Spenger’s auctions unearth unusual, valuable items and loads of nostalgia for former Berkeley restaurant

An eight-foot enamel vase that was last displayed at Spenger’s Fish Grotto in Berkeley is thought to be a rare item made for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago that was thought to be lost before it was appraised for the auction. It is valued between $30,000 and $50,000. Photo: Cirrus Wood

It may be too late for a dish of oysters at the now-closed Spenger’s Fish Grotto, but there’s still time for readers to bring a piece of Spenger’s home.

Nearly 100 items from the Spenger family’s collection of maritime memorabilia went to the bidding block this past weekend at Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, with another lot scheduled for Feb. 16 and 17. Attendees placed bids on ship’s wheels, hand-carved boats, binnacles (ships’ compass housing), torpedo hatches, signs, figureheads and mounted fish, among other items.

Deric Torres, vice president of Clars, has been organizing the collection and presiding over its sale. The extent and diversity of the collection has attracted national and international attention from collectors of nautical artifacts, though many who get in touch have a personal connection, Torres said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from around the country related to the Spenger collection from people who have had fond memories, just like me,” he said.


Attendees at the Jan. 18 preview for the Spenger’s auction that took place Jan. 19-20. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Like many of the bidders in attendance, Torres had grown up going to the restaurant. He recognized many of the items as they came in to Clars, but gestured to a nearby binnacle for a particular story he remembers regarding one of the collection’s more unusual items: a 34.29-carat, canary yellow diamond known as The Star of Denmark.

“When I was a little boy I remember standing at that binnacle, where the diamond was housed,” he said, “and I looked in there and I said, ‘That’s fake. There’s no way that there’s a giant yellow diamond at a fish restaurant in Berkeley.’”

Now presiding over its auction as an adult, Torres assures prospective buyers the diamond is very much real, with an appraised value of between $400,000 and $600,000.

For years the diamond was displayed with a plaque detailing its history: from its discovery as a 105-carat rough found in a mine in South Africa to its presentation to Queen Kapiolani of Hawaii by the princess of Denmark at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887. Though how it got to Frank Spenger, Sr., founder of Spenger’s Fish Grotto, is something of a mystery.

“I do not know how he obtained it,” said Alicia Spenger, fourth-generation owner of the Spenger collection and Frank’s great-granddaughter. “I heard a story that there was some involvement of liar’s dice at the bar, but who knows.”

The diamond isn’t the only unusual item with a mysterious past to go on the block. An eight-foot tall vase, originally displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (also referred to as the ‘World’s Columbian Exposition’) will go up for auction on Feb. 17, at an appraised value of between $30,000 and $50,000 with a starting bid of $15,000.

The enamel cloisonné vase is one of three vases that were made specifically for the 1893 fair by artists of the Meiji era to represent the height of Japan’s craft. Today, the two other vases reside in museums. The third was thought lost, until after the grotto closed and the memorabilia appraised, it was rediscovered in the Spenger collection.


Alicia Spenger says she doesn’t know how her great grandfather and original owner of Spenger’s Fish Grotto, Frank Spenger, Jr., came upon the valuable vase. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Torres had noticed the vase the last time he and his wife had gone for a meal at Spenger’s while the restaurant was still open. It would have been hard not to notice it, given the size of the item.

“We actually sat right next to the vase and my wife commented on how beautiful it was and I agreed,” said Torres. “I said that it was probably made for something more than just as a piece of decorative art because of its sheer scale. And then of course all the research led to everything that we now know.”

As director of furniture and decorative arts at Clars, Torres has access to a large catalog of historical records and a network of professionals able to confirm provenance. Torres got in touch with Dr. Marvin Nathan and Dr. Rodger Birt of San Francisco State University, who confirmed that after the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the vase had been displayed at the 1894 Midwinter Fair in San Francisco. He received further confirmation from Professor Judith Snodgrass of Western Sydney University in Australia, who had published an article in 2006 on Japanese art at the Chicago Columbian Exposition.

It was indeed the same vase from both fairs. As to how the vase got from Chicago to San Francisco, Torres has a strong hunch. M. H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle and namesake of the De Young Museum was an inveterate collector. He was also on the board of the Chicago World’s Fair and brought quite a lot of collectibles back with him to California.

