MASTER SILVERSMITH

BY M.S. LAWRENCE

Al Crabtree has a rare skill set, and he prefers to take it on location. A master silversmith with more than 50 years of experience, Crabtree specializes in museum-sanctioned restoration and conservation methods.

“Once, I was asked by a curator at the Governor’s Mansion in Florida to repair some of the state’s silver collection,” he says. The curator proposed to send the silver to Crabtree in Charleston, with a state highway patrol vehicle on each end of the car carrying the prized collection. “They wanted to park in front of my workshop while I worked.”

Instead, Crabtree and his wife, Charlotte, drove down to Tallahassee with a van they outfitted as a workshop. “We restored and repaired the silver collection in the mansion’s garage area,” he says. “I didn’t want to take it off the grounds, much less out of the state.”

Crabtree has restored pieces damaged in hurricanes and garbage disposals, cleaned and properly stored battleship silver, and re-created missing feet or handles. His clients include the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Middleton Place Foundation, Drayton Hall, Colonial Williamsburg, the Flagler Museum and the South Carolina Governor’s Mansion. Recently, he gave a talk on the connoisseurship of silver and its construction evolution throughout the ages as part of a symposium on collecting in the 21st century at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

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“I work on a lot of important silver, brass and copper that needs to be preserved for future generations,” says Crabtree. “I don’t know many people who do what I do.” Out of 300 of his fellow members of the Society of American Silversmiths, only a couple do work similar to his, he says.

At his Charleston workshop, The Brass and Silver Workshop, Crabtree restores, conserves and preserves approximately 300 pieces of silver, brass and copper each year. He offers soldering services, restoration, dent removal and straightening, as well as resilvering. Occasionally he must re-create part of a piece. Frequently, the items he restores are so rare and precious, he must travel to them.

Crabtree says he feels honored to preserve these important glimpses into the past. From 17th-century silver to an Oscar, from the chandelier in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church to a crown for Mrs. America, from a 19th-century brass compass to a PGA trophy, Crabtree has done his own walk through history.

“I’ve been privileged to be able to handle some of the earliest-known South Carolina silver,” he says. When four such pieces of Miles Brewton silver made their way to Crabtree for cleaning and restoration, he was awestruck. “Brewton’s working dates are circa 1696 to 1743, and his pieces are the earliest-known examples of South Carolina-made silver,” says Charlotte Crabtree. “They are a tangible legacy made and used by people who built this great state—national treasure, indeed.”

Skilled in museum and church silver conservation, Al Crabtree collaborates with museums up and down the East Coast. He worked on the Brewton silver in conjunction with the exhibit Sterling Faith: 300 Years of Charleston’s Sacred Silver, held at the Charleston Museum in 2004. Restoring silver from churches is a big part of his craft, because those pieces get dropped a lot. “I do a lot of repairs on church silver,” says Crabtree

Crabtree frequently works on brass, restoring church chandeliers and significant light fixtures. One of his largest jobs was the restoration of a 5-foot brass and copper seal, dating to the 1850s, on one of the barracks at The Citadel Military College. “I’m so proud of that job, because it was a historic seal, and I was able to really share the importance of its restoration,” says Crabtree, who is an alumnus of the school.

In addition to the conservation work he does at The Brass and Silver Workshop, Crabtree and his wife have owned and operated The Silver Vault of Charleston since 1995. The Silver Vault specializes in decorative arts, with an emphasis on silver and brass, offering comprehensive evaluations on style, maker, origin and construction. “Both shops complement each other,” says Charlotte Crabtree, who met her husband when she worked for an antiques shop in Jacksonville, Florida, that specialized in silver. “I started working there as a teen and really learned the history of silver. I was entranced by the fact that the silver of the day reflected the attitude of the day. Al was my go-to person for silver restoration.”

The Silver Vault’s customers often bring in heirloom pieces they have inherited. “They might not recognize a piece as having value,” she says. “Because of Al’s extensive background, we bring scholarship and an academic approach to our work. We provide information and education, so customers are aware of what they own and can secure it, insure it and pass along the knowledge that it’s a significant piece.”

As often as four or five times a month, the Crabtrees enjoy what Charlotte calls a “revelation moment,” sharing with unwitting customers the value and importance of a piece.

“It’s really fun. It’s like Antiques Roadshow,” she says, laughing.

AFTER A STORM

Tips for cleaning brass, silver and other metals.

Charlotte and Al Crabtree offer these tips for preserving your items after a storm or hurricane:

• Group like metals together (brass, silver plate, sterling, etc.). Sterling items will usually be marked “sterling” or “925/1000.”

• Use clean water and a mild dishwashing detergent to halt any corrosive reactions. Wash and dry each item thoroughly. Keep all metal objects away from chemicals such as household cleaning products and bleach.

• After washing and drying each item, use a polish specifically designed for that metal. Use silver polish for silver, brass polish for brass, etc. Avoid “all metal” polishes, as they are too abrasive for silver and silver plate.

If you plan to file a claim, talk with your insurance adjuster first and proceed according to their instructions. Verify that taking the steps above will not hinder or invalidate a claim.

M.S. Lawrence is a Charlestonbased writer. Email: mslawrence@ bellsouth.net.