Belle Decor

The Art of Oyster Plate Collecting

By M.K. QuinlanFebruary 13, 2013

Continuing this week's oyster obsession, I decided to do a little research on the oyster plate. You may have seen them at antique stores and not paid them much attention, but oyster plates, like the shellfish they serve, are quite the delicacy. We’ve grown accustomed to serving oysters on the half shell, but in the Victorian era, between 1810 and 1870 when oysters were newly en vogue, hostesses in the U.S. and Europe went above and beyond to entertain their guests with highly decorative oyster plates. Production of the plates slowed almost to a halt after WWI with the over farming of oyster beds and the formality of Victorian life falling by the wayside.

The next time you come across one, take a closer look. The valuable ones are hand painted, some with floral designs, others with sea creatures and images of oysters themselves. They are works of art not unlike a piece of jewelry or a painting, and they’re fetching quite the price tag, too. Some of them go for as high as $3,000.

Steve Bonner and his wife Lynn, owners of Kilmarnock Antiques in Virginia, are perhaps the biggest dealers of antique oyster plates in the Southeast. Check out one of their many oyster plate-filled cabinets, below.

I spoke with Bonner recently to find out a little more about the plates and some guidelines for starting my own collection.

Rule #1: “When you’re buying your first plate, it’s smart to spend between $200 and $400 dollars,” Bonner says. “That way by the time you’re on your tenth plate, you won’t be dissatisfied with the plate you bought first time around.”

Rule #2: Never buy a plate that is not pristine. No chips, no hairline cracks. “If someone tries to sell you an oyster plate that isn’t in perfect condition,” Bonner says, “turn around and try to sell them a plate that’s got a chip in it. They won’t buy it from you.”

Rule #3: Check the plate for authenticity. If it's Victorian, it will be very lightweight. Two of the most collectible plate manufacturers are Haviland (HC) and Union Porcelain Works (UPW), the first company to make them in the U.S. Look for their insignias on the bottom of the plate. If the plate isn’t marked, take a photo and send it to Bonner before you buy it. He’ll help you assess its value. www.virginia-antiques.com/

Rule #4: Despite it being the most popular display method (one that I had envisioned for myself), Bonner does not recommend hanging your plates on the wall. The tongs of plate hangers can stress the plates, and they can scrape the plates when you remove them to dust or redecorate. I plan on being extra careful when hanging mine.

Rule #5: Don’t eat on them if you want them to maintain their value. The more wear and tear, the less collectible they are. One of the reasons why so many of them are still in great shape is because they were made to serve oysters without shells. The shells are notorious for doing heavy damage.

A quick note on style:

Oyster plates were made in three distinct styles. The first is the geometric—a perfect circle of oyster molds with a space in the middle for sauce.

The second is what they call the turkey. It has five molds (as opposed to six in the geometric) for the oysters that resemble the shape of a turkey.

The third is the kidney-shaped plate, produced most often by Union Porcelain Works.

If you're looking for something different to give this Valentine's Day, or on birthdays and holidays throughout the year, the oyster plate is special. "They are a great gift for a man to give his wife," Steve says. One of his many male clients is extra generous. His wife has close to 200 plates.

Below is the collection of Valorie Hart of Visual Vamp in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Photo courtesy of willowdecor.blogspot.com