Skip to Content
Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

New York, est. 1837
Butterfly Napkin Clips
Sterling silver, gilt, and enamel

3/4 x 2 7/16 x 3 3/8 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided
by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund

Arts of North America

These spring-hinged butterfly clips are part of the celebrated 19th-century silver service commissioned by John "The Silver King" Mackay and his wife. The sumptuous service for 24 was made from nearly one ton of silver sent directly from the Comstock mine to Tiffany & Co. in New York.

An Irish immigrant, Mackay became a multimillionaire in 1873 from his stake in the Comstock Lode, one of the largest silver strikes in history. The year after joining the ranks of the richest families in America, Mrs. Mackay travelled down into the mine to see the source of their wealth. Surrounded by the rich veins of silver, she is said to have asked her husband if they could make a “fine and memorable thing” from it. The decision was reached then and there to have a silver service crafted by the best silversmith in the country. The pieces were heavily ornamented with references to Persian and Mughal, as well as Chinese and Japanese, designs. The bowls and tureens were covered with lotus flowers, cherry blossoms, and engraved Chinese dragons. The ice cream dish had elephant trunks as feet.