Home Accessories | Past Masters

Salt cellars

Long signifiers of social status, these treasures are now much sought-after for their often extravagant beauty, says Katrina Burroughs.

January 09 2012
Katrina Burroughs

You’d never guess it from today’s underwhelming little grinders, but once upon a time salt cellars, or “salts”, were symbols of towering status. Salt was such a valuable commodity in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance that magnificent ceremonial salts, fanciful forms in precious metals with small compartments for the white stuff, stood tall on the dining tables of the élite, marking the rank of guests by their placement: above or below the salt. Nowadays, the condiment is inexpensive, but the salts that once held it, whether they are early treasures, Georgian cauldrons or rococo-style confections, still bring to the table the savour of real luxury.

Collectors lament that only the merest trickle of historically important early salts comes onto the market. The most remarkable examples are in museums, including the 16th-century silver-gilt sailing ship called The Burghley Nef in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an extravagantly ornate edifice, surmounted by a warrior, painted by goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard in 1589, which is in the collection at Salters’ Hall in the City. The most celebrated surviving salt is the Saliera made by Benvenuto Cellini for Francis I of France in 1543, a mini sculpture in gold and enamel of two figures representing Earth and Sea. Estimated to be worth around £40m, the Saliera was stolen in 2003 but returned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, in 2006.

Such is their rarity that, when early masterpieces do surface, they command tasty prices. A rare James I bell-shaped salt cellar, dated 1607 and once owned by William Randolph Hearst, sold at Christie’s for £159,200 in 2005 and, says Timo Koopman of Koopman Rare Art, might be worth £250,000 today. “These come around very infrequently – it’s a collector’s idea of the Holy Grail,” Koopman says. His clients, who pursue the extravagant and unique, are finding the market frustrating: “People are holding on to what they have, so there’s far less coming to the market. I don’t mean the lesser things, but the real works of art by the best makers.”

Collectors forming a shopping list of stellar makers might include Huguenot silversmith Paul de Lamerie (1688-1751). A set of four de Lamerie silver salts, marked London 1728, fetched £19,000 at Hansons auctioneers in Derby in March this year. Another name that every silver aficionado reveres is royal silversmith Paul Storr (1771-1844). His bespoke salts fetch six-figure sums. Four Regency salts, dated 1813, commissioned for the Duchess of St Albans’ service, realised $207,500 at Christie’s in 2002. But Storr also designed simpler salts for middle-class dining tables – a pair of neoclassical salts with egg-and-dart motif and claw feet might now be had for £2,000 at auction.

Dutch collector Simon van den Bergh has amassed an impressive 154 salts in 14 years of collecting. “I fell in love with them in my youth,” he says. “My parents had two silver salts with blue glass liners that were always on the dining table.” When he retired as a professor of veterinary biochemistry, he set about constructing a tightly focused collection, based on this template: “They have to be silver, have blue glass liners, they must be oval and must have four legs or more.” Among his collection highlights are a salt by 18th-century silversmith Hester Bateman, and a couple by her offspring Peter and Anne Bateman, and numerous examples by London maker Robert Hennell.

An increasing number of enthusiasts are enchanted by the elegant salts produced by the Hennell family, a three-generational dynasty of silversmiths. Another collector (who prefers to remain anonymous), with a particular interest in 18th-century silver, and salts by Paul Storr and Hester Bateman in his haul says, “As a favourite piece, it is very hard to choose between the various Hennell designs of about 1765-1785.” A world away from the towering power salts of the medieval period, these pieces are modest, decorative vessels, often cauldron-shaped, or prettily pierced, and frequently have coloured glass liners to protect the silver from the corrosive salt. The word cute springs to mind.

Silver dealer Mary Cooke, a Hennell specialist, says, “People find them easy to appreciate. They have great appeal; they’re just extremely pretty, but not in an over-the-top feminine way.” In her stock, an unusual set of four salts modelled as baskets by London makers Robert and David Hennell in 1770 costs £2,950; a set of four early George III cauldron-shaped salts from 1762 by David Hennell I is offered at £2,500.

Collectors who hanker after the splendour of the early salts should explore the lavish examples inspired by the Marine Service, a set of plate made for the English royal household and added to for more than a century by the best makers of the period. In the service are two pairs of rococo silver gilt salts in the shape of crabs and crayfish made by Huguenot silversmith Nicolas Sprimont for Frederick Prince of Wales in the 1740s. The marine theme, which symbolised mighty British sea power – Rule Britannia spelt out in frilly shells and sea gods – was repeated in plate supplied to George IV by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell in the 1810s and 1820s. The service was widely copied for wealthy households, often by the same makers that supplied the royal set, but good examples are elusive today. Koopman Rare Art stocks a set of four silver gilt salts based on Sprimont’s crustacea, dated 1819, made by Garrard, the royal jeweller that contributed to the Marine Service in the early 19th century, and priced at £300,000.

See also

Collecting, Vintage