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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Silver Victory Trophy, Alfred-Desiree Lanson, cast by L. Meissner, Paris, 1889. Sold: $244,500. Photo courtesy of Sotheby's
When most of us think about priceless silver, it’s usually in the context of majestic tea sets not trophies.

Victor Niederhoffer’s passion was historic trophy and presentation silver. He was a squash champion who managed to hold onto his own trophies long enough for the ritual photos.

In keeping with the custom, trophies were returned to whoever donated them because amateur squash players were not allowed to accept anything valued over $100.

In the end, Niederhoffer actually walked away from his victories with a silver ashtray or maybe a pinkie-sized loving cup. Even so, his fascination with these stately silver treasures never waned.

“I loved these pieces,” he said. “The intricate sculpting, the beautiful etchings, the fantastic hammering, all designed to show some heroic form stirred my blood then as it does now...When I learned that it was possible to purchase pieces like this, I was overwhelmed.”

His search started. He scoured every antique market and auction throughout the world looking for exquisite examples of 19th century trophy and presentation silver.

Niederhoffer not only collected trophies, he also collected the stories behind each trophy. The stories spoke of craft techniques, living standards, customs, wealth and history. By 1997, he acquired most of the prominent pieces earned by notables of the 19th century.

On Dec. 15, 1998, Victor Niederhoffer’s collection of 176-trophy and presentation silver pieces went on the block at Sotheby’s in New York and sold for $2,920,845.

This auction is an example of the principle that quality sells and that single-subject sales bring out the bidders. Of the 176 lots offered, 98 percent sold.

An American silver two-handled golf trophy made by Tiffany & Co., New York, in 1900, etched with a scene of two golfers and a caddy, 7½-inches high, reached $3,565. According to the Tiffany archives, this piece sold for $61.75 in 1900.

An American silver yachting trophy, Tiffany & Co., 1892, 24¾-inches high, won by the schooner Lasca sold for $85,000. The elaborate oval bowl was supported with a mermaid draped in seaweed. The stem formed into a dolphin in swirling water.

An American silver toilet-mirror, Tiffany & Co., 1873-1891, in the baroque style, with an embossed coat-of-arms, 20½-inches high, realized $5,462.

The top lot in the auction was massive silver sculptural group depicting winged Victory on the back of an eagle with wings outstretched, holding a wreath in one hand, and a horn in the other. It was made for the Viscondee de Figueiredo and cast by L. Meissner of Paris in 1889. The piece realized $244,500 and sold to an Ecuadorian private collector.

Most likely, this presentation piece commemorates Figueiredo’s role as a reformer in the overthrow of the Brazilian monarchy, and the establishment of the Republic on Nov. 15, 1889.

The sport pieces represented in the auction included yachting, tennis, golf, billiards and boxing.

“The sale was a testament to Victor Niederhoffer’s taste and good judgment,” said Kevin Tierney, specialist in charge of the sale. “There were some terrific prices for some terrific pieces.”

Q. I have a Victorian era combination desk and bookcase in good condition. The top is carved heavily with gargoyles and the bookcase has curved-glass doors. Any information you could give me would be appreciated? Jo Anne Davis, Delmont, Pa.

A. The austere modernism in the decades following World War II awakened a renewed interest in the comfort and solidness of Victorian furniture. Early Victorian pieces were handmade, but by the 1870s, factory manufacture became the norm.

The machines made it possible to work with dense woods like rosewood. The most valuable furniture of this era is the early handmade examples adapted from 18th century French styles of the courts of Louis XIV and XV and XVI. The Rococo Revival styles of John Henry Belter of New York are a good example. Furniture that bears his label is some of the choicest.

In terms of collecting, Victorian furniture is a good route to go because a lot of it was manufactured and there’s still plenty around. Ornate carving adds to the value as does colored marble tops. Condition of the wood and frame is important.

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