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James Thomson - The McKeon Vase: Monumental American Silver Covered Presentation Vase Designed by Sculptor Robert Ball Hughes, New York, NY, 1837

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Of classical vase form, this exceptional piece is boldly embellished with cast, repousséd and chased details. The lid is surmounted by a three-dimensional cast figure of a Native American woman dressed traditionally holding a corn stalk and American shield. Below her on the lid are rings of acanthus leaves, 13 stars and laurel.

The body is flanked by two large cast and applied handles of fully figured eagles perched on flowing foliate scrolls that attach to the body.

Each side features a cartouche of fluid foliate design incorporating roses, thistle and shamrocks. One side features the coat of arms of New York State repousséd into the reserve.

The other cartouche is inscribed:
Presented to
John McKeon
By his Fellow Citizens of the
in testimony of the high sense
they entertain of his
uniform support of the Principles of
Civil & Religious Liberty
& of their Gratitude for his

Below, a band of flowing acanthus leaves interspersed with lilies emerge from the foot.

The pedestal foot has a band of laurel wreath below realistic acanthus leaves which incorporate shamrock and hickory leaves supporting a three-dimensional cast Harp of Erin which rests against the pedestal.

On Saturday February 10, 1838, The (New York) Evening Post recorded the presentation to McKeon and noted:

The Vase is of the most exquisite design — by Ball Hughes, Esq. and manufactured by Thompson, of William Street. It is of the Etruscan order(1) — upon the top of the cover is seated an Indian girl with a buffalo skin thrown over her shoulders, with one hand resting upon a shield, and holding in the other a stalk of Indian corn. The upper circle of the cover is adorned with thirteen stars, and underneath a wreath of laurel, both executed in the richest style of workmanship. The handles are formed by two eagles, with expanded wings, weighing together about seven pounds, very massive, beautifully wrought. On one side in bass relief are the arms of the State of New York, and on the other, surrounding the inscription a wreath composed of the lily - the shamrock - the fleur de lis and thistle….The Vase rises from a pedestal amid a foliage of hickory leaves, and is supported by the harp of Erin, highly finished, and richly ornamented. It is a fine specimen of art.(2)

This monumental piece is marked under the finial 'Jas. Thomson', 'NEW YORK' and '1837'. It measures 24 inches high and weighs 311 troy ounces. It is in excellent antique condition except for some restoration to the foot.

John McKeon (1808-83)

John McKeon was a lawyer who served as a US Congressman, New York State Assemblyman and US District Attorney.

Born in Albany in 1808, he was the son of Irish immigrant James McKeon who fought with Wolfe Tone in the rising of 1798.(3) After fleeing Ireland, McKeon Sr also fought for his new country during the war of 1812. He served with distinction at the battle of Niagara and retired at the end of the war as the commander of the 4th US Artillery. (4)

The McKeon family moved to New York City when John was young. John graduated from Columbia College and was admitted to the bar. An outspoken proponent of free trade and religious freedom, McKeon soon found his way into politics and was elected to the NY State Assembly as a Democrat in 1832.

Running as a Jacksonian Democrat, McKeon was elected to the US Congress in 1834 and again in 1840. He fiercely advocated for free enterprise, free trade, religious freedom and strong defense. One bill he sponsored opened the port of New York to pilots from New Jersey, breaking a restrictive monopoly on the port by New York pilots. Another successful bill was for the relief of New York City merchants after the Great Fire of 1835.(5)

Later he served as US District Attorney, helping to seize a slave-trading ship and forcing the end to British recruitment of US citizens as soldiers to fight in the Crimean War.(6) Throughout his life, he ran a successful private legal practice.(7) A friend to the New York Archdiocese, he advised church leaders, including Cardinal McLoskey(8) and was buried in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral. (9)

Robert Ball Hughes (1804-68)

Sculptor Robert Ball Hughes played an important role in the development of sculpture in the United States during the mid 19th century. His 1835 sculpture of Alexander Hamilton in the New York Merchant's Exchange was the first life-size marble sculpture created in this country. In 1847, his bronze monument of Nathaniel Bowditch for Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, was the first life-sized bronze cast in the United States.

Born in London, the son of a coach maker, Ball Hughes showed an early aptitude for art. He apprenticed under the important sculptor Edward Hodges Baily, exhibited extensively at and won a gold medal at the Royal Academy, and immigrated with his new wife to the United States in 1829.(10) A friend of John Trumbull, Ball Hughes was named an honorary member of the National Academy in 1830.

