November 29 2010
Simon de Burton
Flogging off the family silver has long been a tried, tested and thoroughly acceptable method of quickly raising some cash in times of fiscal emergency. It’s something I have wanted to be able to do on several occasions, but my late grandmother’s rampant lunacy drove her to deposit the whole lot on a highway back in the 1930s with an open invitation to passers-by to help themselves.
That story might or might not be apocryphal (it came from an equally unreliable relative), but it does go a long way to explaining the distinct paucity in the present-day de Burton household of chargers, punch bowls, coffee pots and cutlery bearing the crest of a dexter arm embowed in armour, the hand grasping a spear in fesse with the point towards the sinister and two arrows in saltire, the pheons towards the dexter. You probably know it.
No doubt what little there was is now dispersed to all corners of the world, and mostly with the rather childishly designed crest well and truly expunged. But suppose I did want to track down the odd item still bearing the family arms, how would I go about it? Until very recently, it would have been a simple matter of luck and of being in the right place at the right time when a piece surfaced for sale – in other words, the equivalent of looking for a silver needle in a haystack roughly the size of the entire world.
Around 18 months ago, however, heraldry scholar Stephen Marsh and his brother-in-law, silver specialist and author Martyn Downer, were bemoaning the difficulty of just such a task when they hit upon the idea of dovetailing the 1,000-year-old subject of heraldry with the 21st-century phenomenon that is the internet.
For those whose history is a little hazy, heraldry evolved in 12th-century Europe as a method of identification as armour became ever more enveloping, therefore making it more and more difficult to tell who was who during a skirmish. The solution was to wear surcoats or carry shields decorated with “devices” that marked out one nobleman and his army from the others on the field of battle.
These devices were passed down the family line and continued to be used as a method of identification and nobility long after armour had become defunct. By the 17th century, coats of arms and crests were no longer just for military use and were being granted and marshalled in England by a body called the College of Arms (or The Lyon Office in Scotland).
In the early days, arms were simply assumed by the people who wanted them and took the form of whatever design they fancied, a situation that led to inevitable duplication. But following the establishment of the College of Arms and The Lyon Office, things became a little more official and in 1859 historian James Fairbairn collated more than 4,000 existing designs into his book of heraldic crests of the families of Great Britain and Ireland.
To this day, Fairbairn’s Book of Crests remains the seminal reference for anyone in Britain and Ireland who is researching their family crest – yet beyond discovering what your crest should look like (or, at the very least, what the crest of people with the same name as you should look like) it is of relatively little use.
Marsh and Downer, however, have rather ingeniously broadened the appeal of Fairbairn’s by realising its potential to be transformed from a musty tome into a useful and potentially lucrative electronic reference tool. By spending what Downer will only describe as “hundreds of thousands of pounds” on having it digitised, it has now been made available on a highly detailed, easy to navigate and extremely versatile website called My Family Silver.
The most basic function of the site is to enable users to find their crests by simply typing in their names – but, rather more cleverly, it makes it possible to track down items from all over the world that are decorated with a particular armorial, thus enabling family members to buy relevant silver that they would otherwise have little chance of rediscovering other than by sheer fluke.
If, for example, you were looking for a set of candlesticks bearing your family crest, it would be a simple matter of typing “candlestick” into the search box, selecting a price range and adding information such as a description of your armorial or your family name. Any items on the database that match your criteria should then be displayed.
The service is entirely free for silver seekers to use, but makes money by charging a £500 membership fee to so-called “exhibitors”, who can use the site to display items of silver that they have for sale. These exhibitors are also able to use the search service in reverse (in order to determine a name from a crest), and currently comprise dozens of dealers and international auction houses – which means that there is a constantly growing and changing inventory from which to search.
“It has always been a problem for dealers and auction houses to reunite items of silver that might have been sold off generations ago with members of the same family that originally owned them or to which they at least pertain – and, in many cases, the presence of a crest has actually been detrimental to the worth of a piece,” explains Downer.
“For years, it has been a case of trawling through a tatty old copy of Fairbairn’s in the hope of matching some crested object with a name and then contacting the head of the family in the hope that they might want to buy it. It is a hit-and-miss method that really only scratches the surface, because there is always the possibility that some other branch of the same family might live on the other side of the world and have been long forgotten, but who might now have both the desire and the means to buy the object. Now that this site exists, they can find the dealer rather than the dealer having to attempt the often impossible job of finding them.
“It is tasks such as this that the internet is most successful at carrying out, and this sort of system works particularly well with easily identifiable items such as pieces of crested silver,” adds Downer.
If the site proves successful, it should help to preserve all manner of items, from humble, crested teaspoons to more elaborate pieces such as soup tureens. Until now, as Downer suggests, an object that was decorated with a crest was invariably considered less valuable than one that was not (apart from in cases of important provenance), because the idea of owning something bearing someone else’s identifying mark is, quite simply, a turn-off. The result was that the armorial would often be permanently erased.
Cynthia Harris, head of Sotheby’s London silver department, says that the site has increased immeasurably the likelihood of bringing buyers and objects together. “We now make a habit of uploading our entire catalogue for any silver sale onto the site and doing so provides a valuable resource for dealers and collectors,” she says.
“It does not just enable people to track down objects with links to their own family name, it also helps collectors find specific types of pieces. A good example of this was seen at the recent Chatsworth attic sale. We posted all the silver items on MyFamilySilver.com and attracted many potential buyers from around the world who have a specific interest in collecting objects relating to the family of the Dukes of Devonshire, although they probably had no personal links whatsoever.
“It also seems to be a good way of bringing in buyers for the less expensive items rather than the high-value rarities, although it has helped us to sell some pieces worth many thousands of pounds,” adds Harris.
The facility is also providing an unexpected spin-off for the modern silver and gold trade, in that people who have used it to discover family crests that they didn’t know existed are now commissioning new objects on which to have the crests engraved (including British-made gold signet rings that can be ordered from the site from £250).
“The My Family Silver website has a reciprocal link with our Who’s Who in Gold & Silver site that acts as a directory for contemporary makers,” says Amanda Stücklin, press officer of The Goldmsiths’ Company. “We welcome initiatives such as this because they refresh people’s opinions of silver and remind them that it can be an everlasting and relevant gift – heraldic crests are usually seen as being connected solely with the past, but this seems to be bringing the idea of using them right up to date and is giving people the opportunity to create their own piece of family history.”