EXCELLENT TWO-PIECE VIRGINIA BELT BUCKLE BY JAMES S. SMITH

$3,950.00 ON HOLD

Quantity Available: 1

Item Code: 1216-175

This Virginia buckle has wonderful detail and is certainly a pre-war product of James S. Smith of New York, known also as James S. Smith & Sons starting in 1860. The die work on the tongue is crisp, as are the cast motifs of the wreath, whose design matches precisely Smith’s particular design of the Virginia oak leaf wreath with crossed ribbon ties. See Mullinax (1991) Plate 388 for a Smith marked example (also shown in O’Donnell and Campbell as their Plate 347) and Plate 389 for an identical, unmarked example, also attributed to Smith. The central disk has very finely lined background showing Virginia, personified as a female warrior with helmet, breastplate, spear and sword, standing over the fallen tyrant whose crown lies on the ground at lower right.

As is also characteristic of Smith’s work the state motto and name appear along the upper and lower edges of the disk without the border lines seen on many other Virginia two-piece plates. The belt loops are decorated on the inner bar, matching Smith’s pattern, though not all the company’s belt loops were decorated according to Mullinax. On the reverse the gutter of the wreath is very well finished, in keeping with Smith’s practice of using a lathe. We also see a slash mark on the reverse of the outer bar of both belt loops, according to Mullinax another diagnostic of Smith & Sons, who used slashes and/or Roman numerals as mating marks in the final hand finishing. His Plate 389 shows three slashes on either bar; his Plate 388 shows single slashes, like this one.

The condition is excellent with the high spots showing some rubbing and thus a tad lighter, but only slight loss of detail on the face and upper breastplate. The belt loops show a little distortion from the stress of wear and use with that of the wreath pushed in a bit on the bottom and that on the tongue showing a slight bend inward at the midpoint. The patina on the reverse of the tongue and wreath matches perfectly with a deep tone showing just some lightness on raised portions and matching small spots of verdigris, with slightly less oxidation to the rear of the disk on either side of the tongue, where it was shielded. The face shows as a pleasing dark bronze with some warmer areas on the raised portions of the wreath and decorations of the belt loops, matching some of the lighter tones around the edge of the disk from handling.

The Smith firm will be most familiar to Civil War collectors from their “Smith Patent” shoulder straps using gilt stamped brass borders imitating embroidery, but Smith had been active in the military goods trade from at least 1839, making and importing metal insignia, medals, police badges, and some non-military metal items like pew plates, door numbers, etc. (See Bazelon, vols. 1 and 2, for details.) He had US contracts for metal insignia as early as 1846, but private sales throughout the period and likely various state contracts or orders. He is known to have had a NY militia contract as early as 1858, and in addition to the two-piece Virginia plates produced marked rectangular state seal plates (O&C Plate 838) and plain oval plates for the state. The firm’s unwillingness to make petty distinctions about where they shipped their goods after the war broke out got them into some trouble. Mullinax quotes a May 1861 newspaper report that their factory was raided by police who seized, “a large quantity of waist and side belt plates, as well as dies that were on the way to Virginia, Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and North Carolina.” That may be from the NY Journal of Commerce, which we have not checked. An April 29, 1861, article in the NY Times reports a slightly more limited seizure, but one that still included, “2,000 brass belt-plates, marked with the letters, ‘S.C.,’ and 2,000 stamped with the coat-of-arms of Virginia, together with a costly set of dies intended for making such plates.” The article also noted, “The Messrs. Smith assert that since the hostilities have commenced they have shipped no goods for the south, but do not deny that they may have done so previously.” A rather carefully phrased statement, particularly the last clause that, unless we miss our guess, was likely crafted with the advice of legal counsel. At any rate, the quality of the company’s work was appreciated in the South to the degree that Confederates made sand-cast copies of their wreathes for some of their two-piece CS buckles according to Mullinax. His work was apparently equally well thought of in the north for the firm lasted beyond the Civil War under Smith with his sons and sons-in-law at various points.

This plate has a lot of eye-appeal and history going for it.  [sr] [ph:m/L]

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