J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Saturday, January 16, 2010

“Silver Bowl, Belonged to Joshua Loring”

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.”

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.”
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.

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.
And the big question remains: How could the younger Joshua Loring have retrieved the punch bowl from Massachusetts when the war was over, as Sotheby’s suggests? He was in British-occupied New York City, was terribly unpopular with Americans, had no leverage anymore, and had a strict deadline for getting the hell out. The Jamaica Plain property had been legally confiscated and was in possession of another family.

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.


J. L. Bell said...

A New York Times story about this bowl added another detail: Apparently in the 1740s a set of initials originally engraved on it was replaced with the letters “B F”.

J. L. Bell said...

The bowl just sold for $5.9 million, seven times the estimated price.

J. L. Bell said...

Judith H. Dobrzynski at Real Clear Arts wonders why the bowl went for so much above the estimated price: “What did the buyers—two at the end, but six at the beginning—know, or believe, that Sotheby's experts didn't?”

Unknown said...

I am on the Board of the historic Loring-Greenough House and am also a fine art appraiser here in Boston. Over the last three weeks I was in much contact with a specialist at Sotheby's concerning the Loring Bowl. Also, I am in contact with Commodore Joshua Loring's direct descendant in England who consigned the piece.

I have to commend you on your admirable research concerning the bowl and its provenance. I agree with you - the story that Joshua Loring, Jr., an implacable enemy in America during the Revolution, ventured back to Jamaica Plain to retrieve the silver bowl is highly implausible. Besides your theories, the bowl may simply have been retrieved from the well/property by an accomplice of Commodore Loring prior to the latter's evacuation from Boston in 1776. Alternatively, the bowl may have been retrieved from the well/property by a member of the Curtis family in Jamaica Plain. Commodore Loring's wife, Mary, was a member of the prominent Curtis clan, and likely there were still local/familial sympathies for the Lorings' plight, having fled their home in August of 1774 with only the most basic of possessions.

As I said, I am in contact with the Loring descendant in the UK, and he was the source of the bowl's provenance that it was retrieved by Joshua Loring, Jr., from the Jamaica Plain property at the close of the Revolution. Apparently, this story is part of Loring family tradition, the only documentary evidence being the 19th century note attached to the bowl.

One last note on the bowl's provenance is that there has been a long-standing story associated with the Loring-Greenough House that the Lorings did hide their valuable silver pieces somewhere on the property when they fled in 1774. They were, of course, fully expecting to return after British forces vanquished the rebellious colonists. Evidencing this is the fact that the Commodore walled in his large wine cellar in his home. It was so well concealed that it was only discovered 75 years later during house renovations!

The selling price of the Loring Bowl was truly astonishing. I examined the piece during the auction preview and can say that it is a magnificently crafted piece, of relatively massive size, and is of extreme rarity - definitely a "one of a kind," very early piece. These factors combined, along with a few determined bidders, caused the price of the bowl to soar to the highest possible level.

Thanks very much for your excellent blog!

Edward Stanley
Edward M. Stanley Appraisal Services
Boston, Massachusetts

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comments, Ed Stanley! I saw your name in some of the pre-auction coverage, and appreciate the perspective.

Here’s a question about the initials “B F” on the bowl. In the mid-1700s, did such engraved initials usually refer to the silverware’s owner (e.g., Benjamin Faneuil), or to the melding of two families (e.g., Bethune and Faneuil)?