The International Tempest Over the World’s Most Famous Teapot

Inside the world of evaluating, and pursuing, rare art objects

A black and white photo of a geometric metal teapot, which has a body shaped like a diamond.
Christopher Dresser, teapot, circa 1879. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

One morning in 2007, a brown envelope landed on my desk at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Inside was a letter from the Department of Canadian Heritage alerting the museum that a valuable artwork was about to leave Canada. Scottish auction house Lyon & Turnbull, of Edinburgh, had requested a licence to export an English silver teapot made in 1879. Not just any old teapot: Lyon & Turnbull had placed a six-figure estimate on this small treasure. A photo of the item was included with the letter. Would I give my opinion on the cultural significance of this teapot? Should the government let it leave the country?

When I saw the photo, I immediately recognized the teapot as a remarkable work by English designer Christopher Dresser (1834–1904). Its unadorned geometric shape was radical for its time. Dresser had tilted a cube to create a lozenge shape, added legs and a spout, and attached a sloping handle to match the diagonal line of the teapot’s body. A slice through the top created the lid, surmounted by a pyramidal finial, and in a dramatic gesture, Dresser had punched a diamond-shaped cavity in its centre. It was a masterful design, but impractical. How much tea could a three-and-a-half-inch-square metal teapot hold with a hole in its middle? Could it be mass-produced for middle-income clients? James Dixon & Sons, the Sheffield silver manufacturer that had commissioned the design from Dresser, must have had its doubts. Only one model had ever been found, and it was the proud possession of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, England. Could a twin have turned up in Canada?

As it happened, I had been on the lookout for a piece of silver by Dresser for our museum’s collection and had visited dealers in England and the United States with an acquisition in mind. He had been rediscovered by collectors and dealers in the 1970s, and his pieces began to appear in exhibitions. By the mid-2000s, three books about Dresser’s art had been published and his work was in every major design museum. I quickly answered the Department of Canadian Heritage’s request, writing a strong justification for why Canada should not lose the chance to acquire the teapot. I sent my comments off to Ottawa thinking the museum had been dealt a trump card.

Curators in major Canadian museums regularly receive such requests from the government, asking them to judge the heritage value of art objects. The art in question need not be Canadian. The policy was set in place in 1977, when government officials and Canadian museums realized that many notable artworks (especially Indigenous art) were disappearing into the hands of buyers outside the country. Through the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act, the government can officially delay the export of an artwork—be it painting, sculpture, decorative art object, ethnological work, or archeological artifact—for six months to give museums or public archives time to raise funds to purchase the piece. If a delay is granted, a museum is given the opportunity to negotiate the sale of the work directly with the applicant for the export permit—often a commercial art gallery or auction house working on behalf of the owner.

When Lyon & Turnbull heard that its request to export the Dresser teapot would probably be delayed, thus dashing its plan to include it in its upcoming sales auction, it passed this information on to the Canadian owner, whom I shall call Monsieur Tremblay. He lived in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, but was following events closely. As the Lyon & Turnbull offices were far away in Scotland, Tremblay decided to take the situation into his own hands. He was not going to let the word of a museum curator get in his way.

It did not take Monsieur Tremblay long to telephone me at the museum and relate the story of his astonishing discovery. The unique diamond shape of the silver teapot had attracted his eye in the 1990s, when he lived in the town of Sherbrooke, Quebec. He had spied it in the home of an elderly colleague from work and remembered saying, “Eh, Bob, if you ever want to part with that little teapot there on the mantelpiece, let me know.” A few years later, when Bob decided to move to a seniors’ residence in Ontario, he offered Tremblay the teapot as a parting gift. Tremblay placed the small pot on a shelf in his house and thought no more about it.

Through his work as an engineer, Tremblay had travelled the world and picked up a few mementoes, one being a bronze sculpture from China. When he heard that the Canadian version of the celebrated television program Antiques Roadshow was organizing a broadcast in Sherbrooke, and that participants could bring in any treasured objects for evaluation, he decided to take his Chinese bronze to see how much it was worth. At the last minute, he plunked the teapot into his bag.

