Footed Silver Presentation Cup by Peter Bentzon

Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

African American silversmith Peter Bentzon, born about 1783 in Saint Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies, was active in Philadelphia between 1808 and about 1840. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1791, and was trained by an unidentified sil­versmith from 1799 to 1806. He was apprenticed about 1808 to Philadelphia silversmith Samuel Williamson, whose record books during this period also document the apprenticeships of two other African American silversmiths, Henry Gray and William Sowerwalt. Listed in Philadelphia directories between 1813 and 1824 as “a person of color,” and in court records and city taxation documents as “mulatto” or “colored,” Bentzon was the son of a unknown free mulatto mother and a Norwegian father. He, his wife Rachel, and their seven children were listed in the Philadelphia census as late as 1850, but the entire family disappears – without a trace – after that listing. No records of the Bentzons have been found since in either Philadelphia or Saint Croix.

Practicing his craft during the first half of the nineteenth century in both Philadelphia and Saint Croix, Peter Bentzon is known to have made teaspoons, a small teapot, drawer pulls, a fish slice, pastry wheels, and a footed presentation cup. In all, only nine pieces bearing his mark have been un­covered to date, but they yield significant information about the silver trade between Philadelphia and the West Indies. These rare signed pieces make Bentzon the first silver­smith of African descent working in America to be rec­ognized by his marks, “P. B.” or “P. Bentzon.” The most important of these objects, a footed silver presentation cup, has been recently acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The cup was given to the Reverend Benjamin Luckock, an Episcopalian minister who had lived in Saint Croix from 1832 until 1841, when he returned to his native England following a severe carriage accident. It bears the inscription: Presented to THE REV. B. LUCKOCK By The Superintendant, and Teachers of St. Johns Church Sunday School In Christianstaed St. Croix as a token of their Esteem & Respect April th 1841. Until its recent acquisition of the cup, the Philadelphia Museum of Art owned no documented examples of early nineteenth century American silver made by an African American silversmith.

Measuring nearly seven inches high, the handled cup was acquired by the museum through its Thomas Skelton Harrison Fund and as a partial gift of Wynard Wilkinson. The cup is currently on exhibit in the museum’s American galleries.

For more information, write: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Post Office Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646; or telephone (215) 763-8100.