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All that Glitters Isn’t Gold — Sometimes It’s Silver from Tiffany’s

Silver bindings, Morgan Library
Tiffany & Company binding (New York, 1880), on view at the Morgan Library & Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

The Morgan Library and Museum continues to spotlight some of its glittering books beneath the revamped lighting in its historic 1906 McKim Building. Three silver treasure bindings are gleaming in a current display, including a recently acquired 1880–81 binding by Tiffany & Company.

Tiffany & Co. binding
Tiffany & Company binding (New York, 1880) (courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum) (click to enlarge)

“We only purchased it in 2014, and before that it was in a private collection,” John T. McQuillen, the Morgan’s assistant curator of printed books and bindings, told Hyperallergic. “I wanted to get it into our McKim rotation as soon as possible, but waited a bit until we got some new lighting in the library so the silver bindings would really sparkle.”

The shimmering exhibit follows a display of the bombastic bling of the Lindau Gospels, a late 9th-century Bible covered in metalwork and jewels whose architectural design was accented by the institution’s retooled, brighter lighting. According to McQuillen, the 1880s Tiffany piece, which has monogrammed initials interwoven with flowers, is one of two known silver bindings created by the company, the other being a Bible in the Tiffany Archive.

“I chose to display our Tiffany binding with two earlier examples from our collection to illustrate the historical continuity and the various metalworking techniques,” McQuillen explained. “This was an art form — small devotional books in precious covers — for which there was precedent, and it could be that whoever commissioned the Tiffany & Co. binding already knew that.”

Tiffany & Co. binding
Tiffany & Company binding (New York, 1880) (courtesy the Morgan Library & Museum)
Silver bindings, Morgan Library
Repoussé binding (Rome, late 17th century)

The two metallic companions to the Tiffany book both come from the late 17th century: a detailed repoussé binding from Rome with numerous figures in relief and a trellis-like pierced and chased binding made in Augsburg. While centuries separate the Tiffany work and these pieces, all are part of the history of elaborate bookbinding, in which publications were status symbols and treated as works of art. Metal binding in particular goes back to the Middle Ages and sometimes included jeweled details; the practice endured into the 19th and early 20th centuries for private devotional books. Other Art Nouveau designers besides Tiffany also experimented with the metal book, though they mostly dropped the biblical imagery. For example, an 1896 electrosilver plated book by M. Lilian Simpson at the British Library features stylized angels seductively wrapped in flowing drapery — imagery that would be more at home in a racy Aubrey Beardsley illustration than a liturgical text.

According to Michelle Perlin, manager of communications at the Morgan, several of the institution’s historic Armenian silver bindings will go on view in the McKim Building this fall, continuing the series of metalwork books displayed in enhanced illumination.

Silver bindings, Morgan Library
Silver bindings on view at the Morgan Library & Museum
Silver bindings, Morgan Library
Pierced and chased binding (Augsburg, late 17th century)
Silver bindings, Morgan Library
Tiffany & Company binding (New York, 1880)

The three silver treasure bindings, including the Tiffany & Company piece, are view at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through November 13.

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