In any museum gallery, you will encounter rare and valuable pieces of art. We value well-designed objects for many reasons, including for their materials and craft, their aesthetic design, and sometimes the people associated with them. This luxurious Tiffany & Co. Tea Service from 1905 is a rare object with incredible value in all three categories.
It is made of solid eighteen-karat gold, making it valuable simply for the materials of its production. Tiffany produced many, many silver tea services but ones in gold are exceedingly rare because of the high cost and (arguably impractical?) softness of the metal.
This tea service also has a design that is perfectly aligned with a moment in design history. Featuring scalloped sides and classical shapes, the objects evoke tea services from America’s 18th-century colonial past, like this sugar bowl and creamer from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “Colonial Revival” look, and its associations with what was thought to be a virtuous simpler past, was tremendously popular in American at the turn-of-the-twentieth century.
This remarkable service also is associated with a haunting story. Each of the serving pieces is marked with the monogram of its owner, Mrs. Eleanor (Elkins) Widener of Philadelphia. In 1912, Mrs. Widener boarded a lifeboat to escape the sinking ship Titanic and watched as her first husband, George Dunton Widener, and eldest son, Harry Elkins Widener, perished with the ship.
This Tiffany & Co. gold tea service is on view in the Museum’s 20th-century design gallery on the Main level.
Mel Buchanan is the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.