Thursday, August 17, 2017  

Collecting Oyster Plates

For thousands of years, the oyster has been a food choice for people with a discriminating palette. The true oyster purist prefers them in their most natural form, which is on the half shell. During the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, Oysters were consumed in great quantities by people of every class in the United States and around the world, wherever they were found, due to their affordability and availability. Oysters were prepared every which way including “pickled” which preserved them for longer periods of time.

Oysters were so plentiful and available that they could be purchased on the streets, at fine dining establishments, oyster rooms and many other places. Once the speed of transportation increased and better shipping technologies were available, oysters could be shipped to a much wider market of oyster enthusiasts. In fact, oysters became so popular that even special Oyster Parties were held far and wide among the upper and middle classes. Oysters were at the height of their consumption and popularity between 1810 and 1870. They continued to be in great demand and were still widely available until World War I, when their numbers went into steep decline due to over harvesting and the destruction of their natural habitat.

Having become a treasured menu item for formal dinners, it naturally became necessary for the well appointed host or hostess to serve oysters on dedicated oyster plates that were specially designed for this purpose. Oysters were served on the half shell on ice, on the half shell without ice and, of course, out of the shell. Most of the oyster plates treasured by collectors today are oyster plates that held oysters served without their shells. This was by far the neatest way to serve and consume the succulent and divinely delicate bi-valve. Oysters served on the half shell on ice quickly fell out of favor due to the mess that melted ice made. The Victorians were not at all fond of messes.

The plates used to serve oysters on the half shell without ice quickly became damaged by the coarseness of the oyster shells. Hence the creation of the beautiful oyster plates that are most sought after by collectors. These lovely plates are among the most prized and valuable collectibles traded today. They are indeed a good investment and have continued to gain in popularity and in value. Depending on the manufacturer, the motif and other factors, an oyster plate can be purchased for anywhere between $90.00 for a simple lower end plate, to more than $3,000.00 for a rare or presidential plate. Along with the oyster plates there were various sorts of utensils and oyster forks that also became popular and are also treasured by collectors today.

Oyster Plate Collectors on the Northern Neck—Steve and Lynn Bonner

Steve Bonner, a native of Kilmarnock, and his lovely wife Lynn have been collecting oyster plates for decades and have an extensive collection of Oyster Plates in all shapes, sizes and levels of ornamentation. Steve and Lynn have earned a reputation as serious collectors as well as honest and reliable oyster plate dealers, with repeat customers throughout the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and beyond. Their love for oyster plates is evident by their immense knowledge and the extensive collection that they have assembled. Their mesmerizing collection includes plates in every color and level 
of ornamentation from the simple to 
the highly ornamental and opulently gilded plates.

During a visit to the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery to speak with “the oyster plate lady,” who is really Mr. Bonner himself, I gained a wealth of knowledge about the various types and manufacturers of these amazing gems.

Oyster plates truly are among the most beautiful and unique creations in the world of utilitarian decorative arts, bar none. The Bonners were gracious in giving of their time and their mutual knowledge. Steve went through his vast collection at the antique gallery and Lynn shared with The House & Home Magazine their private collection at home, so that we could gain a better appreciation and knowledge about oyster plates and how to display them. They are valuable as both investments and collectibles. They have true decorative art value in addition to their value as collectible investments.

Steve and Lynn’s Tips 
for Successful Oyster Plate Collecting

  1. Invest in a reliable oyster plate collecting guide. This will help you with your collection as it grows. Most guides sell for around $30.00 and can be purchased from the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery or from any fine book store and most online book sellers. Beware of any seller who tries to scare you into thinking that you must buy from them based on “their knowledge.” This knowledge is something that can be obtained for free in a good oyster plate guide or by asking good questions of a “real business” that is a reputable dealer in oyster plates.
  2. Although you may be tempted, never invest in a plate that is less than nearly perfect. Plates with cracks, chips or repairs of any kind are worth only a fraction of the price that a near-perfect plate is worth. As your collection grows, you will be very proud that you were particular about your collection and you won’t have to sell some of them off to get the collection that you desire. There is no oyster plate so rare that you should ever settle for buying a sub-standard one instead of one that is in mint condition.
  3. Do start your collection with the best plate you can afford, even if you can only purchase one per year. Over time you will have a collection that will only continue to increase in value.
  4. Photographs can be deceiving! A good thing to remember is to ask for a picture of a plate you are considering buying, from a long distance or online seller that was taken without a flash, and also no alterations to the photo. As a word of caution, it is always best to see the plate in person, hold it, comparing it with others to make sure that you are getting what you are paying for. This is a must!
  5. Ask for the details on the plate that you are interested in, such as the markings and the approximate age. There are many reproductions out there now, so buy with confidence from people that have been in business and have earned a reputation for honesty.
  6. Try always to get good discounts, make sure that you will be able to return the plate if you need to for some reason and deal with people who are willing to spend time with you during your purchase.

