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Long Island Museum puts the polish on silversmith exhibit

Elias Pelletreau, an 18th century Southampton maker and purveyor of elegant teapots, flatware and more, gets his chance to shine.

These two church beakers from around 1748 are

These two church beakers from around 1748 are among the works featured in the exhibit "Elias Pelletreau: Long Island Silversmith & Entrepreneur" opening Sept. 21 at the Long Island Museum of Art. Photo Credit: The Collection of Paul Guarner

Tucked among the fashion and design boutiques, real estate offices and quaint eateries lining Southampton’s Main Street is a shingled, barnlike structure. The modest building is one of the oldest continuously open shops in the Americas—it now is the workshop of master jeweler and silversmith Eric Messin — and a testament to one of the region’s most important artisans.


Now, “Elias Pelletreau: Long Island Silversmith & Entrepreneur,” opening Friday at the Long Island Museum, immortalizes the 18th century shopkeeper, a maker and purveyor of grand, gleaming holloware ranging from elegant teapots to tablespoons and flat-topped tankards.

Like the 170 finely crafted objects on display, the creation of the exhibition dates back decades. “It’s really been 40-plus years in the making,” says guest curator Deborah Waters, who worked with a team of leading scholars to bring the career-long pursuit of the silversmith’s work by East Northport resident Dean Failey to light. “Dean had done most of the detective work,” she explains of the late American decorative arts expert.

Before setting up shop in the one-room building on Main Street in 1750, Pelletreau received his sterling training in New York City, apprenticed to goldsmith and fellow Huguenot Simeon Soumaine. His move back home was atypical, as most rural patrons demanded little more from local silversmiths than shoe buckles and spoons.

“At the time, silver was a store of value,” says Waters. “There were no commercial banks until 1784, so if you had extra coins, they didn’t go under the mattress but into silver objects. It gave you status — like having a Lexus in the driveway.” 

While Pelletreau’s own standing in the community was established by his sophisticated urban sensibilities and artistry, his proprietorship of some 125 acres of farmland and rank as captain of the Southampton militia boosted his cachet. An ardent patriot, Pelletreau and his family were forced to take refuge for six years in Connecticut; they left upon the imminent British occupation following George Washington's defeat in the Battle of Long Island.

Included in the show are portraits of prominent clientele, such as one of statesman Ezra L’Hommedieu attributed to Ralph Earl. Declaration of Independence signer William Floyd also counts among those who made purchases from the Pelletreau shop, notably a pair of canns he gifted to his daughter Mary on the occasion of her marriage to Culper Ring spy Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge. The silver mugs — one from the collection of Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum, the other the New-York Historical Society — are here briefly reunited.

The silver lining, so to speak, of Failey’s exhaustive research is that it not only uncovered a master’s aesthetic legacy, but also provides a multifaceted glimpse of Colonial life in the region. Dedicated to one man’s skill in shaping silver, the exhibition also shows how Elias Pelletreau helped to shape Long Island’s past.

Elias Pelletreau: Long Island Silversmith & Entrepreneur

WHEN | WHERE Sept. 21-Dec. 30, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook

INFO $10, $7 ages 62 and older, $5 ages 6-17, free younger than 6; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org 

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