It all started with a single pitcher. Now it's the largest collection in the world.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published October 22, 2006
"What you ought to do," art collector Robert Shelton recalls telling his wife, Jolie, 10 years ago, "is find something you love and focus on it."
That was around the time they encountered the silver pitcher that would change their collecting habits, sometimes even their living, sleeping and eating habits. The one that became Jolie Shelton's focus.
"We were at an auction to buy a painting," she says, when the silver pitcher came up for bid. "All that was said about it when it came on the block was that it was Martele silver with gold inlay. It had a low estimate."
Robert Shelton was reading an arts magazine when her paddle went up the first time. Then it went up a second time. And a third.
"I knew something about it was very unusual," she says. "I really wanted to have it."
Robert Shelton looked up.
"What are you doing?" he asked her.
"I'm buying this pitcher," she said.
"For about 10 times its estimate, for about $9,600," he says now.
So began a collecting spree that continues today, an obsession that has resulted in the largest collection of Martele (pronounced mar-teh-LEH) silver in the world, now at St. Petersburg's Florida International Museum. The exhibition was organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art, which first exhibited the Sheltons' collection in 2001.
"I had never heard of Martele silver" before that first auction, Jolie Shelton, 67, says. "There was nothing about it on the Internet. I finally found an out-of-print book and began studying it."
"We realized," Robert Shelton, 70, says, "it was uncharted territory."
The Sheltons, lifelong residents of Lafayette, La., have collected art during most of their 46 years of marriage. He is a trial lawyer and businessman; she's a homemaker. They have a grown son and daughter.
The Sheltons had a large collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings when they began their transformation into the Lewis and Clark of Martele. They researched it. Dug up historical records. Consulted silver experts. And bought, bought, bought.
The silver pitcher, Jolie Shelton learned, was more than an object of singular beauty. It was an example of a singular - and for years very successful - experiment in high-end silversmithing.
Martele silver was a line begun in the late 19th century by Gorham Manufacturing Co., the largest manufacturer of silver in the world at that time. The company's fortune had been made in mass-produced silver, using large presses that stamped out uniform pieces of flatware and holloware.
Edward Holbrook, its ambitious young leader, pushed to establish a line of silver that was both art and craft, aesthetic and functional. It would be made entirely by hand, each piece original and unique. It would take its inspiration from the nascent art nouveau movement that was gaining momentum in Europe but was little known in the United States.
It would be called Martele, from the French verb marteler, to hammer.
Holbrook hired William Christmas Codman, a respected English designer who would provide the inspiration for the new line. Gorham set up a training program for silversmiths and attracted talented "chasers" from Europe, the men who put the ravishing finishes on the hand-formed vessels.
Martele made its official debut at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Holbrook was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honneur. Codman received a gold medal. Martele was a hit.
Labor of love
"Martele was the only art nouveau line of silver ever produced in the United States," Robert Shelton says. "People think of Tiffany when they think of American art nouveau. Tiffany produced pieces, but never an entire line of holloware silver as Gorham did."
The proof is in the Sheltons' collection. By 2001, in a mere five years, they had purchased about 300 Martele objects. The collection now nears 400 punch bowls, pitchers, bowls, vases, coffee services, side dishes, sauce boats, trays. Each is one-of-a-kind, a dazzling variety of art nouveau interpretation with the sinuous curves paying stylized homage to art nouveau's credo: art in nature, nature in art.
Martele's sheen is unique, too, more platinum-looking than silver, owing to the higher percentage of silver in its alloy, more than even sterling silver. That upgrade was made not only to distinguish it as a luxury item but to make it softer and more malleable. The practical application was that, while the material itself cost more, the smiths and chasers spent less time shaping and decorating it, so money was saved on the back end.
Martele was also unusual in the way it was crafted, as a collaboration between the designers, smiths and chasers. Codman and his designers would sketch an object, often with only the suggestion of its finished decoration. The artisans had great latitude to interpret those sketches, letting the embellishments emerge during the process of punching and hammering. A single piece made by a two-man team of smith and chaser could take several weeks to complete. The more elaborate ones could take months.
An unidentified silversmith took 272 hours to form the 35-pound punch bowl now owned by the Sheltons. A chaser named Robert Bain, who was considered one of the most brilliant in his field, spent 372 hours creating the intricate mythological masks on its rim and the undulating dolphin heads that form the base. The net factory price was about $1,500, about $39,000 in today's currency, although the actual value as an antique is far higher. (The Sheltons, like most collectors, rarely discuss value or prices.)
The Sheltons know those details because Gorham kept meticulous records of Martele production. What they don't know are the names of many of the buyers or what they paid once Gorham added its markup.
"The people who could afford Martele," says Robert Shelton, "were the very wealthy. They liked their privacy, and Gorham often didn't record their names. Sometimes they didn't even know because the silver would be sold through a retail store."
Because Martele was thoroughly catalogued and stamped with its signature eagle hallmark, collectors can verify its authenticity. Robert Shelton says it would be almost impossible and far too expensive to produce counterfeits.
Martele's mystery is in tracking it down, the Sheltons say, figuring out who owned it and learning their stories. Some are easy: New Yorkers Maxwell and Sophie Gardner of Westchester County ordered a number of Martele pieces in the early 20th century and had their monograms added, the transaction duly recorded by Gorham. But who was "Mother Stanley," to whom a large three-handled cup was presented? Or Harry Rubens Mosser, the infant whose name appears on a 1900 Martele porringer?
"That's something we're working on now," says Jolie Shelton, "learning more about the first owners. Some we'll find. Some we probably never will."
Records indicate that Gorham made about 8,000 Martele objects. Today, less than 2,000 are known to exist.
"As people died, sets were broken up, distributed among family members," Jolie Shelton says. "When the price of silver rose, and maybe one's fortunes changed, silver objects were sold to be melted down."
Many of the sets on display were purchased individually by the Sheltons from different buyers and reunited after elaborate searches and identifications.
Martele's run was brief, officially ending in 1912 though a few pieces continued to be created into the 1930s. Tastes were changing and the art nouveau look, so fresh at the century's turn, was looking dated. Gorham had competition from new silver companies. And some of the great wealth evaporated as the century rolled on, changing lifestyles and habits.
The Sheltons' habits have changed, too, with their Ali Baba trove, which they keep at home when it's not touring.
They polish it themselves with a diluted mixture of Wrights silver polish and lots of water - no curators, no assistants, just an occasional assist from their 6-year-old granddaughter.
They use it a lot, Jolie Shelton says, because "beautiful things should be used."
And that 35-pound punch bowl, among the largest in their collection?
"We put ice in it and fill it with shrimp," Robert Shelton says. "The shrimp taste very good."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or email@example.com
IF YOU GO
Marvelous, Magnificent Martele: American Art Nouveau Silver
At the Florida International Museum, 244 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg through Jan. 7. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $8 seniors and military, $6 students. 727 321-7900 or www.floridamuseum.org.