Pictured left are two pewter "Jefferson Cups" designed after silver cups that Thomas Jefferson commissioned in 1810.
The Making of the Jefferson Cups
When Thomas Jefferson's friend and mentor, George Wythe, passed away, he willed Jefferson two silver cups. Jefferson enjoyed these cups so much that he commissioned 8 smaller cups inspired by the original two. The 8 cups were to have rounded bottoms and be a little under 3 inches tall. Jefferson had Wythe's cups melted down along with two of his own silver cups to provide the metal for the 8 small cups. In his order from silversmith John Letelier, Jefferson also arranged to have each cup engraved with initials.
"Being just set out on a journey, I have directed...a pair of Cans and a pair of Beakers to be sent to you to be melted and put into the form of a plated cup, which will be sent with them as a model. The Cans and beakers weigh a little over 40. oz. avoirdupoise, the model a little over two ounces and a half. But it is too thin and weak for common use. I think those to be made should be of 5.oz. avouirdupoise weight nearly. They must also be about half an inch higher, in order to hold a little more than the model does. In every other respect I would wish the model to be exactly imitated. I suppose the metal of the Cans and beakers will make about 8. cups such as desired. That number however I would wish to receive even if additional metal should be necessary. Mark 4. of them if you please G.W. to T.J. and the others simply T.J. all in the cypher stile. If you can gild the inside as the model is it would be desirable....I am too well acquainted with the stile of your execution to suppose it necessary to add any recommendations on that subject. Accept the assurances of my esteem." (Jefferson, 1810)
Jefferson's Cups Today
Jefferson received the now famous Jefferson Cups in 1810 and used them at Monticello until his death, when seven cups went to seven of his grandchildren (divvied out by his daughter, Martha Randolph), and the last cup most likely went to his doctor, Robley Dunglison.
Today, two of these cups are on display at Monticello, and the whereabouts of 7 of the 8 cups are known.
The Cups, Wealth Storage, and Notions of Ownership
What interests me about the Jefferson Cups is the notion of practical wealth storage. Rather than keep silver bars or silver coins, Jefferson and his compatriots kept much of their precious metal wealth in a form that was useful-- like a cup. Imagine if our physical money could actually do something of practical purpose. Furthermore, though the silver was in cup form, the idea that it was indeed a hunk of wealth never alluded them. When Jefferson received the two silver cups from George Wythe, it was the metal was the important part of the gift. Jefferson melted these with additional silver and when the 8 smaller cups were fashioned, he wanted to remember that about half of the silver had been a gift from Wythe, so-- as the letter above points out-- he made a point to have four of them engraved "G.W. to T.J." to remember his friend's generosity.
The idea that he still considered them gifts from Wythe, that the continuity of Wythe's involvement pervaded even after their form had been drastically changed, is pretty interesting. Imagine if a friend gave you several shirts, then you cut them up and made a quilt from them-- would you consider the quilt a gift from your friend? Probably not. And yet Jefferson melted down a silver vessel, had it reformed by a great silversmith, and still considered this a gift from Wythe. In our current culture, once an object changes form it loses associations from its previous state. Perhaps this was not entirely so in Colonial times because when dealing with scarcity of resources people saw objects more for their raw materials than for their finished forms. But also influencing our cultural shift since then are modified notions of property and ownership.
In fact, the Jefferson Cups offer up an opportunity to analyze notions of property and ownership, and how these ideas have changed since the early 1800s.
The single most important shift in cultural notions of property ownership happened in the 1500s when Albrecht Dürer started signing his works and legally challenging people who made copies of them. Today, this seems normal, but in the 1500s it was common for artists to copy one another's works, and signing artwork was not common practice. Many artists functioned under the patronage system and had assistants that helped them complete their works-- sometimes work coming from the studio of a great artist had very little input from the artist, but was still sold as such. What art historian Lisa Pon calls the "artist-author" had not yet been coined.
To contextualize the Jefferson Cups in the property & ownership values of their time of genesis, here is an excerpt from a paper I wrote a few years ago. This part builds largely on the work of Pon, who wrote a fascinating book about the artists Raphaël, Albrecht Dürer, and printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi, and how these three men struggled with and came to influence concepts of intellectual property:
As the printing press idea spread throughout Europe, Raphaël painted for rich patrons who displayed his work in their private homes, such as the Pope’s personal quarters in the Vatican Stanze. He hired printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi to work in his studio and make prints of his paintings in part so that he could share them with others besides his patrons (Pon 2004:102-3). Marcantonio later found Dürer’s prints and made his own etchings of Dürer’s work. At this time, artistic products were not considered as intellectual property of the artist.
