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A Shoppers’ Private Paradise: The London Silver Vaults

Originally published in December 2003 in American in Britain Magazine

Silver has been treasured through the centuries for its lustrous beauty and high intrinsic value. Today, more than ever, fine antique silverware remains highly sought after by anyone with a discerning eye for beauty and exquisite craftsmanship.

Americans have had a ‘special relationship’ with the London Silver Vaults for more than 50 years. Today the attraction for Americans is still vibrant, especially for shoppers who prefer a quiet out-of-the-way place to browse and buy. It was not ever thus. After the War, there was little demand for antique silver from the English market, given the state of the British economy. Developing a post-war market was crucial for the survival of the silver trade. One story about the 1940s period explains that silverware merchants needed to find new custom. At that time the area around the Embassy in Grovesnor Square was referred to as ‘Little America’ and dealers arranged to meet the Attachés, their colleagues and families. American wives were keen to buy silver to take home to the United States. Dealers took ‘exhibitions’ of their stock to US air force and army bases and held sales. In the 1950s, one vendor remembers giving hour-long lectures about his antique stock, then safely housed back in the Silver Vaults. And some dealers even visited US bases on the Continent to promote their wares. In December 2003, Sam Bulka, a pre-1953 dealer, sold items to an American lady whose husband bought from David Shure & Co when he was posted here, in 1955. Thus, this ‘special relationship’ has been passed down and continues to flourish through generations of American families.

Currently the London Silver Vaults are celebrating their 50th Anniversary, marking the period from 1953-2003. Yet the history of the Vaults is much more complex. The Chancery Lane Safe Deposit opened in 1876, renting strong rooms (vaults) mainly to London’s wealthy elite in order to safeguard their household silver, jewellery and personal documents. Gradually a burgeoning trade in antique silver developed when dealers sold their stock from vaults. Sam Bulka, in Vault 1, knows his grandfather’s business started in a vault in the 1890s. But when the area was substantially bombed during the World War II, many of the original vaults were damaged. In the early 1950s they were rebuilt, opening again in 1953—(hence the 50th Anniversary in 2003). Today virtually all of the vaults are multi-generational family-run businesses. It would be hard to find dealers who are as experienced and happy to advise on every aspect of silver as those selling in the London Silver Vaults. Their expertise includes: valuation, provenance, restoration and care, together with the practical aspects of using silver. Take a stroll through the glittering galleries where more than thirty dealers present stunning wares in quiet purpose-built vaults lining cavernous hallways. The atmosphere for shoppers is seductive, private and perhaps, most significantly, prices are competitive. As an example, a Sterling silver cutlery set for 12 in the Old English pattern was recently sold to a customer at 30 percent lower than the 50 percent sale price asked at Harrods. Shrewd buying contributes to the unbeatable prices.

If you fancy silver from the most modest to the most extravagant you will find it here. Your first visit might even be regarded as an introductory tour: a voyage of discovery through a treasure trove of extraordinary silver objects. The collective inventory includes examples of silver craftsmanship from every period of manufacture from the 17th century to the present day. Decorative period designs such as rococo, neoclassical, regency, naturalistic, gothic, arts and crafts, art deco and modernism are there in abundance. Specialities include: cutlery, goblets, trays in all sizes, watches, jewellery, carving trolleys, animals, birds, ship figures, miniature musical instruments, even furniture for doll’s houses –and much, much more. As for customers–a wide array of celebrities including royalty, film stars, and politicians are known to frequent the Vaults. And it is not uncommon to see office workers shopping for that special gift for the boss. Items are typically bought for occasions such as weddings, corporate functions, commemorative events, and retirement presents.

There are several unique items to whet your appetite. Pictured here is a ‘Trench Watch’ designed to be worn by officers during the First World War. In pristine condition, it is a genuine example of military memorabilia. For the more discriminating collector, check out Anthony Green’s website (www.anthonygreen.com) where you will see his collection of cigarette cases, circa 1900, featuring soft porn paintings in enamels. You will find them in his vault, Number 54. Wolfe Jewellery (Vault 41) has an amusing pair of cufflinks in 18K gold entitled: ‘Four Vices’-with a 1915 hallmark. Look closely to see the ‘vices’ in miniature: women, drink, horses and cards. More conventional items are available in abundance. Pictured here are: tea and coffee services, a hand-cut crystal and silver bowl and a stunning simple Victorian rose bowl. Note, too, the importance of Hallmarking, which is so important when identifying the date and place of manufacture.

Uncertain about your taste in silver? Why not spend a bit of time surfing the London Silver Vault’s excellent website-(www.thesilvervaults.com). Here you will find a wealth of detailed information about silver online. All the dealers are listed, and many list their individual websites which feature vivid photos of their stock, provenance and the price of each item. The Vaults are tucked away on Chancery Lane in the City of London’s law quarter—perhaps off the beaten path for Americans. But this should not deter you. This section of London is rich in history. Close by are the Law Courts, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and Dr. Johnson’s House and architecture dating from Romanesque and Norman periods. A wide choice of restaurants, bars and pubs are within easy reach. Here’s a tip: Slip out for a tea break. Think about which gems tempt you most. Remember-there’s always time for a second visit.

The London Silver Vaults
Chancery Lane (corner of Southampton Buildings)
London WC2A 1QS
Telephone +44 (0) 870 108 7828
Shopping & Visiting times: Monday to Friday 9.00 am –5.30 pm. Saturday 9.00 am- 1.00 pm

CONTACT Abby Cronin