A sterling silver loving cup stolen 91 years ago has made its way back to Nebraska. It “went missing,” as the modern expression goes, in 1922, and showed up last year in a New York City antique store. Nearly a century later, a mystery about the cup remains — where the heck it went. But at least we now know where it goes — reunited at the Governor's Mansion in Lincoln with a serving set that the Nebraska State Historical Society said in a 1956 World-Herald article was “one of Nebraska's most ornate treasures.”
“I can't say exactly when the cup got stolen,” said Larry Ruth, president of the Nebraskaland Foundation. “It's kind of remarkable that we now got it delivered to us. We'll make it a significant part of the Statehood Day dinner.”
The nonprofit foundation purchased the loving cup for $6,500 from the New York antique dealer and will present it at the March 2 dinner at the State Capitol to first lady Sally Ganem.
“It's nice to have it back but sad that it was missing for so long,” said Ganem, wife of Gov. Dave Heineman. “It was probably passed down from person to person. I would love to find out the history of where it has been.”
The elaborate serving set was a 1908 gift from the State of Nebraska to the U.S. Navy in honor of the new battleship USS Nebraska.
The ship, which soon traveled the world on display as part of President Theodore Roosevelt's “Great White Fleet,” was decommissioned in 1922. Gov. Sam McKelvie then asked that the silver service be loaned to the state for display, and the Navy sent it back.
But the loving cup didn't arrive.
Ruth, a retired legislative lobbyist and former Navy lawyer, said he can only speculate where the cup traveled through the years.
But he said retracing the trail is not nearly as important as getting it back to the state. A Navy official wrote to him “with the length of time the silver cup was missing and the small amount of paperwork available,” it was unlikely that legal proceedings would be pursued.
What Ruth can document, though, is that on Jan. 19, 2012, Nathan Horowicz Antiques Inc., at 55th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, purchased the cup for $4,551 from Bonhams on Madison Avenue. Horowicz called Bonhams “a highly reputable international auction gallery.”
At the same time as that purchase, Horowicz bought numerous other silver items from Bonhams. Horowicz then sent them to Sotheby's Auctioneers on consignment — but Sotheby's recognized the nautical nature of the loving cup and contacted the Navy.
The Navy informed Sotheby's that the loving cup had been missing since 1922 and put a hold on it. A call to Nebraska last summer was answered by Leisa Ausdemore, director of the Governor's Residence, who informed the first lady. Ganem began asking if someone might purchase the cup and return it to Nebraska — and the Nebraskaland Foundation responded.
Friday at Mahoney State Park, Larry Ruth donned white gloves and lovingly handled the loving cup.
Regrettably, he said, whoever stole the cup removed etchings of an American Indian and a buffalo head. That someone did so, he said, is an indication of making a stolen item less likely to be identified.
Ganem said Saturday it would be wonderful if someone would volunteer to restore the etchings, though she doesn't know if it is possible.
Many visitors have admired the serving set in the formal dining room of the Governor's Mansion adjacent to the State Capitol. “They are amazed,” the first lady said. “It has two gorgeous bowls, a candelabra and is made of probably 40 pounds of solid silver.”
She will accept the loving cup at the Statehood Day dinner on behalf of the Friends of the Governor's Residence. Honored that night as Distinguished Nebraskalanders will be Hod and Willa Kosman of Scottsbluff; the Raikes family of Ashland; and Fred and Eve Simon of Omaha. Tickets are $100. (For reservations, call 1-402-904-5320.)
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Among those attending will be Commander Jason D. Wartell of the current USS Nebraska, a nuclear submarine.
More than a century ago, much was made of the fact that Gov. John H. Mickey, a teetotaling prohibitionist, didn't veto a $3,000 appropriation by the Legislature for the serving set — some fearing he would insist on a “water service.” (That appropriation would equate to more than $70,000 today.)
After a competition, the state selected an Omaha firm to design the silver set. The contract went to the Reichenberg-Smith Co., with the design by Arthur F. Smith.
A national publication, the Jewelers' Circular, described the set in 1905 as “one of the finest possessed by any ship in the Navy.” It required as much silver as in 1,500 silver dollars.
The service consisted of a centerpiece, loving cup, punch bowl, punch ladle, silver waiter and 18 silver goblets. It includes etchings of the Capitol, a farm scene, a skirmish with Indians, the Union Pacific bridge at Omaha and the ship itself.
The naming of a Navy ship for Nebraska was a big deal for our landlocked state. Two previous governors visited Seattle, where it was being built, before Gov. George Sheldon traveled with 113 Nebraska dignitaries to San Francisco, where he presented the silver service to the Navy on May 8, 1908.
The ship saw no service in World War I, but helped ferry doughboys home when the war was over “over there.”
Though the removal of the etchings detracts somewhat from the loving cup, Ruth said, “it helps to tell the story of how this lovely piece was purloined and then rightfully returned to Nebraska to be a part of history that we can all enjoy.”
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