Mystery at the Museum: The “Vanderbilt” Coach

With Carriage Day scheduled for this summer, we thought it a great opportunity to highlight a spectacular object in the Permanent Art Collection. For those of you that have seen it in person, you will likely never forget it – the sterling silver model of a park drag that came to the Museum in 2011.

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Park Drag; a Tabletop Centerpiece with Custom-made Elkington & Co. Mahogany Carrying Case, English, c. 1910, sterling silver on a marble and wooden base 17 ½ x 41 ½ x 9 ½ inches (excluding marble and wooden base), Museum purchase with funds donated by: Hector Alcalde, Helen K. Groves, Manuel H. Johnson, Jacqueline B. Mars and Jacqueline L. Ohrstrom, 2011

It is the largest known silver model of a coach, measuring a substantial 3 ½ feet long excluding the base. The piece was intended to be a tabletop centerpiece decoration – if you can imagine a soirée worthy of such a fine object.

Impressive I know, but why is it mysterious? It seems to have surfaced out of thin air in 1950 even though it is thought to be a circa 1910 creation. Curators are sticklers for provenance. It makes us nervous when there isn’t a complete line of ownership from the point of creation of an object to the present. It makes us even more nervous when English sterling silver doesn’t bear the hallmarks it should.

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A&W, lion passant, leopard’s head, and capital letter P hallmarks on footrest of coach and various submarks

The model has plenty of hallmarks – a full set on the footrest of the coach and submarks on all of the pieces, each applied as a result of an assay (formal metallurgical analysis). The capital letter P in the square indicates the year of assay – 1950. The leopard’s head is the mark of the London Assay Office. The lion passant represents sterling silver. The A&W hallmark is that of a small silversmith firm no longer in operation, Austin and Williams, first registered in the London Assay Office in 1933.

The hallmarking system has historically been rigorously enforced in England to maintain standards of quality and consistency. For an object to be sold, a mark of origin of the assay office, a standard of fineness mark designating the grade of the silver, a maker’s mark, and a date letter are required. Based on this, the 1950 hallmarks on the coach directly contradict the assertion that the object was produced circa 1910.

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The piece was created with a wide variety of silversmithing techniques. The hackneys were cast via the lost wax method which allows for greater detail.
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The coach is made with sheet silver. The wheels, lamps, and horn are separately cast pieces. The basket is woven from of silver wire.

This little bombshell is enough to make any curator’s blood run cold, but it wasn’t the only research challenge. Some of you may have encountered the description of this piece as “The Vanderbilt Coach” promulgated while it was under the ownership of Mr. George Mossman, a member of the esteemed English Coaching Club and an expert carriage maker, who acquired it c. 1950. The model carries with it written testimonials that it was commissioned and displayed by the renowned historic figure and internationally-acclaimed champion carriage driver, Alfred G. Vanderbilt himself. After extensive review of these documents, we have been forced to connect some of the key documentation to a separate, much smaller-scale sterling silver model.

Vanderbilt, however, would have certainly been one of a few who might have been able to bypass the hallmarking system, especially if the model was intended for export to the U.S. The quality of the model and its magnitude point to someone with the means and desire to have it created. The problem is that there is to-date no known primary written source that confirms the original ownership of the model.  Could Vanderbilt’s untimely passing on the Lusitania in 1915 explain the mystery surrounding the creation of object? Was the sale never completed?

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The model is displayed atop its custom-made carrying case built by Elkington & Co. circa 1910.
Elkington label
The case lining has been replaced, but the original Elkington & Co. Ltd. Silversmiths label is still intact.

The park drag model came to the collection along with a custom-made carrying case built by Elkington & Co. circa 1910.  The esteemed silver firm was famed in the 19th century for its elaborate silver tableau displays at international fairs. The NSLM’s sterling silver park drag rivals these works which represent hundreds of hours of silversmithing and finishing techniques at the highest levels. It would certainly make much more sense that a piece like the coach would have been produced by the great Elkington & Co. instead of a small firm in existence for only a few decades with no recorded output on this order.

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Stereograph No 126. The Alhambra Table, by Elkington & Co., The International Exhibition of 1862 [source: http://www.worldofstereoviews.com/images/1862/aa0170.jpg ]
After hundreds of hours of research, interviews, and expert silversmith and coaching opinions, I am as of yet unable to fully explain the hallmarks and the gaps in the provenance of the park drag tabletop centerpiece. I remain hopeful that one day we will be able to solve the mystery at the Museum, but at the end of the day, the silver coach speaks for itself as a magnificent work of art, regardless of who owned it or made it.

If you have any information to share regarding the model, please contact me at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions.

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