Working with silver was a theme throughout Ball Hughes's career. His master, Edward Hodges Baily was a principal modeler to the royal goldsmiths and jewelers, Rundell, Bridge and Rundell, from 1815-33. At the same time, he kept an independent studio.(11) As Baily's apprentice, Ball Hughes worked both places and became an experienced silver modeler – at least one of his early sculptures was cast in silver.(12) In 1840, Ball Hughes redesigned the obverse of the U.S. seated liberty coins with a bas relief strikingly similar to the finial of this vase. There is evidence that later in life while living in Dorchester, he may have collaborated as a modeler with Roswell Gleason, the pewter and silver plate entrepreneur. (13)

This is the only known extant example of silver designed by Ball Hughes and one of only a very few pieces of American silver from this period whose designer is known.

The Great Fire of 1835 destroyed a large section of lower Manhattan, devastating the area between Broad & Wall Streets then crowded with warehouses and stores. While estimates of losses ranged from 10 to 40 million dollars, congress used an estimate of $17,115,692.00 for the relief measure.(14) Although many merchants were insured, fire insurance companies were undercapitalized and 23 of 26 were forced to declare bankruptcy.(15)

The Great Fire of 1835
The Merchants Exchange and cupola engulfed in flames during the
Great Fire of New York, 1835

Destroyed during the Great Conflagration was the Merchants Exchange, the classical marble building that served as the hub of mercantile activity in the area. Firemen heroically raced into the burning structure in an attempt to save the newly installed statue of Alexander Hamilton by Robert Ball Hughes. The great cupola of the exchange collapsed on the statue before it could be rescued – fortunately, the firefighters had fled in time.

Congressman John McKeon, Jacksonian Democrat, free trader and closely aligned to the merchants of the city, quickly and successfully fought for a "sufferer's" relief bill in congress. His success at this relief bill, the breaking of the port monopoly and defense appropriations ensured his re-nomination for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1836, but he was defeated by Ogden Hoffman in a wave of anti-Jackson Democrat and nativist (anti-Catholic) voting.

Patriotic symbols

Patriotic symbols of unity are found throughout the decoration on the vase. Ball Hughes, trained as a classical sculptor, would have had a keen understanding of the meaning of these devices – as would the classically educated populace that traveled in McKeon's circle.

The cartouches are embellished with the traditional symbols of British union – the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland and the shamrock of Ireland.

However, Ball Hughes has moved significantly beyond this. The finial, a Native American bearing the gift of corn and holding an American shield, seems a respectful tribute to that culture and a reminder of the natural bounty of the young republic.

Including the 'fleur-de-lis' is highly significant. The fleur-de-lis is a lily or iris and need not be represented in the traditionally stylized heraldic manner but can be displayed as a natural lily as these are. As a natural lily, the fleur-de-lis is traditionally associated with the Virgin Mary and is found in renaissance paintings of the annunciation. These lilies represent the inclusion of the Catholic faith into this new union.

However, it is the inclusion of the hickory leaves in the base which is the most original symbol. Andrew Jackson was known as 'Old Hickory' for his strength and resilience. The hickory leaves are supporting the Harp of Erin at the base – clearly indicating the support and union of Jackson Democrats and Irish immigrants. This union of the Irish Catholics and the Democratic Party was to last nearly 150 years and be one of the most defining and enduring of all American political alliances.

Striking handles of boldly cast and beautifully finished figural American bald eagles perched on scrolls with slightly spreading wings appear about to take flight. The thirteen stars representing the original states, the classical laurel representing victory, the arms of the State of New York and the eagle handles complete the theme of patriotic unity.

James Thomson

Successive members of the Thomson family of silversmiths worked in lower Manhattan only a few blocks from The Great Conflagration. William, the father, ran a successful business until his death in 1831 when his son James succeeded him. A brother, another William, took control of the shop around 1840 and the business was sold to Zalmon Bostwick by 1845.(16) William Thomson silver is found in many of the finest museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see here).

