Q: I need your help in finding out the origins of this soup tureen, which was passed down to me from my grandmother. I tried to google the manufacturer but had no luck. It does have a small chip inside the lid. Can you give me some idea about its age and value?
A: We love a good mystery, and when we got this question, we checked out the mark. It reads "Nicol & Davidson New York," written at the top of what would be a representation of a garter — as in "Order of the Garter" — if the piece were English in origin. But we believe it is not.
Inside the garter is written "Imperial China." The written sources gave us no clue, so like you, we googled it. And also like you, we thought we found nothing. But we clicked on nothing and out popped what we think was an ad from the New York Times dated Oct. 9, 1872. And suddenly we had the end of the string.
Under "Nicol, Davidson & Co." it read, "No. 686 Broadway factory 4 Great Jonesstreet, Decorators of porcelain, offer a splendid assortment of ornamental dinner, tea and desert service; also, white French China, India China, by set or piece." We left some of the capitalization out because today it would look like internet shouting, but this is essentially what appeared in the New York Times 146 years ago.
This is all the historical information we could locate, and we need to figure out how it relates to the soup tureen. What we surmise from the little blurb of information is Nicol & Davidson were essentially china decorators who also sold certain kinds of china that were popular in the New York City market at the time.
We believe the white china base on the piece was probably made in France, probably in the Limoges region, and sent to Nicol & Davidson as a "blank," or undecorated piece of china. The form is elegant with a funnel foot and neoclassical handles and a finial that appears to have some sort of faint design either impressed or painted. It is hard to tell from the photograph.
At this point, we think Nicol & Davidson probably added the graceful and subtle ribbon and flower pattern that graces both the bottom and the lid. The rims appear to have been heavily gilded as well, but unfortunately, time and use have rubbed much of the gilding away.
We strongly believe the tureen was decorated in New York and not in France, and we also firmly believe it was once part of a much larger dinner service. It is our opinion it was made sometime from the mid-1870s to the late 1880s with a circa date of 1880.
The value of the piece is really historical. It is a piece of New York history, and is probably something of a rarity. A similar tureen without the Nicol & Davidson connection might be worth somewhere in the $175 to $250 region, but this particular tureen should be treasured for its place in the narrative of New York City's artistic and industrial past.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written books on antiques. Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or e-mail them at treasuresknology.net. Please include a high-resolution, in-focus photo of the subject.