at that.

Some dealers are members of the British Antique Dealers Association, the London and Provincial Antique Dealers Association or other antiques groups. Their business card shows their affiliation, sometimes with an imprint. Many specialize in English-made merchandise, but some also feature imported silver.

At vault 17, I had a chat with Gideon Cohen about what he looks for when he’s buying silver for his business (www.gcohen.co.uk). His requirements are pretty straightforward, self-explanatory and likely similar to those of other dealers.

He considers “quality, condition, craftsmanship and commercial viability.” I suppose he could also add “age” to that list, as in Edwardian, Georgian, Regency, Victorian or whatever the appropriate historical period.

Even with the required hallmarks, I asked him how tough it would be to make and pass off a counterfeit piece.

Silver is “as difficult to forge as it is to forge currency,” he replied.

A piece of English silver will generally have several hallmarks — a series of small illustrative stamps of letters and figures hammer-and-punched into the metal — which will reveal the purity of the silver, where it was made (country and city), what year (indicated by a letter’s font) and who the craftsman was. Some older silver will have a monarch’s head in profile to indicate a duty was paid. If it was made in another country, it will bear an import mark also.

For example, a piece stamped with a crowned leopard’s head means that it was crafted in London before 1820. After 1820 to the present, the uncrowned leopard indicates London-made. A walking lion (sometimes called “rampant”) stamp claims the sterling purity standard for England.

These symbols can be decoded from books, such as Bradley’s Book of Hallmarks, or from charts available online. Your shopping success would also benefit from some pre-visit hallmark research.

Some of the vaults are well-organized and you can get a clear-eyed view without having to rearrange the goods. But others are, and there’s no politer way to say this, cluttered, with  inventory stacked on shelves and jumbled on the floor (especially the hefty bigger pieces) clogging the aisles in no discernible order so that you have to step over the silver in some spots to get to the item that’s caught your attention.

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English silversmith Paul Storr, born in Westminster, made this rococo-style tureen in 1819-1820. It’s on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Don’t let this deter you. There are intriguing treasurers, some of which date to the 16th century, but seeking them out may try your patience. Generally, the older the piece, the more expensive. And if it’s the work of a famous craftsman, such as Paul Storr (1741-1844), a master of neo-classical style, or Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751), a French Huguenot who came to London as a child and later claimed British earls and dukes among those who purchased his creations, then prepare to open your wallet wide.

Some dealers specialize in particular goods, such as the woman who is very big on spoons, from tiny barely adorned ones used to portion salt to shellwork-encrusted serving size.

Most were friendly and eager to discuss their wares, answering questions about acquisition, price and the all-important hallmarks.

Each vault, often in the same family for generations, has a website, so you can evaluate the stock before you go. This alone can take hours, and I’d advise this step, especially if you are looking for something in particular, such as a snuff box, tea service or candlesticks.

Don’t hesitate to send an inquiring email. They’ll be more than happy to answer questions. And for that matter, if you see something you want to purchase from the comfort of your home, they will arrange shipping to the United States and many other global destinations.

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The ground level entrance, before proceeding downstairs to the vaults.

Once inside the entrance, the first business you’ll see is Koopman Rare Art (www.koopman.art). It’s the only one above ground and it also has one of the largest showrooms. Much of the inventory is museum-quality, which is no surprise in that Koopman boasts some of the major art institutions of the world among its clients.

In the lobby, pass the security guard and go down a few stairs to the hallway to the vaults. Technically, photography is forbidden, but in several vaults permission was granted. This is handy if you see something you like but aren’t quite ready to buy. You’ll have the digital image on hand to jog you memory or compare it to a piece that you’re inspecting/considering in another vault.

In several vaults, I asked if prices were negotiable. The answer was yes, but I can’t say if this holds true in all vaults. You may be able to knock off several hundred pounds, but not likely more than that.

Even if you aren’t buying, it’s a tempting place in which to examine elegant articles made through the centuries by brilliantly skilled silversmiths.

Quick reference: London Silver Vaults, 53-64 Chancery Lane. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays. Not all vendors are open all hours and all days. silvervaultslondon.com

 

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