Debbie Arrington

Professor’s silver treasure trove to benefit CSUS

This ornate coin silver fruit stand was made by San Francisco silversmiths Schulz & Fischer.
This ornate coin silver fruit stand was made by San Francisco silversmiths Schulz & Fischer. Courtesy of Witherell’s

To auctioneer Brian Witherell, this Sacramento silver boom is a golden opportunity.

Hundreds of rare California-made silver items will be auctioned by Witherell at his family’s Sacramento auction house annex on Nov. 4. “Silver Canvas: The Art of California Silver from the Estate of Edwin Iloff” showcases the most comprehensive collection ever assembled of silver dishes, serving ware, presentation pieces and decorative items made in California.

“I’ve been working on it for years,” said Witherell, well known for his appearances on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.” “I’m absolutely thrilled by it. Without a doubt, it’s the biggest collection of California-produced silver. It can’t be duplicated. This stuff is very rare, very scarce. I tried collecting it myself; there’s not much out there.”

The collection belonged to the late Edwin Iloff, former chairman of the California State University, Sacramento, physics department. A Sacramento State physics professor for 28 years, Iloff became an avid collector, specializing in California-made silver. He died in 2012 at age 87. The sale of his collection will benefit two permanent endowments for the science department he loved.

While still teaching, Iloff picked up his first silver pieces in 1980. By his retirement in 1991, he was devoted to amassing a major collection.

“He collected in a big way,” Witherell said. “He attended every (antique silver) show in California. He was very serious about silver.”

Witherell met Iloff 15 years ago at the San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show. Some pieces from Iloff’s collection will be exhibited by Witherell’s auction house at the upcoming San Francisco show to be held Oct. 27-30 at Fort Mason Center’s Festival Pavilion.

What makes California silver so special is its rarity, Witherell said.

“There was a handful of manufacturers in San Francisco,” he explained. “During the 19th century, California had silver from the Comstock discovery (in 1859 near Virginia City, Nev.). California silver was promoted at great lengths at the Mechanics Fair in San Francisco (during the late 1800s). It showed we were self-sufficient and could produce our own decorative arts. It became like gold quartz jewelry – prestigious.”

Most of the 400-plus lots that will be auctioned were manufactured in the late 19th century. They represent the best of these early California silversmiths, including W.K. Vanderslice & Company, Shreve and Schulz & Fischer.

Every piece has a story. For example, a large Shreve silver bowl with gilt lining – nicknamed the Captain Hunter bowl – is shaped like a sailor’s ditty bag tied with a silver rope and anchor. It was made to commemorate a successful 1888 voyage to Alaska and was presented by passengers to Capt. J.C. Hunter. (Its auction estimate is $5,000.)

“The professor’s favorite piece was this large silver pitcher,” Witherell said as he lifted the heavy pitcher. “It was made by Vanderslice & Company. What’s so unusual is that it depicts a Russian sleigh scene. It’s a masterwork in silver.”

The auction comes after many months of trying to keep the collection together to donate to a museum, Witherell said. Helen Schmidt, Ed’s niece, worked hard to fulfill her uncle’s wishes. Two Vanderslice silver servers dating from before 1864 were donated to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, but no museum wanted the whole thing. If no museum could be found to exhibit his many silver pieces together, Iloff’s will stipulated that the collection should be sold, Witherell said.

“It’s actually an amazing opportunity (for buyers),” he said. “The market is down. Silver is under $20 an ounce. The professor paid top dollar for his pieces. Somebody is going to get some real bargains.”

Silver Canvas: The Art of California Silver from the Estate of Edwin Iloff

Where: Witherell’s annex, 1925 C St., Sacramento

When: Live auction begins at 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4. Preview, 1-6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3.

Admission: Free

Details: www.witherells.com, 916-446-6490

Also: A partial preview will be exhibited at the San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show, Oct. 27-30, at Fort Mason Center’s Festival Pavilion. Complimentary general admission tickets to the San Francisco show are available by emailing info@witherells.com.

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