By Doris Athineos
Photography by Bruce Buck
Former All-American football player John LeHeup pursues Southern silver with the same passion that he once exhibited for pigskin. The pro-defensive-tackle-turned-Presbyterian-minister has scored some 200-plus pieces of mostly 19th-century silver made or sold in South Carolina.
But it’s not only big, sexy holloware that turns his head. "I can get excited by a little souvenir spoon or melon spears if they’re historically significant and rare," says Dr. LeHeup, who lives in Mayberry-like Easley, South Car-olina, with his wife, Vickie. "I’m just an outlaw in the Upstate who makes it his business to acquire as much South Carolina silver as I possibly can," laughs John, wrapping his muscular hand around a delicate spoon handle in the shape of a chubby cherub climbing down a vine. The sauce spoon, which he’s dubbed "Jack-and-the-beanstalk," tells a Southern story. It was made by Charleston jeweler/silversmith James E. Spear in the middle of the 19th century. How rare is it? Neither John nor his fellow silver pros have ever seen another like it. "Some people assume that because the spoon is so sophisticated it couldn’t have been made in South Carolina," says John.
Some people would be very wrong, especially Yankee curator Joseph Downs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who, some 60 years ago, dismissed the South with one sweeping statement. ("Little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore.") Now antiques addicts on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line chase Southern silver. "People no longer believe that all great silver comes from the North," notes silver dealer Charlotte Crabtree, owner of the Silver Vault in Charleston. Or as the preeminent dealer of Southern decorative arts, Sumpter Priddy of Alexandria, Virginia, says: "It’s not like a bunch of indolent Southerners were waiting around for the Yankee shipments to arrive."
Indeed not. "There were 76 silversmiths working in Charleston between 1801 and 1810," says Crabtree. "In the 1800s, there was a tremendous amount of wealth in Charleston, and Charlestonians had an insatiable appetite for silver," she adds. Curator Brandy Culp of the Historic Charleston Foundation concurs. " Charleston had a huge community of artisans who lived in close proximity and were incredibly successful. Charleston silversmiths were both artisans and retailers. And sometimes they imported the same forms they created, using the imported object as a design source."
But not all smiths showed their mettle in Charleston. Some set up shop in Camden, Columbia, Georgetown, Winnsboro, and points in between. John has a particular appetite for "Upstate" silver, whether it was shaped or just sold there. "I care more about a spoon retailed in Chester in the 1850s than a spoon made in Charleston in 1800," notes John. " Chester silver is harder to find than Charleston, and rarity is key for me. I also try to find unusual forms-—crumbers, nut picks, and buckwheat servers."
John doesn’t snub Yankee silver if he can trace its lineage back to a South Carolina owner. For instance, one of John’s trophy pieces is a water pitcher made in New York and sold in Baltimore. "The pitcher was a gift inscribed to St. Julien Ravenel, the South Carolina physician who built the first submarine," explains John, who brings history to life by tracking down previous owners. It was while prowling through Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery in search of dead silversmith William Ewan that the silver sleuth bumped into Ravenel’s headstone. "I dropped to my knee and said, ‘Doc, I have your pitcher, and I’m taking good care of it.’"
For John, the pitcher links the past to the present. "I can hold an object and connect to the maker, shop, or, through monograms and inscriptions, possibly the original owner," he says. But when John began collecting in 1985, he only had eyes for homegrown beauties. "My appreciation for who owned a piece has evolved over time," he explains.
Like their Colonial counterparts to the north, Southern smiths found the raw silver they needed by melting down old-fashioned silverware and foreign coins. "Smiths advertised that they would pay top dollar for outdated articles," says Crabtree, noting that major silver lodes weren’t discovered in America until 1859. And while English sterling may have a higher silver content, John really prefers coin silver’s matte, mellow patina to the shiny gloss of sterling.
Identifying South Carolina silver can be tricky. Even hard-core collectors like John get stumped. Some pieces are marked with the names or initials of makers or retailers, who can be found among the 440 listed in South Carolina Silversmiths: 1690–1860 by E. Milby Burton and Warren Ripley (Charleston Museum; 1991). "A silversmith mark was a brand name," explains curator Culp. Just don’t expect to find the marks of smiths who worked as slaves for various master silversmiths. For instance, a slave named Abraham worked for silver star Alexander Petrie and, when Petrie died in 1768, was purchased by silversmith Jonathan Sarrazin for £810. "The high price for which he was sold really attests to his skills as a craftsman," says Culp.
One recurring theme is that Carolina craftsmen did a lot more than tap out teapots. They were entrepreneurs who harnessed the creativity of other artisans and pitched themselves as jewelers, goldsmiths, watchmakers, and retailers. One of a family of Charleston silversmiths, John Mood (1792–1864) moonlighted as a Methodist minister. The saintly smith was "at the forefront of teaching African Americans to read when it was against the law," says Crabtree. You can see Mood’s metalwork at the Charleston Museum.
John owns striking silver by 63 different silversmiths who worked in South Carolina between 1790 and 1907. One of his favorites is Scotsman Alexander Young (1784–1856), who worked in Baltimore before moving to Camden, South Carolina. "He was also a Presbyterian elder, jeweler, and bookseller and ran an apothecary," notes John, obviously awed by the smith’s get-up-and-go entrepreneurial spirit.
Young was also the hand behind John’s most fortuitous find. While digging through a mixed box of "unknowns" in a tiny Atlanta antiques shop, John spotted a lone serving spoon sparkling among the other objects. He was just a beginner, but he zeroed in on its long, lean shape. Drawn to hometown silver like a magnet to metal, he discreetly flipped the piece over to discover the name "YOUNG" in a serrated rectangle stamped on the back of the handle. The Scotsman’s name didn’t register with the cheerful dealer, and John bagged the spoon for less than $200. "I almost tripped over my tongue as I was paying," John recalls, clearly relishing the thrill of the score even 20 years later.