DMA Insight

The Jewel Stern American Silver Collection

In the summer of 2002, the Dallas Museum of Art acquired the most important private collection of 20th century American silver in existence: The Jewel Stern American Silver Collection. Assembled over a twenty-year period by one of the foremost scholars in the field, the Stern Collection consists of over three hundred pieces of industrially produced American silver. Dating from 1925 to 2000, the collection is unique in covering the entire period from the birth of American industrial design to the present. The addition of this magnificent collection gives the Dallas Museum of Art the most significant holdings of late 19th- and 20 th-century American silver in the world and solidifies the Museum’s position as a leading center for collecting and scholarship in this field.

Over the past two decades, Jewel Stern has conducted ground-breaking research on the history of 20th-century silver design in America and has amassed a scholarly archive unmatched in this area of study. Her years of research provided her with unparalleled expertise in the field of modern American silver, enabling her to build a collection that is not only aesthetically superior but also extraordinarily comprehensive in scope.

The Stern Collection boasts examples by virtually every important silver designer of every significant form produced in the United States during the years 1925 to 2000. There are exceptionally fine examples of art deco and streamlined modern styling from the 1920s and 1930s, the classicism and biomorphism characteristic of the 1940s and 1950s, futuristic space-age style and colored silver from the 1960s and 1970s, and objects reflecting the post-modernism of the 1980s and 1990s. The collection has remarkable examples by most major American silver manufacturers of the 20th century, including Tiffany, Gorham, and Reed & Barton. Famous individual designers and architects represented in the collection include Eliel Saarinen, Erik Magnussen, Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Robert A.M. Stern. The collection also documents the work of numerous industrial designers well known today among specialists in the field, such as Belle Kogan, John Prip, Alfred Kintz, Harold Nock, Jean Theobold, Virginia Hamill, Elsa Tennhardt, Robert Locker, and Donald Colflesh.

Before the 1980s the Dallas Museum of Art did not collect European or American decorative arts. That changed dramatically with the gift of The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection in 1983, the purchase of the Faith P. and Charles L. Bybee Collection in 1985, and the gift of the Karl and Esther Hoblitzelle Collection in 1987. In 1986, Charles Venable, the Museum’s first curator in the area of decorative arts, arrived with a mandate to build support for a decorative arts program in the community and develop a plan for future growth using these new collections as a foundation. Venable recalls:

I remember looking at the rather disparate group of things the Museum had just acquired and thinking to myself, ‘Where in the world could we go from here?’ At the time, there were few serious collectors of decorative arts in Dallas and we had little money for purchases. Furthermore, the art market, and especially prices for American furniture, was soaring at the time. I decided we had to be bold and get into an area that was still underappreciated and try to get the very best things we could.

The field Venable settled on was American silver. “Colonial American silver was already extremely scarce by then,” says Venable. “Even if we had had unlimited funds, building a truly great collection would have been impossible.” But the situation was different regarding 19th- and 20th-century silver. While many museums had acquired single great examples, no institution had built a collection in this area in any systematic sense, yet historically the United States produced a large amount of silverware of international importance after 1850. Extraordinary objects could still be found at a fraction of the price of, say, a singe Paul Revere tankard.

The acquisition of The Jewel Stern American Silver Collection completed Venable’s vision and solidified the Dallas Museum of Art’s position as a world leader in the field of silver collecting and scholarship, a remarkable accomplishment to have been realized in a span of less than fifteen years.

Excerpt from

Carl Wuellner, "The Jewel Stern American Silver Collection,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 90.