Phyllis Tucker presides in her eponymous shop.
A work in silver
Phyllis Tucker can converse on cutlery through the ages — and has set a table for the leaders of the free world, as well as Queen Elizabeth II. This august antiquarian, who’s possessed of a dry wit, also collects beautiful linens, rare lace and impeccable vintage handbags, each more than 100 years old.
But what she’s most known for is her expertise with 19th-century American silver. Tucker can wax rhapsodic about Kirk repoussé and why you should collect it today (paradoxically, it’s undervalued, yet impossible for contemporary artisans to recreate); pull out a cache of early 20th-century silver tea sets and tell you when, how and by whom each was made; and discourse on Victorian table manners, today’s Russian-style table service and etiquette throughout the last century.
From her charming old-guard shop on Ferndale, this decorative arts doyenne has conquered the world of American silver. She’s lectured extensively, including speaking engagements for NYU’s Silver Forum, and been cited in definitive volumes such as French Silver Cutlery of the XIX Century and Martelé: Gorham’s Nouveau Art Silver. Her celebrated wares are highlighted in books including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2000 catalog Art and the Empire City, New York, 1825 – 1861, in which a client’s garden-inspired tea service is pictured. She can gauge a maker, peg a date, tell machine-stamped from hand-chased and conjure the world of a Victorian dining table, all with a pair of Kirk candlesticks and a fish knife or chocolate pot in the Moorish style by her side — just some of the treasures a shopper will discover at her eponymous establishment.
Tucker is also enamored of 19th-century creators such as Gorham, Tiffany & Co. and under-known firms such as Dominick and Haff and the Unger Brothers, the latter Art Nouveau makers with florid, fanciful figural and natural ornamentation.
Tucker got her start in a most unlikely manner. Despite her love for craft, her family encouraged her to study economics at the University of Texas. (At UT, she met future husband, Charles Tucker, a mathematician and professor; they have been married for 52 years.) After college, she returned to her first passion and pursued weaving at the acclaimed Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. After a car accident in the 1970s prevented her from taking to her loom for a year, she began visiting Houston flea markets on a lark with a friend and sleuthed out silver. A shop followed on Bissonnet a decade later, then, in 1990, she relocated to her genteel showroom on Ferndale.
Looking back on 40 years in the world of American silver, she credits the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s In Pursuit of Beauty volume (1986) for sparking the revival of interest in the American aesthetic movement; Tucker is one of the few authorities in the world on this late-19th-century design epoch. She modestly says of her rise in the business, “It wasn’t because I knew the most, but because I was polite and patient.”
Four decades later, the now legendary Tucker — who has made an appearance on Antiques Roadshow and sold to numerous U.S. museums, as well as one across the pond (the dealer is tight-lipped and won’t name names) — remains at the top of her game. “I love the people,” she says of her clients. She’s also enamored of the objects she purveys and assiduously places choice finds in homes or private collections; values may soar to six figures for unique examples from early time periods or obscure makers.
“Each piece has a story,” Tucker says. “American silver is spectacular.”