James Thomson's silver is very rarely seen, even though he produced important pieces of silver and won medals from the American Institute during this exciting period. When he won a silver medal at the 1835 American Institute Fair(17) the Mechanics Magazine noted his display 'produced the most agreeable astonishment'.(18) He won other medals at the fairs including a gold medal in 1838 for best 'chasing on a vase'(19) and, most importantly for us, a silver medal in 1837.(20) His success was not limited to New York; he received a certificate of honorable mention from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia 1839.(21)

The American Institute of New York City

The American Institute of New York City was a national organization that promoted American agriculture, industry and art. Every year in October, it held a fair and awarded prizes, or premiums, in many categories. The best silversmiths would bring 10-12 of their finest pieces to display and premiums were highly valued. The esteem and publicity associated with premiums were important to promoting a successful business. Fairs such as these were transformed into the 'World's Fairs' later in the century when the promotional nature of the event became even more important.

The Evening Post recorded the premiums awarded by the American Institute at their fair in October of 1837 and noted the silver medal awarded to silversmith James Thomson, 'for a silver vase, goblet, and claret jugs.'(22) In a later article, The Evening Post states of the McKeon presentation piece: 'The present is a handsome specimen of work, as many are able to testify who saw it at the Fair of the American Institute last fall.'(23) It is inconceivable that the judges were talking about any other vase in Thomson's display.

Occasionally medals and other premiums awarded by the American Institute appear on the market. This is only the second known extant unique object that actually was mentioned in a prize at the American Institute fairs.


  1. In private conversation, Baltimore silver scholar Patrick Duggan, has told us that the term 'Etruscan' was used by Samuel Kirk's firm in the 1830's and 40's to indicate classical vasiform shape – not 'castle' style decoration as is commonly thought today. The use of 'Etruscan' in this article supports his thesis and makes us think that term 'Etruscan' was commonly understood as such at the time.
  2. 'Mr. McKeon's Testimonial', The Evening Post [New York], 10 February 1838, n.p.
  3. The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, (New York: James T. White & Co., 1896), Vol. VI, p. 220.
  4. 'John M'Keon's Work Done', The New York Times, 23 November 1883.
  5. 'Sufferers by New York Fire: Remarks of Hon. John McKeon, of New York, In the House of Representatives, January 14, 1836', in Appendix to the Congressional Globe, (Washington: U.S. Govt., January 14, 1836), pp. 20-22.
  6. 'John M'Keon's Work Done'
  7. Regina Marie McEntee, John McKeon: Catholic leader and congressman from New York, 1808-1883, MA Thesis (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1947), n.p.
  8.  'John M'Keon's Work Done'
  9.  McEntee, n.p.
  10. Robert Ball Hughes website: see here. Last accessed 13 December 2010.
  11.  Christopher Hartop, Royal Goldsmiths: The Art of Rundell & Bridge 1797-1843, (Cambridge: John Adamson, 2005), p. 103.
  12. Robert Ball Hughes web site, "Biography" page: see here. Last accessed 13 December 2010.
  13. Robert Ball Hughes web site, "Georgina Ball Hughes" page: see here. Last accessed 13 December 2010.
  14. 'Sufferers by New York Fire: Remarks of Hon. John McKeon…', p.21
  15. Virtual NY web site: see here. Last accessed 13 December 2010.
  16. Deborah Dependahl Waters, Elegant Plate: Three Centuries of Precious Metals in New York City, (New York: The Museum of the City of New York, 2000), pp. 408-409
  17. and private conversations with D. Albert Soeffing.
  18. 'Premiums' in the Journal of the American Institute, (New York: T. B. Wakeman, Vol. 3, No. 1, October 1835, p. 27
  19. 'Fair of the American Institute', in Mechanics' Magazine, (New York: D.K. Minor, 1835, Vol. VI), p. 270.
  20. 'Premiums' in the Journal of the American Institute, (New York: T. B. Wakeman, Vol. 6, No. 1, October 1838), p. 42
  21. 'Premiums' in the Journal of the American Institute, (New York: T. B. Wakeman, Vol. 6, No. 1, October 1837), p. 42
  22. 'Report of the Committee on Premiums and Exhibitions' in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, (Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute, 1893, New Series Vol. 23, May), p. 304.
  23. 'Premiums' in the Journal of the American Institute, (New York: T. B. Wakeman, Vol. 6, No. 1, October 1837), p. 42 . Also reported in 'Premiums', The Evening Post [New York], 2 December 1837, n.p.
  24. 'We learn…', The Evening Post [New York], 18 January 1839, n.p. Although they incorrectly report the piece is a 'pitcher', the intent is clear.

We would like to thank Deborah Waters and D. Albert Soeffing for their help in focusing this research.