E.W. has a beautiful small set of Minton china. Each plate is hand-painted with a different leaf design. She has six cups and saucers, one cake plate, and two small plates in this custom pattern. Her grandmother gave it to her father in 1933.
E.W. has a letter dated 1983 from her mother gifting her these objects, created back in 1864 for E.W.'s great-grandfather, Walter Churchill. Back in 1933, the service was 120 pieces. As often happens, a treasured china set is broken up between siblings, decreasing its value; from 120 pieces, E.W.'s grandmother inherited 18 cups and saucers, and E.W.'s mother distributed 18 pieces to various children.
Did Minton create bespoke custom services? Yes, especially in the Beaux Arts period where elaborate china services for formal dining were de rigueur. Though it began with the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Fricks and the Mellons, the fashion of formal entertaining at a luxurious table spread to the middle classes by the end of the 19th century. Receiving a wedding set of formal china was a rite of passage into good society. But how to set a value on what is a lost art today, dining on high-maintenance gold-rimmed porcelain?
A few buyers are still out there for such services. Gilded Age Dining, a gallery in New York, sells these wondrous services. A niche market, vintage china rental is available from businesses such as Santa Barbara's Otis + Pearl, serving those of the small-house generation who have occasion for an impressive service but lack cabinets and padding to store delicate pieces used once a year.
The market, though, for selling a fine porcelain service is deplorable. My son and his generation is the cause. He and his wife don't want my gold-edged Minton. Those over 50 want to divest of such services. Failing a gift to the kids, what can we do with them?
Let's look at some comparable sales. Gilded Age Dining has a set of Minton — 12 gold, rose gold and platinum plates — custom-made for a Tiffany & Co. client in 1884. If E.W.'s plates have a special cypher, "G and H," this indicates a special class of Minton, services created for the ultra-rich in the late 19th century. E.W.'s china is not as valuable as this set ($2,000) due to its small size, lack of gold encrustation, and lack of maker's mark. Yet there's another element in value: provenance.
E.W.'s family calls this the "Churchill Minton." Was Walter Churchill a relation to Winston? No, but another famous Churchill is a possibility: Group Captain Walter Myers Churchill (1907-42), a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II, from a highly decorated military family: all brothers were "Special Operations." Walter was named after his uncle, an eminent bacteriologist who died in 1901. The whole Churchill clan was remarkable: Walter, an ace pilot credited with seven kills and awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the Distinguished Flying Cross, died early in the defense of Malta 1942. The family aeronautics company, J J Churchill, worked with Sir Frank Whittle, the jet-engine pioneer of the early 1940s.
If E.W.'s service belonged to this Walter Churchill, potential parties interested in the china increase from the fancy china market to collectors of World War II memorabilia. When the market for a class of objects is poor, I suggest finding a related, and better, market based on provenance.
Here's my own example: Years ago, I purchased a service of monogrammed china: a large maroon "B" festoons the center, bordered by a maroon band edged in gold. I suspected this might have been deaccessioned from the Santa Barbara Biltmore, a Bowman-Biltmore property from hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman, who began the chain with his first New York hotel in 1913. I suspect the Four Seasons sold my Biltmore china upon purchase of the Santa Barbara Biltmore in 1987. Thus, if I were to sell my china service, I would select a market devoted to collecting souvenirs from fine hotels. Those of us with fine china services to sell must get creative with choice of markets.
Do my son and daughter-in-law want the Biltmore china? No, not the Biltmore, not the Stanwood Minton, not my Christmas Spode, not my Thanksgiving Haviland .... If the pieces won't go in the microwave or the dishwasher, there's little interest.
The value of E.W.'s small set? If there's no connection to a famous figure, about $150. With a connection to a more active market, such as WWII celebrity objects, perhaps $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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