Before the actual filming of the episode began, the dealers sifted through the possessions of hundreds of guests in search of unexpected discoveries to highlight in the television show. Tremblay pulled out his Chinese bronze figure. The dealers merely looked at it and shrugged their shoulders. Their lack of interest changed to stupefaction, however, when the teapot was set on a table. The specialists formed a circle around the piece. The expert in English silver, Bill Kime, studied it carefully for authentic signs of age and checked its marks, which were clearly impressed on the bottom of the teapot. Kime was familiar with Dresser’s reputation as a late-nineteenth-century English designer and could barely believe the existence of this find. When the cameras started rolling, Kime declared that the teapot might fetch about $20,000 to $25,000 at auction, and perhaps even more. Tremblay beamed. He couldn’t believe his good fortune and returned home to consider the news of this too-hot-to-hold teapot.

Over the telephone, Tremblay reported to me this sequence of events, and I complimented him on his good eye for design. But, after our conversation ended, I wondered how he had hooked up with Lyon & Turnbull—a long-standing Scottish auction house, not as well known internationally as English and American giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but well respected nonetheless. With the designer of his teapot identified, Tremblay must have gone directly to the internet to check out the work of Christopher Dresser. After our conversation, I did the same on a hunch, and sure enough, Lyon & Turnbull popped up right away.

The auction house had made headlines in 2005 with its promotion of an upcoming auction that included an exceptional Dresser teapot. Lyon & Turnbull had sent some of the works that were to be auctioned in Scotland to a preview of the sale in Philadelphia and summoned the press to attract American bidders. The newspaper headlines the following day read: “The World’s Most Famous Teapot Arrives in USA.” These words no doubt caught Tremblay’s eye. The teapot in the photograph looked identical to the one he owned. Without hesitation, he must have contacted Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh.

According to Tremblay’s account, after the director of the Scottish auction house, John Mackie, had seen the detailed photographs of the teapot and its marks, within days he was standing in Tremblay’s living room in Trois-Rivières. Mackie inspected the teapot from every angle and discussed its provenance. “As soon as I saw it, I knew it was right,” Mackie later told me in a telephone conversation. “A real treasure!”

Mackie moved fast against any possible competition, and by the time he left Canada, he and Tremblay had signed an agreement allowing Lyon & Turnbull to include the teapot in its next auction sale. Mackie was just as excited as Tremblay and assured him that the teapot was so rare, it would probably fetch a price beyond Tremblay’s dreams. To sweeten the bargain, Mackie promised to cover the cost of a trip to Scotland for Tremblay and his wife, so they could be present at the auction.

Ah, le jackpot! Tremblay must have thought. But there was one hitch: obtaining the export licence from the Canadian government. When Tremblay heard that the teapot might not be allowed to leave Canada immediately for Edinburgh, he was furious and telephoned the authorities in Ottawa. He found out that Lyon & Turnbull had the right to appeal a delay in granting an export licence, and he offered to act on its behalf. Such an appeal to the board is usually handled in writing or by conference call, but when the board offered Tremblay the option of pleading in person to the members at their next meeting, he rose to the occasion. By this time, Tremblay had retired from business, and he was enjoying his brief moment in the teapot drama. This turn of events, however, meant that I, as the curator-specialist who had written the letter in support of the delay, was also summoned to Ottawa.

I met Tremblay for the first time as we waited to enter the board’s council room, in Ottawa. Energetic and fit, he hardly looked retirement age. He was accompanied by his wife, who was charming and put us at ease. It might have felt like a court appearance, but this was not a legal case of personal grievance. We laughed at the strange circumstances that had brought us to this meeting. When we were invited to enter the council room, we took our places at the end of a long oval table around which sat twelve members of the review board. They represented different cultural interests: anthropologists, historians, cultural administrators, professors, and curators, all from different areas of Canada.

Tremblay was asked to present his case first. He was an amusing storyteller and entertained the board as he recounted his appearance on Canadian Antiques Roadshow and his astonishment at the estimated value of the teapot. The board members laughed as he told his tale. I could see that they were enjoying the drama of the situation. They were more used to pronouncing on Canadian paintings, old master drawings, or First Nations artifacts than on a pint-size teapot. I worried that Tremblay had won them over; how was I to match his personal appeal? He did admit, however, that he was not opposed to the idea of the teapot remaining in Canada. This offered a glimmer of hope for the museum’s case.

