By Rachel Layton

When a museum acquires an object, there are many questions about its history. Early in 1994, Carnegie Museum of Art's Decorative Arts Department was handed just such a mystery when it acquired a 19th-century silver caviar pail, or serving dish, as a bequest of Pittsburgh resident Joan B. Lappe-Bowman. Aside from the fact that it was a caviar pail, we knew virtually nothing about the object before it arrived.

Caviar (the roe or eggs of various species of sturgeon) is a favorite delicacy in Russia, and was served as an hors d'oeuvre in traditional banquets. The serving pail was packed with ice and the caviar was placed in a small dish resting at the top. Our piece was one of a large group, with perhaps as many as 12 in the set.

During the months following the arrival of the pail, I ascertained its vital statistics-the what, how, where, when and how. The identifying marks made it easy for me to identify the pail's English hallmarks, the maker, date and place of manufacture.

John Mortimer and John Samuel Hunt, partners of a mid-19th-century silver firm in London, produced the pail in 1841. Cast into the base, a coat-of-arms showing rocks and sealife pointed to a royal provenance. Research showed the arms to be those of the Russian Prince Worontsov-Dashkov. Reference to this Russian nobleman is made by Mathilde Kschessinska in her book Dancing in St. Petersburgh (1960) where it is mentioned that "the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch...gave me a pair of vases from the Prince Worontsov's collection." The Russian provenance is logical for this object, as caviar was cultivated there. Ample evidence exists as well that the Russian nobility commissioned elaborate silver services from 19th-century English firms.

Beyond Prince Worontsov-Dashkov and Mrs. Lappe-Bowman, I sought information on other owners of the caviar pail. By researching auction records, locating earlier published information on the object, and corresponding with English silver scholars and dealers, I discovered that the pail sold at auction at Sotheby's, London, in 1969 and was purchased by Ruckston Love, a Florida collector with a propensity toward regilding antique silver. This record of past ownership may explain the traces of gilding on the caviar pail today. From Love's collection, the pail went through Sotheby's again, this time in New York in the 1980s. It was acquired by the Norwegian collector Hilmar Reksten who collected 18th-century and some English Victorian silver. The Reksten collection sold in 1991 at Christie's, London, where an antiques dealer bought it and sold it to Mrs. Lappe-Bowman a year later.

At the time of the Reksten sale, Sotheby's silver specialist and scholar John Culme uncovered a great deal of information about the design and production of the well-travelled pail. Culme noted that the English sculptor E. H. Baily (1788-1867) might have had a part in the design of the object. Baily was responsible for many of the related marine-inspired sculpted and cast silver pieces produced by successors to the firm of Paul Storr. Mortimer and Hunt, the manufacturers of the museum's caviar pail, was one such successor. My research on the pail, as a result, included tracking down and recording information on Baily and his designs for similar objects. Thanks to John Culme's discoveries about the caviar pail, I also learned that the idea of tritons, or mermen, upholding a fanciful bell-shaped conch was based on an engraved design for a vase by the French artist Jean-François Saly (1717-1776). A version of the design was formerly in the possession of Storr and Mortimer, Mortimer and Hunt's predecessors.

On a subsequent visit to London, I studied the Storr and Mortimer sourcebook now owned by Sotheby's silver department. It includes miscellaneous 16th- to 18th-century prints compiled by the firm. Carnegie Museum of Art's Fine Arts Department later acquired a version of Saly's etching, which is pictured here for the first time with the caviar pail itself. The exuberant asymmetry of the design reflects the 18th-century rococo style, making the silver caviar pail a superlative example of the rococo revival style, one of the historical revival styles popular in the 19th century. The pail is now on view in the museum's Scaife Galleries with other objects representing 19th-century revival styles.

Rachel Layton was Carnegie Museum of Art's assistant curator of decorative arts until July 1996.