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How Thomas Jefferson's Bankruptcy nearly lost his Presidential China

Posted by RALEIGH DEGEER AMYX on Thu, Aug 06, 2015 @ 10:00 AM

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THIS NEAR PRISTINE SHALLOW SOUP BOWL FEATURES THOMAS JEFFERSON'S NEOCLASSICAL SHIELD STUDDED WITH THIRTEEN GUILT STARS AND THE SCRIPT INITIAL "J." - CURRENTLY IN THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION

The exact provenance of the dinnerware known as Thomas Jefferson’s Chinese Export "J." Dinner Service is unknown. Modern researchers have not found explicit records of this porcelain in Jefferson's papers, although his direct lineal descendants in the 19th century remembered and discussed this particular dinnerware. The service – which later became Jefferson’s official White House China when he served as president from 1801-1809 – has an interesting history.

Around 1790, when Thomas Jefferson was living at Monticello, he sought to purchase a set of china personalized with his initials. At the time, agents in New York or Europe were used to help arrange import of prestigious Asian merchandise, because dishware manufacturers in Europe, mainly around Paris, were only just learning how to produce fine china.

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MONTICELLO: THOMAS JEFFERSON'S EXPANSIVE PLANTATION, JUST OUTSIDE CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA

Thomas Jefferson was chronically in debt throughout his life.  The concept of bankruptcy didn’t exist in his day, and Thomas Jefferson would very likely have landed in debtors’ prison had he not been so famous. To his good fortune, because he was well-known, Jefferson was able to borrow money from sources inclined to look the other way when repayment was due. By the time of his death, Jefferson owed more than $107,000 – equal to about two million dollars today.

 In Jefferson’s day, families of means passed along their wealth – including slaves they owned as well as other “assets” -- to the oldest son. This assured the family name and estate would remain intact from one generation to the next. Sadly, at the time of his death in 1826, Jefferson had been predeceased by all but one of his children, a daughter named Mary Randolph. She inherited his estate, but also his enormous debt.

Within 60 days, Mary Randolph arranged an auction to pay off the debt. With the assistance of her son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and daughter, Ellen Wayles Randolph, she sold 140 slaves and virtually all Jefferson’s household furnishings, including the now-called “J.” White House China. She and her husband did buy back a few items for themselves, but it is unknown whether that included any of the “J.” china.  Monticello itself – the home and land – eventually sold four years later.

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AN EXTRAORDINARY SERVING TUREEN WITH 4 HAND-PAINTED NEOCLASSICAL "J." MONOGRAMS - NOW IN THE RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX COLLECTION

Historians and collectors don't really know how much china Thomas Jefferson owned altogether - what types of pieces or how many.  He could have had three or four different sets with differing patterns, but the only service historians are sure of is the set with the “J.” initial. Interestingly, this china did not have an entirely original design. Only the monogrammed area on the plate distinguishes these pieces from china owned and used by others during the same time period.

More than a half-century after Jefferson’s estate was sold off, the grandson of Ellen Wayles Randolph reacquired at least some of the original “J.” china service, and in 1909 he donated four pieces to the official White House collection, where they remain today.

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AN IMPRESSIVE CIDER JUG WITH AN INTRICATE INCLUSION OF THOMAS JEFFERSON'S OFFICIAL SEAL - "REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD"

There is another piece of surviving “J.” Chinese Export China now in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum. It is a cider jug which has an additional decoration in the form of Thomas Jefferson’s personal motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Many prominent officials of that era believed it was personally and professionally important to have a personal motto, and Jefferson used his as his Official Seal during much of his life.

The Raleigh DeGeer Amyx collection includes several very fine pieces from the “J.” china service, including a covered casserole, serving bowl, meat platter, soup bowls and dinner plates.

RALEIGH DEGEER AMYX|JEFFERSON CHINA|PRESIDENTIAL CHINA|WHITE HOUSE CHINA|HISTORIAN AND COLLECTOR - RALEIGH DeGEER AMYX - WITHIN HIS LIBRARY 

World renowned collector Raleigh DeGeer Amyx has acquired a remarkable number of pieces of official White House china. Mr. Amyx’s passion for American historical artifacts has been his sole focus for more than 35 years. Mr. Amyx's collection is the largest privately-owned collection of extremely high-quality, as well as the rarest, Official White House China as well as Presidential China in the world. If you would like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Amyx about White House China, please contact him through the button below.

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