The Meiggs centerpiece commemorates the completion of Peru's legendary Mollendo-Arequipa railway and was presented to Henry Meiggs by his fellow stockholders on the completion of the project in 1871. Meiggs was a natural-born entrepreneur from New York State, who made his first fortune managing lumber-yards in California during the Gold Rush. He then traveled to Latin America to pursue other ventures, including railroad construction in Chile and Peru, where he typically served as building manager, generating profits due to his efficiency in both time and budget. Meiggs became known as "Yankee Pizarro" or "The Yankee Genius" due to his widely respected engineering abilities, and he often told reporters, "I will locate the rails wherever the llamas go."
Meiggs revolutionized the Peruvian railway system, building over a thousand miles of rail, beginning with the Mollendo-Arequipa line. This railway ran from Mollendo, on the coast, to Arequipa, 90 miles inland and elevated high in the Andes. Construction began in 1867, and although interrupted by the earthquake of 1868, Meiggs forged ahead and completed the railway in January, 1871. The new railway line was a remarkable feat of engineering, traversing the treacherous Andes mountains to reach Arequipa at a grand altitude of 7,550 feet. Meiggs was hailed, "The Messiah of the railways for the salvation of the Peruvian Republic."
Meiggs organized extravagant entertainments surrounding the Mollendo-Arequipa railway inauguration, allegedly spending $600,000 in presentation medals. It was decided that this celebration should be one of great national pride, inclusive of many influential Peruvians, who would gather for days of dancing, dining, and amusements. Meiggs even arranged for the transportation of 600 guests to arrive from Lima aboard the chartered steamship Panama. Following this grandiose trip, passengers returning home aboard Panama decided to present Meiggs with a gift as a souvenir of the voyage and to commemorate his masterpiece railway. Thus, the idea of the Meiggs Testimonial was born, and soon thereafter the massive silver centerpiece was commissioned from Tiffany's and presented to Meiggs.
The Meiggs Testimonial is, without doubt, one of the finest examples of Tiffany's presentation silver. Tiffany's work was unparalleled in this field, largely due to the efforts of James H. Whitehouse, who designed and modelled many of the most important pieces, such as this lot, and the Bryant Vase (1876), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These presentation pieces were uniformly monumental in scale and superb in craftsmanship. They were often exhibited by Tiffany & Co. as sculptural works of art in silver, as the Meiggs Centerpiece was when it was displayed at Union Square in June 1871. For more information on the career of James H. Whitehouse, see lot 86.
(See John Loring, Magnificent Tiffany Silver, 2001, pp. 75-95).