Collecting vintage tea and coffee urns

These design curios-cum-heritage treasures are infusing a new generation of collectors with joy, says Emma Crichton-Miller

c1934 silver-plated tea urn by Eliel Saarinen, at The Met
c1934 silver-plated tea urn by Eliel Saarinen, at The Met

In 1996, Zane Buzby, a US-based television director and producer, was on a mission. Her paternal grandfather, who had emigrated to America from Odessa in 1910, had died, leaving behind a broken samovar – one of those distinctive vessels made in Russia and eastern Europe between the 17th and early 20th century, to hold hot water for tea. For him, as for many Jewish immigrant families, the family samovar was the only sizeable object they brought with them as they fled persecution. “It is like a family touchstone,” says Buzby.

She knew of an area on the Lower East Side in Manhattan that had once been inhabited almost entirely by metal workers from Russia and eastern Europe, where she thought she could get it repaired. But, when she visited, just one boarded-up shop remained – it was up for sale and the contents were to be melted down. In horror at the thought of so much history being lost, Buzby persuaded the owners to sell her much of the remaining stock, including 130 samovars. Three are now the centrepiece of Buzby’s own collection. She has since established, in parallel with her television work, a business – the Lower East Side Restoration Project – restoring antique Russian samovars. “Each one was handmade,” she says. “Even at the height of production in the late-1800s and early-1900s ‘factories’ in Russia turned out only a few samovars per day.” This means each one is different. Of her original collection, 15 or 20 remain available for sale (from $495 to $5,500); others are also keen to buy back a symbol of their heritage, while design enthusiasts see a striking aesthetic curio. There is a great variety of colours and forms, though Buzby herself likes the rare samovars made from Tombak bronze, known for its red-gold colour.

From left: c1960s ceramic Ernest Sohn samovar, £916 through 1stdibs. c1925 ceramic and metal Royal Rochester percolator, £1,069 for the set through 1stdibs. c1810 painted pewter and brass samovar, £1,069 through 1stdibs
From left: c1960s ceramic Ernest Sohn samovar, £916 through 1stdibs. c1925 ceramic and metal Royal Rochester percolator, £1,069 for the set through 1stdibs. c1810 painted pewter and brass samovar, £1,069 through 1stdibs

The electric kettle may have rendered the samovar mostly redundant, but those from Russia – as well as their western European equivalents, tea urns – continue to be prized objects, even if only for display, and especially among silver collectors: a very grand 1809 tea urn with elaborate handles by leading Georgian/Regency era silversmith Paul Storr fetched $68,750 at Sotheby’s in New York in 2014. In May 2017, an extraordinary English tea urn from 1821 by silversmith Edward Farrell, covered in embossed architectural scenes, battles and mythological creatures, sold for £37,500 at Sotheby’s London on an estimate of £6,000 to £8,000.

“The political and social positioning of tea ensured that such urns were splendid, highly decorative objects,” says Timo Koopman, director of leading London silversmiths Koopman Rare Art. Russians had learnt about tea from the Mongolians; Europeans from the Chinese. By the 1720s, tea had become de rigueur throughout Europe, driving not only the discovery of porcelain, but also the production of a whole array of fine-silver tea vessels to keep water hot for this exotic drink. “They were especially spectacular in the Regency and late Empire period,” says Koopman, with the early 1820s the peak of creative rivalry between nations.

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British-Indian businessman Nirmal Sethia has created the largest privately owned collection of historical teawares in the world, the Chitra Collection, which includes one tea urn by Paul Storr, from 1814, and a spectacular silver-gilt vase-shaped tea urn from c1815-19 adorned with mythological creatures, by French goldsmith Jean‑Baptiste Claude Odiot. “The artistry shows you the passion and commitment of these makers both to tea and to their patrons,” he says. 

Alongside silverware, there were other finely crafted urns produced in this period – 1stdibs has a charming yellow-painted pewter samovar with a brass tap for £1,069, made in Germany around 1810.

c1925 silver and Macassar ebony samovar, £4,580 from Transatlantique
c1925 silver and Macassar ebony samovar, £4,580 from Transatlantique

Tea urns continued to hold a fascination for designers into the 20th century. The Paris-Moscow gallery Transatlantique has a gorgeous silver art deco samovar (£4,580) with Macassar ebony handles, tap and feet, made in France c1925. As art deco hotted up in the US, coffee was becoming the national drink, so companies adapted the genre for coffee services. One, by Royal Rochester, in an art deco pattern called Modernistic, is a decorative, extremely rare ceramic and metal percolator with sugar bowl and creamer, and is available through 1stdibs for £1,069.

The finest examples are cult objects today. A sleek, spherical silver-plated tea urn created by Finnish modernist Eliel Saarinen c1934 for his Michigan home, is now considered a seminal objet d’art. Only a handful of examples are known to exist, almost entirely in museums. Another 20th-century name is Ernest Sohn, who fled Nazi persecution, arrived in New York in 1936 and established himself as a MoMA award‑winning designer of decorative, functional objects for the home. Two ceramic samovars from the late 1950s and early ’60s – his slim-waisted Doric samovar and a wonderfully curvaceous example (£916 through 1stdibs) – take inspiration from modern art, leaving the old world behind completely.  

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