This flask belongs to a group of fifteen known examples, all specially commissioned and presented by Alex Shepherd to friends and associates in positions to promote his Mexican silver mine venture. Shepherd made his name in Washington, D.C. on the Board of Public Works, and became Governor of the District during the corrupt period under U.S. Grant. By 1876, however, Shepherd went bankrupt and in 1879 decided to invest in a silver mine in Batopilas, Chihuahua, Mexico. He moved there permanently in 1879, using his engineering expertise to build tunnels, a bridge, and a 3-mile aqueduct. The population of the town grew from 300 in 1880 to 4,000 at the time of his death, and he was known there as "El Patron Grande."
Shepherd returned to Washington in 1887 to great fanfare to promote the mine in Batopilas and it was on that trip that he ordered these presentation flasks from Gorham. The recipient of this flask was Hallet Kilbourn (b. 1833), a real estate broker and journalist in Washington, D.C., who was associated with Shepherd through both of these professions. Kilbourn was most famous for his refusal to testify before a judiciary committee investigating real estate dealings in Washington D.C. As the New York Times stated in December 19, 1882, the Kilbourn and Latta firm "gained notoriety in connection with the real estate pool and other operations which accompanied the labors of Alexander R. Shepherd, sometimes known as Boss Shepherd."
In his role as president of the Washington Critic News, Kilbourn reported very favorably upon Shepherd's return to the city, and helped organize a gala parade attended by 100,000 on October 6, 1887. Kilbourn also assembled press clippings of Shepherd's return throughout the United States, and presented this scrapbook to Shepherd's wife in November 1887.
Of the fifteen flasks, five were given to Mexican government officials, and ten to Americans. Four flasks are in museum collections (two are in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, one is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the fourth is at the Brooklyn Museum). In addition to the current lot, five other flasks were sold at Christie's, October 13, 1983, lot 17, Sotheby's, January 23, 1992, lot 56, Christie's, January 26, 1995, lot 351, Christie's, January 20-21, 2005, lot 78, and Christie's private sale, 2005.
See Katherine S. Howe, "The Batopilas Flask: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Money, Mines, and Silver Manufacture," The Winterthur Portfolio, 1988, pp. 63-77, and Marks of Achievement: Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1987, p. 175.
Hacienda San Miguel, Alex Shepherd's silver refinery in Batopilas, Mexico Shepherd Collection, Kiplinger Library, Courtesy The Historical Society of Washington D.C.