Dürer—a friend of Martin Luther and fellow Wittenburg resident—steeped in Humanism and the early Reformation and adopted a perspective of intellectual property that differed from the views of Raphaël and Marcantonio. He marked some of his prints with the warning: “Beware, you envious thieves of the work and invention of others, and keep your thoughtless hands from these works of ours” (Dürer 1511:frontispiece). Dürer became one of the first people to use a personal signature as a claim of intellectual ownership of an image by marking his prints with a monogram.
Dürer felt as if he had jurisdiction over the image he created and that it was wrong of Marcantionio to recreate the image. When he discovered Marcantonio’s prints, Dürer appealed to Holy Roman Emperor Maxamillion, engaging in perhaps the first known debate over artistic ownership of an image. (Vasari 151568:6-7; Pon 2004:39-41). Raphaël saw Marcantonio as a tool while Dürer saw Marcantonio as competition.
When Maxamillion judged the case between Dürer and Marcantonio, he did not rule that Marcantonio could not copy Dürer’s images; copying fit within their cultural mores. However, because Dürer’s name belonged to Dürer himself, Marcantonio could not sign Dürer’s name to any work, hence, the artist’s signature claiming authorhship over an image was born. This precedent changed the world’s perspective on property.
Dürer, acting on humanist principles gleaned partially from Luther, initiated change in cultural perspectives on property. The printing press also affected notions of property because the press “worked to shape and fix the emerging concept of artist as author… Thus in the early- and mid-sixteenth century, the artist-author was fashioned” (Pon 2004:154).
Today, intellectual ownership of ideas is so commonplace and pervasive that it seems silly to think that an artist does not have some sort of intellectual property rights over their product, yet there are grey areas (just look at the many copyright lawsuits from the last decade about music, the legal problems hip-hop artists face for sampling, or the heat that Natalie MacLean is getting from wine critics for publishing their tasting notes on her website). As Pon points out, this is a result of the shifting of ideas caused by Dürer's appeal to Maxamillion. In fact, during the time of the Jefferson Cups, the concept of Pon's artist-authur was still in the process of being codified, and colonists were likely more concerned with surviving and forming the structure of their emerging nation than they were with negotiating the property and ownership value nuances of artworks, or even defining what art is or could be.
And so, Wythe's cups were Wythe's cups, shaped into silver masterpieces by an unknown silversmith. The metal passed to Jefferson, and they became Jefferson's cups-- not Jefferson's precious silver sculptures, as they might be considered today, despite their functionality. Jefferson had them melted and reformed by Letelier, whose artistic silversmithing contributions to the world may well have faded into obscurity if it weren't for the fastidious management of Jefferson's letters and writings by historians and enthusiasts. Yet after Letelier crafted the cups, they went back to Jefferson and were not considered prized works of Letelier's. They were simply chunks of silver, passed from Wythe to Jefferson, fashioned, then refashioned into cup form. Because Letelier was not considered an artist-author with intellectual property rights over his cups (commissioned by Jefferson), the cups today are called The Jefferson Cups and not The Letelier Cups. Imagine if the ceiling of the Vatican were called "The Vatican's Creation of Adam" instead of "Michelangelo's Creation of Adam" (i.e. named for the commissioner as opposed to the crafter). I write this not to criticize Jefferson or praise Letelier, but to point out how drastically our notions of intellectual property ownership have changed over the last few centuries, to shine a light on opposing ethical paradigms that inform intellectual property values and laws, and to, hopefully, encourage us all to consider the larger perspective of intertextuality in the many different possible forms of intellectual property.
Anonymous Pamphlet. (c.2011) History of the Jefferon Cup, Courtesy of Tuel Jewlers. Charlottesville, Virginia.
Jefferson, Thomas. (1810 March 27) Letter from Jefferson to Gold and Silversmith John Letelier.
Kristeva, Julia. (1980) “Word, Dialogue and Novel” In Roudiez.
Pon, Lisa. (2004) Raphael, Dürer, and Marcantonio: Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print. New Haven: Yale.
Roudiez, Leon. Ed. (1980) Desire in Language. Trans. T. Gora. NY: Columbia University Press.
Young, Robert. Ed. (1981) Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.