From the Archives: The Tankard

By: Dara Vandor

Waddington’s is celebrating its 170thanniversary.
As Canada’s longest enduring auction house, we’re proud to share our stories.

In the spring of 1985, Waddington’s sold a silver tankard for a world-record setting price. The story was published in the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, as well as airing on the CBC. In addition to those sources, this story includes details provided by Duncan McLean, President, and Bill Kime, Senior Specialist in Decorative Arts.

An Inheritance

Graeme Stewart was looking to sell a tankard that was part of his inheritance. The piece looked similar to a beer stein with a hinged lid, measuring 18.5 cm with a capacity of two pints. Stewart’s grandmother had given him and his sister a choice between two family heirlooms: a tankard and a clock. His sister chose the clock, leaving Stewart with an item of little interest to him, which sat overlooked in a cupboard for several years.

Stewart was convinced that the tankard was pewter and was connected somehow with James I of England. Looking for a quick sale, he telephoned Bill Kime, Waddington’s Decorative Arts specialist, hoping that the auction house would send him ready cash for the item. Kime explained that auction houses do not buy work directly from clients, but rather take work on consignment. Moreover, he could not guarantee that the tankard was genuine or even worth auctioning sight unseen. He suggested that Stewart arrange to bring the piece in to be looked at. Kime recalls making the suggestion in the morning, and by the afternoon of the same day, Stewart was in his office, having immediately boarded a bus from Sutton, Ontario.

The Research

The moment Kime saw the tankard, he knew that it was silver—albeit very dirty—and not pewter. Stewart explained that as a child, he had scratched his initials, “G S,” on the top of the tankard with a knife, and that despite the piece having being in his family for several generations, he was now ready to part with it for $100. Kime again insisted that Waddington’s was unable to buy the work directly, and regardless, the tankard’s silver value alone was much higher—somewhere around $250. Stewart pressed, and after clearing it with Ronald McLean, the owner at the time, Waddington’s advanced Stewart a few hundred dollars.

Kime was able to trace ownership of the tankard within Stewart’s family to around the early 1900s. He also discovered that the origins of the tankard lay not in the United Kingdom but in America. The piece had been made in Boston in 1690 by Jeremiah Dummer (1645-1718), the first American-born silversmith. Dummer was also a prominent public figure and artillery captain, as well as being a noted portraitist and engraver, having printed the first paper money in Connecticut in 1710. While Stewart’s tankard had been crafted for daily use, early American silver is very rare and highly collectible.

Waddington’s set the estimate for the tankard at a conservative $15,000-20,000 CAD. Auction estimates are typically based on auction records for comparable pieces; the previous record for similar American silver at auction was $17,000. Kime recalls receiving a call from a specialist at an auction house in New York who implied that a Canadian company had no business handling such an important piece of Americana, and that in his expert opinion, the estimate should be from $20,000-30,000.

The Auction

The night of the auction, Stewart was in the packed saleroom. He loudly identified himself to the audience as the consignor of the tankard, and at one point tried to insist that he be allowed to hold the piece while it was being auctioned—a request that was politely and firmly declined.

Unbeknownst to Stewart or Waddington’s staff, two prominent dealers of Americana had travelled from the United States to attend the auction. The bidding got progressively higher and was ultimately a battle between the two American dealers. Kime, who was also serving as the auctioneer that night, recalls being so flustered by the mounting energy in the room that he skipped $10,000 in his bidding increments. He also remembers that no one batted an eye.

The tankard sold to Jonathan Trace, a veteran dealer of American silver and furniture, for a hammer price of $70,000. At the time, the piece set a world record for American silver, quadrupling the previous record of $17,000.

After the auction, Stewart insisted that he be allowed to take one last drink out of the tankard, and quickly filled it with Southern Comfort, which he drank while conducting interviews with the Globe and Mail, CBC and Toronto Star.

Trace was quoted in the Toronto Star in 1985 as saying he planned to do some minor restoration to the piece and “live with it for a while” before offering it for sale to museums and private collectors.

Two weeks after the auction, Kime received a call from an unknown woman looking to locate Stewart. She claimed to be Stewart’s ex-wife, and was looking to share in the huge windfall, having read about it in the newspaper.

Stewart’s sister brought her inherited clock to Waddington’s several months later, hoping for a similarly spectacular sale. Unfortunately, it was a relatively modest French carriage clock.

Where It is Today

Kime called Trace in 2020 for the writing of this story.

Trace explained that after he removed Stewart’s hand-carved initials, he sold the piece to Morris and Elizabeth Burrows, avid collectors of early American silver. The Burrows subsequently lent the tankard to The Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts where it is displayed today. Following their deaths, the Burrows’ extensive and important collection of American silver, valued at approximately $4.8 million USD, was donated permanently.

Image from the Clark Museum, Williamstown, Massachusetts


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