By Andrew Ragali Record-Journal staff
MERIDEN — Relics from the city’s silver industry can be found at auction houses across the world, with rare items, such as a sterling cocktail shaker owned by Al Capone, fetching enormous price tags. The cocktail shaker was made by International Silver Co., which was based in Meriden. Capone’s wasn’t the only cocktail shaker from the company to do well at auction in recent years.
In March 2014, Capone’s sterling silver cocktail shaker sold for 50,000 British pounds — equivalent to $83,250 at the time — during an event hosted by Sotheby’s auction house in London. Sotheby’s estimated the 15-inch-tall shaker, in the style of a communion flagon, would sell for about $2,000. The cocktail shaker, crafted by Meriden-based International Silver Co., was a Christmas gift to Capone from his associates in 1932, according to Sotheby’s. On the side of the shaker is an engraved message: “To a Regular Guy from The Boys 1932.”
Capone, a notorious bootlegger during the prohibition era, was imprisoned in 1932 after being convicted of tax evasion.
Before it was sold last year, Capone’s cocktail shaker belonged to Stanley Seeger, an art collector who died in 2011 at age 81. Sotheby’s put 1,000 items from Seeger’s private collection up for auction. The cocktail shaker was initially acquired from the estate of a former Capone’s associate in 1998 by the Pullman Gallery in London, Sotheby’s website notes.
Simon Khachadourian opened the Pullman Gallery in 1998. Two years later, Khachadourian published a book titled ‘The Cocktail Shaker,’ featuring photographs and anecdotes about cocktails in the early 20th Century.
Before the book was published, Khachadourian visited Meriden to research silver cocktail shakers produced in the city, according to Allen Weathers, curator of the Meriden Historical Society. He remembers watching Khachadourian excitedly flip through catalogs in the society’s archives trying to find cocktail shakers to feature in his book.
There were several companies under the umbrella of the Meriden-based International Silver Co. The company incorporated in 1898 and acquired silver companies in Connecticut, New York and Canada. Wilcox Silver Plate Company and Simpson, Hall, Miller & Company, both in Wallingford, had sterling silver departments that could have produced Capone’s cocktail shaker, according to Weathers.
Items from the city’s silver industry were sold far and wide. Capone’s associates “could have bought the cocktail shaker almost anywhere,” Weathers said.
A cocktail shaker made by the International Silver Co. in the mid-20th Century, modeled after the Boston Lighthouse, sold in April at Sotheby’s in New York City for $15,000. In January, a lighthouse cocktail shaker made in 1930 sold for $25,000 at the same auction house. In 2011, a lighthouse model sold at Sotheby’s in New York City for $8,750.
An International Silver Co. cocktail shaker produced in 1927 sold for $21,600 at Christie’s auction house in New York City in 2005. In 2012, a cocktail shaker made by the International Silver Co. in the mid-1930s sold for $34,375 at Sotheby’s in New York City.
“The people that buy this kind of stuff have money,” Weathers said.
Cocktail shakers came to prominence during the prohibition era, Jewel Stern wrote in “Modernism in American Silver: 20th Century Design,” published in 2005. Moonshine liquor was often low quality, and was masked with other flavors, contributing to the rise of the cocktail, Sterns wrote. In the 1920s, home cocktail parties became a glamorous way to entertain, and accessories such as cocktail shakers became fashionable.
“Silver manufacturers were quick to respond, offering an array of stylish cocktail shakers, many with matching goblets and a tray in what were called ‘beverage sets,’” Stern wrote. Her book features a picture of a silver and gold-plated cocktail shaker shaped as a penguin, made by the Napier Company in Meriden, and a silver cocktail shaker shaped as a rooster made by R. Wallace & Sons Manufacturing Co. in Wallingford. Shakers were often given “novel and humorous shapes” in the 1920s and 1930s,” Stern wrote.
For socialites in the mid-20th Century, cocktail shakers were a status symbol, said Mary Ellen Brechlin, owner of Nest Egg Auctions in Berlin.
“Even for the middle class that was trying to make their mark on the world, in particular post World War II,” she said. “People were making more money, and they wanted status for it so they did a lot of entertaining,” often using cocktail shakers and other accessories to show their success.
Cocktail shakers and other silverware produced in the area a century ago do well at auction because of nostalgia, Brechlin said. “People hunger for something that speaks for the past.”
The most popular items sold through Nest Egg Auctions are Grand Baroque-style flatware and tea sets, often locally made in the 20th Century, Brechlin said.
“Whenever I have Grand Baroque in, I have numerous bidders,” she said. “It’s just one of those things that are not being produced anymore.”
Collectors are always looking for the next popular product, Weathers said. At one time, he said, antique typewriters were popular auction items, similar to cocktail shakers.
“People collect all different kinds of things,” Weathers said. “As soon as someone writes a book on it, you find out you weren’t the only one collecting.”
Every Sunday in October, Andrews Homestead on West Main Street will be open to the public, with locally produced silver items on display, Brechlin said.
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