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On Site: Fit for a King

Riki Goldstein

From a goblet to a grouse, London’s underground vaults are the gold standard on a silver platter

Monday, May 29, 2017

 Mishpacha image

 

O utside, in the Chancery Lane business district in central London, it’s a mild April morning. Well-dressed pedestrians emerge from the Tube station and stride to work. The stately building we’ve been directed to blends into its surroundings with a softly aristocratic façade.

Two guards greet us from behind a high mahogany desk, and we ask if a picture or two would be allowed. A definite no. With steel-lined walls rumored to be nearly four feet thick, and a 24-hour security presence, the world’s largest collection of silver for sale has never been broken into. But the proprietors are not taking any chances.

An elevator takes us down into London’s silver wonderland.

Underground Treasure Trove

The London Silver Vaults originally opened as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit in 1876, a place for affluent Londoners to store household silver, jewelry, and documents in underground store rooms. Slowly, store owners also started to rent the vaults for their valuable stocks. When the original building was reduced to rubble by German bombers during World War II, the underground vaults remained unharmed. In 1953, they were reopened as retail units, at the request of many of the silver dealers who had previously rented space there.

It soon became known as an underground treasure trove, a hunting ground for diplomats purchasing their silver tea services prior to overseas postings and American servicemen who wanted to bring home quality antique English silver to their wives and mothers. Word traveled, and the Silver Vaults’ reputation for luxury silver drew celebrities, royalty, and well-heeled tourists from all over the world. While the Atlantic connection has remained strong, today you are just as likely to hear Arabic cadences of English as American English.

 

There are roughly 40 specialist silver stores housed at the vaults. All have been owned for at least 50 years by the same families, and some current shop owners can recall visiting their grandparents’ storage vaults decades ago. Downstairs, we walk along a passage lined with vaults, their thick metal doors open for business.

Silver gleams everywhere inside the stores: magnificent tureens and ladles, sterling hostess carts with domed lids, candelabras, tableware, decanters, figurines of every nationality and pose, realistic animals, and ornamental coffee services. The opulence of the larger pieces is astounding: A recent record-breaking sale of a centerpiece for nearly £1 million ($1.3 million) was publicized in British papers.

Above each store, the proprietors’ names appear as an understated presence. Many are Jewish-sounding, and it is no surprise to learn that most of the stores here close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Silver Stars

At the end of the passage, we receive a warm welcome from the Stern family, owners of two businesses in the underground mall, Silstar Antiques Limited and Crown Silver. Dressed formally, with black yarmulkes and beards, are brothers Benjy and Kivi Stern, born and bred in Stamford Hill, but fully comfortable in the family business on Chancery Lane. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 662 – Special Shavuos Edition 2017)

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