Some of the most sought after oyster plates are UPW or Union Porcelain Works plates which were the first oyster plates made in the United States and also the famous “Turkey” plate by Haviland Limoges. These plates are characterized by a deeper, more jewel-toned color palette. Generally, but not always, Minton, Quimper, and some of the French oyster plates, as well as George Jones tend to have more delicate motifs and subtler more pastel oriented colors.

Most people who start their collection generally begin with a plate of lesser value and work their way up in price. Once they have a greater comfort level regarding their knowledge they often know which plates they want to start collecting and go from there. If you are looking for a good collectible that will hold its value, you can’t go wrong with oyster plates, as long as you have purchased originals and not reproductions. There are also many wonderful reproductions out there that you can purchase at very reasonable prices if you are wishing to assemble a 
set that is to be used often.

Billy and Carole Croxton
Oyster Plate Collectors and Oyster Enthusiasts

Billy and Carole Croxton began collecting oyster plates about thirty years ago. Billy’s family has a long history and appreciation for the oyster. His mother, Louise Croxton, collected oyster plates for about 50 years and built an amazing and unrivaled collection of rare and exquisite oyster plates in every shape and color. “I know Mother would have been so proud of Carole’s interest and attention to the display of Oyster Plates throughout our home.” Billy and Carole’s collection expanded when they inherited many of the plates that had been collected and treasured by the late Mrs. Croxton, who also had an extensive amount of knowledge regarding the origins and history of each plate she collected. One huge benefit that both Billy and Carole derive from being collectors is that this alone can take the guess work out of special Christmas or anniversary gift purchases.

Many of the oyster plates they have collected are displayed in just about every room of the house, in all sorts of imaginative groupings. The Rappahannock River beyond brings the outdoors in and really provides a complete and perfect backdrop for their collected oyster plates and marine art. What is so amazing about oyster plates is that no matter how many you put together or how many different colors, motifs or sizes are assembled together, they blend together in perfect harmony. It must be their intended purpose that brings them into such a harmonious collaboration of designs and colors.

The Croxton family has an established legacy as oyster connoisseurs and oystermen, in addition to being avid collectors over the years of all sorts of things, including little pigs.

One of their favorites plates is the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Oyster Plate by Haviland, Limoges. They have many rare “shooters” and single oyster plates, as well, on display.

Some History of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Plate
An excerpt from page 32 of the book 
Oyster Plates, by Vivian and Jim Karsnitz

“Many celebrities have had oyster plates made specifically for them, including America’s 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes, who served from 1877-1881. He commissioned a state dining service for the White House, including oyster plates designed by Mr. Theodore R. Davis, an artist employed by Harper’s Weekly.

The set was made by the Haviland Company of Limoges, France. In this set, as well as other turkey plate sets of lesser value, five wells are surrounded by southern raccoon oysters which have the outsides of the shells showing. These shells form a pattern that resembles the outline of a turkey, so the plates are known as the ‘turkey oyster plates’ to collectors.

This plate was produced by Haviland after producing the White House china. The presidential set caused a stir among the public, with strong feelings running in support and in opposition. Mr. Davis patented his design on August 10, 1880. Because of the great expense incurred in making the White House china, he and Haviland sought to recover their expenses by selling similar sets to the public. These sets have the patent date on the backs along with the presidential eagle. The original presidential set does not. When this presidential set was made the cost was $3,120.00, a figure the congress felt was excessive.”

Today just one of these presidential turkey plates can bring the same amount as the entire set originally cost to produce.

Oysters have made such an impression and are obviously and important part of their heritage as a family. Ryan Croxton, the youngest son of Billy and Carole is in partnership with his cousin Travis Croxton, in an aquaculture enterprise producing some of the best and most distinctive Chesapeake Bay oysters available. Travis is the son of Billy’s brother, Jimmy Croxton.

Together they own and operate Rappahannock River Oysters LLC. Billy and Carole are shown left holding one of the boxes that Ryan and Travis Croxton’s award winning oysters are packaged in for shipping. These two young men have created quite a stir in culinary circles and hope to introduce more varieties, of native Chesapeake Bay oysters in the future. More on these two outstanding young men can be found in the article on Chesapeake Bay Oysters, in this magazine.

There is no doubt that the Croxton’s enjoy fresh oysters throughout the year in every possible way including in the traditional oyster plates they have collected. Croxton oysters have already attained the status of award winning taste. Any food that is well prepared and beautifully presented always tastes better. Oysters are no exception. The best way to enjoy them, for many, is just as they are, fresh out of the shell!

As time goes on, the Croxtons hope to pass on to their children and grandchildren their passion for oyster plate collecting, just as Billy’s mother and father, Bill and Louise Croxton, passed the appreciation for these thing on to Billy and Carole. The family will, most certainly, continue their joint legacies as oyster farmers and as avid oyster plate collectors, in successive generations. 

Written by Karin Andrews, Contributing Writer