A metal vase with a mysterious past and a connection to the mining wealth of B.C. is being exhibited for the first time in this province at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler. Called the Ptarmigan vase, it’s a kind of homecoming for the expertly crafted luxury item made out of metals mined in B.C. by silversmiths who worked for Tiffany & Co in New York.
In 1901, about one ton of copper, silver and gold was mined from Tunnel 3 of the Ptarmigan Mine in the Selkirk Mountains in southeastern B.C. A year later, the ore was shipped and refined in New Jersey into seven bricks of copper, 3½ bricks of silver and one button-sized piece of gold.
The Ptarmigan vase is made from 18 thin layers of copper and silver refined from that shipment. The mixed metal laminate vase was created by a technique called mokume, a Japanese metalworking procedure that creates surfaces which resemble wood grain.
The vase is 63.5 cm (25 inches) tall and has a silver ptarmigan bird perched on the rim. The bird has a copper beak and talons and gold eyes. On the front is the seal of British Columbia in gold. Since it was created in the first decade of the 20th century, it remained in the collection of the family of (George) Paulding Farnham, the vase’s designer who worked for Tiffany & Co.
In 2011, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Heritage program — which focuses on keeping or returning significant cultural items to the country — bought the vase at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $662,500 US — more than five times its pre-auction estimate.
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