“I think that’s the tie between Chicago and San Francisco,” said Torres. Though how the vase got from San Francisco to Spenger’s is less clear.

“I don’t know how it came to our family,” said Alicia Spenger. “I just know how my great grandfather got it into the restaurant.”


There had been a residence above the restaurant when Frank Spenger opened Spenger’s Fish Grotto, with an elevator that led down to the kitchen. However, the vase would not fit in the elevator, so Frank hired a crane to lift the vase up to an outside staircase on the second story, where he could bring it inside to surprise his wife, who was certainly surprised, though likely not in the way Frank hoped.

“My great grandmother came home, and was like, ‘Oh…where’d you get that?’”

The vase was quickly relocated downstairs to the restaurant. There it sat for more than a century as an art object and a piece of family lore, its historic significance forgotten.

“I didn’t know all the history until Deric started looking into it,” said Spenger. “I just knew that the vase was just a big vase, and now it’s a big, very important vase.”

While the most valuable items in the collection, like the Star of Denmark diamond and the vase, will go to auction in February, this past weekend’s auction was much more modest — in scale, in value and in appeal — though Spenger notes that nostalgia has certainly been a key factor in buyer interest. At least she certainly hopes so.

“So many people have come to our restaurant over the last 125 years,” she said. “I was hoping that all these people that had come through there would see the items and say ‘I would really like to have a part of history.’”

A diving suit previously owned by Paul Spenger went up for auction on Jan. 20 at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo: Cirrus Wood

Spenger points to two of the more unusual items that went to the block at this past weekend’s sale: a diving suit owned by her great uncle, Paul Spenger, and a ship’s figurehead carved in the likeness of a distinguished 19th-century gentleman. The former had at one time been functional, though Spenger could not swear that Paul had ever used it for its intended purpose. While the latter had attracted quite a lot of inquiries owing to being a male figure, as most ship’s figureheads are female.

“I just want it to go to people who really had a love for the restaurant, as all the family did,” she said.

Spenger may have gotten her wish regarding that figurehead. After this weekend’s auction, the wooden gentleman will travel the world again, though this time as freight rather than figurehead. Via proxy, Barnaby Beck of Gig Harbor, Washington secured the item at Sunday’s auction with a winning bid of $5,000.

A longtime East Bay resident, Beck grew up in Berkeley, and later lived with his wife on Euclid Avenue, though he has since traded San Francisco Bay for Puget Sound. As a child, Beck would go to Spenger’s with his family and remembers it fondly as one of the places where adults would gather to be sociable at one end of the restaurant while, “the kids would just run wild.”

“We didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in our mouths,” said Beck. “So it was really special when you went to Spenger’s.”

Items from the Spenger’s maritime collection at Clars Auction Gallery, including a ship’s figurehead carved in the likeness of a distinguished 19th-century gentleman, which sold for $5,000 at the Jan. 20 auction. Photo: Cirrus Wood

When Beck heard that the restaurant had closed and would be putting the collection up for auction, he researched the items going for sale to find those that would fit within his and his wife’s own collection of maritime memorabilia. Beck bid on several other items at the weekend’s auction, though only secured the figurehead. Nevertheless, he’s not disappointed, describing the win as “an opportunity to fill a couple baskets” for him: nautical, historical and emotional. He remembers exactly where the figure stood by the bar.

As to the gentleman’s identity, Beck suspects it might be Benjamin Disraeli, who twice served as Prime Minister of Britain under Queen Victoria. “I’m not saying it is him,” said Beck, “but it has an uncanny look of him.”

Beck went on to explain that, although male figureheads were less common than female ones, they weren’t unheard of, and figureheads of either sex were frequently modeled on family members or personal acquaintances of the ship’s owners, or occasionally famous statesmen.

“It obviously had some meaning to it,” said Beck. “But I bought it because it was a cool thing and, emotionally, it talked to me.”

“I just wanted to own a piece of Spenger’s.”

The first auction of the Spenger collection has already passed, but a second auction featuring the remainder of the collection is scheduled for 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Feb. 16-17. (preview, 1-6 p.m., Feb. 15). Clars Auction Gallery, 5644 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.