Ghost of an owner past

A pair of finger bowls made and decorated in New York City in the 1850s or 1860s help clear up a lingering question about the removal or modification of engraved decoration.

The curator's question was simple: "Could that monogram have been added on top of another?"

By coincidence, I visited just after buying a pair of vases that closely matched a service in the house's collection. It would have been quite a coup to add other pieces to the service, but there was a problem. In addition to the eagle, shield and other decorations of the service, my vases carried an elaborate monogram, RAA. However beautiful it was, and however much I knew about Mr and Mrs "A", RAA was a problem in this particular house. But could it have been added at a later date?

The curator was familiar with the long-standing practice in silver of removing and replacing monograms. Many a fine piece of American silver has had its earliest engraving burnished away, allowing another person's initials or coat of arms to be added instead. The same hammering process that shaped and decorated the malleable silver allows that same decoration to be removed. Much like a palimpsest on parchment, enough of a trace can remain for scholars to reconstruct the original engraving, even when buried beneath a new monogram.

These finger bowls show a similar effect in glass. A glass cutter polished a hollow in the center of the shield, thereby removing an earlier monogram and the thin layer of glass into which it was cut. The bowls are ready for new engraving. Only the changed optics—a change in the play of light and shadow—reveal that something was removed, and that the bowls had had a previous owner.

Did the original customer fail to pay for these bowls? Were they engraved in error? Were they still fashionable enough when the owner passed away that a merchant hoped to resell them? Irregardless, the bowls show that when it comes to glass, it is difficult to remove a mark without leaving at least some trace that a change was made.

As for my vases, they showed no signs of modification. Instead, they were a case of emulation. The glass of future Governor "A" was modeled on the glass of his President, no doubt made by the very New York City glass workers who made his President's service.