Yesterday I quoted a press release from the Sotheby’s auction house about a big silver punch bowl up for bids later this month. Sotheby’s suggests that the bowl was hidden in a well on Commodore Joshua Loring’s estate in Jamaica Plain (shown above, courtesy of the Boston Public Library’s Flickr collection), then retrieved at the end of the war.
What’s the evidence for that account? Sotheby’s catalogue offers more detail:
This bowl is accompanied by two 19th century letters. One letter dated 29 November 1873 states: “The chased silver bowl, valued at nineteen guineas, left to me as an heirloom by my father in 1852, I hereby give to my brother Adml. Loring C.B. instead of leaving it to him in my will. - Henry N. Loring.”So we have no contemporaneous evidence for how the Loring family came into or preserved the bowl—only tradition written down decades and generations later. And the auction house has read some assumptions into the documents it has.
The second letter states: “Silver Bowl, Belonged to Joshua Loring & was buried in a well during the War of American Independence (the Loring family was then living in America) & brought up when it was over.”
Sotheby’s story of the bowl states two details that the second letter doesn’t corroborate:
- that Commodore Joshua Loring owned the bowl; the note simply says “Joshua Loring,” and two men of that name—father and son—lived through the Revolution.
- that the bowl was hidden in Jamaica Plain; the note just mentions a well in America.
How could Loring have even begun the search? “My dear Mr. Greenough: You don’t know me, and you shouldn’t believe what you’ve heard about me. I used to live in your house before your government took it from my father—but no hard feelings! By the way, have you found anything heavy in your well? Please don’t bother to clean it off. Just ship it to me in New York, and if you could do that so it arrives before the 25th of November, I’d be especially grateful. Your humble servant, &c., &c.”
I think it might be worthwhile to go back and ask how the Lorings came to possess an expensive silver bowl made in the early 1700s by a New York silversmith who catered to that colony’s Dutch elite. Sotheby’s even suggests that it might have been made for
Col. Abraham de Peyster, Mayor of New York (1692-94). De Peyster’s will, probated in 1734, lists “1 large silver Punch Bowl”, whose recorded weight with a serving spoon approximates that of the offered bowl.So how did a New York punch bowl come to the Lorings?
One possibility is indeed that Joshua Loring, Sr., acquired it before the Revolution. He was in charge of a small fleet on Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario during the Seven Years’ War, which is how he got the title “Commodore.” So he had dealings in upstate New York, where he might have met Dutch aristocrats, and connections to merchants in the city.
Second, Joshua Loring, Jr., spent more than five years in New York during the Revolution as commissary of prisoners. He was a powerful figure in the British military administration. He had a habit, Americans grumbled, of lining his own pockets. (Some say supplying the military prisons in New York was an impossible job for anyone.) Perhaps Commissary Loring took possession of the bowl at that time, and the family preferred to remember it as older patrimony that had been hidden from the rebels.
A third theory: Joshua’s wife Elizabeth was from the Lloyd family of Long Island. Members of that family dealt with Abraham De Peyster and other members of the Dutch business elite. We even have records of the New York Lloyds ordering silver in mid-century, so they were that sort of people.
Perhaps the silver punchbowl was hidden in a well in New York—either the city or Long Island—during the 1775-76 period when Patriots dominated the state. Then the Lloyds retrieved the bowl sometime after the British military’s return in late 1776. It came to Elizabeth (Lloyd) Loring as an inheritance or gift. She and her husband used it to entertain during the war, then brought it with them to England in 1783.