The First Church in Salem is selling an estimated $1 million of communion silver that has been stored away in church vaults for centuries, hoping to raise money to repair and modernize its old building.
Among the dozen items on the auction block is a beaker made in 1670 by Jeremiah Dummer, the first native-born silversmith in America. The New York auction house Christie's, which is handling the Jan. 18 sale, expects the beaker will sell for $150,000 to $250,000.
Dummer studied under John Hull, one of the first silversmiths in America. The Dummer cup is similar in style to the oldest American-made silver cup, a beaker that Hull made between 1647 and 1652.
Dummer's connection to Newbury is still felt today. He deeded a parcel of his Newbury farm to his son, who in turn donated it for the creation of a school. That school would eventually become The Governor's Academy.
Christie's says the beaker was presented to the church by Francis Skerry, a Salem farmer who died in 1684.
Some Newburyport-made items are also for sale - three sets of silver canns made by Ebeneezer Moulton in 1805. The three sets are expected to sell for $3,000 to $6,000 each.
Also for sale is a cup given to the church by John Higginson, grandson of the church's first minister and an official examiner during the Salem Witch Trials.
The grand prize is expected to be an ornate silver tankard made by John Coney, an esteemed early silversmith, that could fetch as much as $300,000.
This is an important event for Christie's because of the connections to historic Salem and to a church that is one of the oldest Protestant congregations in North America. Its members included Nathaniel Hawthorne and two victims of the Witch Trials. Its third minister, the outspoken Roger Williams, was banished from Salem and went on to settle Rhode Island.
The sale is expected to draw the interest of collectors for a lot of reasons, including the pristine condition of the silver, which has been largely out of sight and practically untouched.
"Any 17th- and 18th-century silver that has been in a church has an unbroken provenance, so that's very exciting," said Jeanne Sloane, senior vice president at Christie's and head of the silver department. "We know exactly where everything has been since it was made."
Selling the silver was a difficult decision, church officials said, but a necessary one in order to repair the 1836 church on Essex Street, which must be made accessible to the disabled and modernized to better serve a growing congregation.
"This is no one's first choice," the Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell said. "No one here at the church wants to part with any of the silver that is in our possession. But given that we very much want to renovate the building and make sure it is open to the community and usable, this was thought to be our best option."
The congregation voted unanimously this fall to sell the silver, which includes tankards, cups and beakers dating back to the 17th century and donated long ago by church members. It was not silver that is used at church services, and it represents about 20 percent of the church's silver collection, which is kept off site at a secure location, officials said.
"It doesn't make any sense to have things that have market value - and no known value to us - sitting in a vault," said Steve Palmer, chairman of the standing committee at the First Church.
The silver was given to the church, officials said, to help in hard times.
"They were not giving an antique collection to the church," said Sloane, the Christie's expert. "They were giving cash bequests."
The decision to sell the silver was made only after First Church completed a successful three-year capital campaign that raised about $300,000 - the target goal, but far short of the $1 million-plus it needs to install an elevator, modernize a downstairs social hall, improve lighting and heating systems and make other repairs.
"We met our goal," Palmer said, "but I think we're finding we need to have a more aggressive goal."
Palmer said he and others wouldn't be selling the silver if they thought they were only sustaining a small church with an uncertain future. In the past few years under Barz-Snell, membership has nearly doubled to 130 and programs for young and old have grown, he said. The church also is more focused on social outreach in Salem and beyond.
"We're seeing an opportunity not just to repair the building," Palmer said, "but to become the church we really should be, given our history and the current dynamism."