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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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John Will (attrib.) flagon and chalice sold together for $138,000. Photo courtesy of Northeast Auctions.
Collectors appreciate the delicate distinctions the rest of us sometimes miss. In the world of pewter, Charles V. Swain knew those distinctions by heart.

For Swain there was magic in the lustrous silver-gray metal. It captured his attention in the early-1920s and remained with him for the rest of his life.

For almost 50 years he collected, researched, studied and analyzed pewter. Swain studied the molds and castings. He studied the thumb pieces, handles, lids and spouts. With his discerning eye, Swain solved pewter mysteries.

He focused on British as well as American made pewter. He discovered early pewteres used parts interchangeably. The mid-section of a teapot might be exactly the same as a sugar bowl. Knowing this enabled Swain to attribute unmarked pewter to its rightful creator.

By profession, Swain was an interior architect and decorator. His real love was collecting. He resided at Hilltop Farm in Bucks County, Pa.

Swain was an active member of the Pewter Collectors Club of America. In his later years he had two wishes. The first was to have his collection published. The second was to acquire two pieces of rare 18th century pewter, the John Will flagon (pitcher) and chalice.

His first wish came true when his nephew, Donald L. Fennimore published the two volume catalogue of his collection in 2002. The second wish was realized when he purchased his prized flagon and chalice attributed to John Will.

Swain died a short time later. His collection and life had come full circle.

The pieces sold on Feb. 24, 2007, in the first of three Swain pewter auctions scheduled at Northeast Auctions, Portsmouth, N.H. The next auctions are scheduled for May 19 and Aug. 3.

The John Will flagon and chalice sold together for $138,000. The pieces originally belonged to the Round Top Lutheran Church in Bethel, N.Y. The communion set was purchased for the church in 1760.

Up until the 19th century pewter was often called the poor man’s silver even though it was not inexpensive.

Priests served communion from pewter chalices and baptized the young from pewter basins. In taverns, beer was downed in pewter tankards and people ate from pewter plates.

Full of history, it’s these early pieces collectors look for. Especially popular are the tankards, porringers, coffeepots, pitchers and teapots. Pieces that display beautifully on a shelf are some of the most sought after.

This is one field where a little education goes a long way. Age and origin are critical and touch marks and design mean a lot.

For example, the clue to two similar English, straight-sided, pewter mugs made 100-years apart are in their handles. A projecting ball at the base gives the older one away. Reference books also help collectors identify marks impressed on pieces.

Other marks you might see on pewter indicating quality include X, London, a rose and crown, and a figure of an angel.

Condition is another important factor. Collectors prefer pewter clean, without the discoloration of oxidation. The original surface is also important. Over polishing can damage the surface.

“I would suggest you not buy pewter in need of much restoration,” Swain said. “The cost will probably be more than the piece is worth and it is almost impossible to find a qualified person to do work on it.”

Here are current values for other pieces sold in the Swain auction.

Charles V Swain

Porringer; by John Bassett; New York City; circa 1732-1761; 6 ¼ inches long; $17,400.

Tankard; by John Will; New York City; circa 1752-1774; 7 inches high; $49,880.

Tankard; by Joseph Leddel (SR., or JR.?) New York, New York; circa 1718-1754; 7 inches high; $60,320.

Basin; by Henry Will, New York City; circa 1885-1802; 12 1/4 inches diameter; $63,800.

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