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A masterwork ship model in precious metal, this rare and unique Steamship Sidewheel Model LAURA emerged from the hands of John Dean Benton, a 19TH Century American East Coast jeweler, silversmith and artisan modeler of renown. Built in exacting scale, the animatronics of the walking beam engine and paddles are driven via a pulley system by the high-quality and completely restored cased music box below. Set off with such details as the cut $1 gold pieces in the paddlewheel centers and the two-tone of polished solid silver with gilded accents for the deck runs matching the gilded flag staffs, engine rail and four lifeboats, amongst other features. In its time, and today, Benton music-box models were considered the pinnacle representation of luxury ship models. Several, including LAURA, were retailed through Tiffany & Co. of New York.
Assessing the quality, this model is an amazing work of the jeweler’s craftsmanship and artistic vision. The American coastal passenger liner was an early iron sidewheeler built in 1866 by Harlan & Hollingsworth Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington, Delaware, with the engine the project of Morgan Iron Works. Shipping and railroad magnate Charles Morgan kept ownership of the vessel, and primarily used her in Long Island Sound, while his transportation businesses ran from New York into the southern ports of the Unites States, places such as Charleston, New Orleans and Houston, making him a 19TH Century multi-millionaire. He and Cornelius Vanderbilt were the leading purchasers of Benton’s models, mostly ordered on direct commissions, while LAURA sold through Tiffany & Co. in 1867. It is believed that the Harlan & Hollingsworth Company bought it as a presentation gift for Morgan in gratitude for his patronage. Morgan had done this the year prior for Samuel Harlan; a Benton silver model of his namesake steamer, HARLAN.
Benton was born in Boston in 1824, and his listed residences include Providence, Rhode Island; Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. The first of his gold-and-silver models were of the Vanderbilt’s ironclads MONITOR and ROANOKE, and Benton is listed within the U.S. Quartermaster’s Department roll in 1862. The New York Herald reported on his first public exhibition in 1864, showing the ship model COMMONWEALTH, made for Captain Williams of the Stonington Line. It is known that Benton made other types of models such as locomotive railcars, architectural displays and other mechanical arraignments besides ships. It is recorded that he made at least 29 silver ship models. Nineteen of these are known of today, with these split between private collectors and in permanent museum collections. The LAURA was one of two Benton models directly deacquisitioned from the Henry T. Ford Museum in 2002.
This extremely accurate model shows the complete ship, from her hull and machinery to the bridge and three-tiered above-deck passenger levels and covered bridge helm. She had a rather shallow draft, and would have proved quite capable in New York’s bay and river trades. It is an exceptional antique ship model combining artistry and history into this valuable artifact.
Some of the Known Silver Ship Models by John Dean Benton are in the:
Mystic Seaport Museum, Massachusetts
Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia
Fall River Marine Museum, Massachusetts
Vanderbilt Museum, Centerport, New York
Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia
Museum of the City of New York
National Maritime Museum, San Francisco
and a handful of private collections.
A Letter from the Henry Ford Museum Accompanies the Model. With Two Silver Plaques Listing LAURA, Charles Morgan and Tiffany & Co.
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