When my turn came, I explained that Dresser had played a prominent role in design reform in England from the 1860s to the 1880s. He was responsible for some of the most inventive forms in silver to emerge in the late nineteenth century, and recent experts have hailed him as a forerunner of the twentieth-century industrial designer. He was at the peak of his career in 1879, when he conceived his diamond-shaped teapot. Not only its form but its date of production made it revolutionary. At this time, in England and elsewhere in the Western world, silver objects were highly ornate. Practically every plain surface was covered with sculptural or engraved flowery decoration. Dresser had designed a teapot with no ornament and broad, flat surfaces that showed off the lustre of the metal. The teapot, with its clean, geometric lines, looked radically modern, as if it had been made in the 1920s or 1930s, not during the Victorian period. Finally, I told the review board, this unique teapot had star power. There was only one other like it in the world, and that one had been prominently featured in international museum exhibitions.

These arguments won over the board members, who voted to confirm the export delay. The first hurdle was over. Now, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art had only six months to find the money to acquire the piece and to convince Monsieur Tremblay to sell his teapot—and at what price? In the weeks that followed, I gathered all the facts to justify the purchase and presented these to the museum’s director and acquisitions committee. Next we had to plan what we would offer Tremblay. He was a friendly guy and claimed to be naive in matters of art, but the shrewd sparkle in his eye bespoke a sharp negotiator.

In order to obtain more information on the importance of the teapot, I turned to the Victoria and Albert Museum, keepers of “the world’s most famous” teapot. I was on good terms with the curator of modern English silver, Eric Turner, who in the past had accompanied V&A loans to Montreal. In 2006, Turner had been responsible for handling the acquisition of the museum’s identical Dresser teapot. When it looked like it might be sold outside Great Britain, English cultural authorities had moved quickly, and the V&A had stepped in to bargain for its purchase. Turner was generous with his research and filled me in on the background of the acquisition. He, too, was amazed by the discovery of a duplicate in Canada. He had thought the V&A’s model was unique, as it had been discovered only in 1986, just over 100 years after its design. The price the V&A paid had been based on the premise that it was the only one in existence.

But where had the teapot in Canada come from? What was its provenance? Tremblay seemed like an honest fellow, but was there more to the story he wasn’t letting on? He and his wife had seemed genuinely surprised by their find. According to Tremblay, his friend Bob had inherited the teapot from an elderly aunt in England. Bob’s mother had brought it to Canada on a visit to see her son in the 1960s. As provenance was critical for any museum acquisition, I wanted to know more about Bob. Tremblay told me that his friend was still alive, but he did not want me contacting him. “I’ll never, never, never tell you the full name of the man who gave me the teapot,” Tremblay declared. I could see that he was in an uncomfortable position. He had received the teapot as a gift and now was planning to sell it for a high price. The Canadian Antiques Roadshow episode in which the teapot was highlighted had not yet aired. If his friend Bob were to see the show, he would learn that his teapot was not an ordinary $200 piece of tableware.

I got a market estimate from Martin Levy, the London dealer who had discovered the first diamond-shaped Dresser teapot in 1986. Armed with the evaluation, we began negotiations with Tremblay to settle on a price. At one point, in the museum’s restaurant, Tremblay received a telephone call from Lyon & Turnbull to see how things were progressing. For a moment, I wondered: had Tremblay planned the call as a pressure tactic? Was the call a hoax? But then he showed us the mock-up design for the upcoming Lyon & Turnbull auction catalogue with the teapot on the front cover, should it ever get out of Canada.

During our meetings, we proposed that Tremblay donate the teapot to the museum for a healthy tax credit, or at least make a partial gift to reduce the price for us. He didn’t like this idea and started talking about the summer chalet he wanted to buy for his wife. He would smile or crack jokes, but he was determined to get cash for his lucky find. Tremblay did, however, come down from the imagined and what I considered slightly preposterous value that Lyon & Turnbull had listed on the teapot’s export application form. In our discussions with Tremblay, we pointed out the reality that auction results rarely match rosy expectations.

Finally, after much discussion, hesitation, and arm-twisting on both sides, and with considerable financial assistance from the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Dresser teapot became a highlight of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ design collection. A key point in our favour was that Tremblay was not averse to the museum having his treasure as part of a public collection, where he could proudly view it, show it to friends, and of course, tell a good story.

Adapted from Talking to a Portrait: Tales of an Art Curator by Rosalind M. Pepall. ©2020. Reprinted by permission of Véhicule Press.

Rosalind M. Pepall
As a curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Rosalind Pepall helped plan and organize dozens of major exhibitions over a thirty-year career.