Beth Ann Sweeney cooks up a cottage business from a lifelong love of vintage copper cookware
photographs by Andrew Sullivan
Beth Ann Sweeney mines her vintage copper pots and pans the way some women collect shoes. “Obsessed” is how she describes her relationship with the impeccably restored, gleaming pots and pans displayed in her Shippan kitchen.
It all began at London’s famed Portobello Market, where Beth Ann fell for her first antique stockpot three years ago. Even though she attempted haggling with the sweet Irish woman who was selling the restored copper, the pot remained “completely out of my budget,” and Beth Ann reluctantly left it behind. But she didn’t forget it, and as soon as she got home, she telephoned and made her first transatlantic purchase. “I just couldn’t let it go,” she says.
People assume Beth Ann’s all-consuming passion for antique copper stems from her love of cooking. “And it’s true. I’m a total foodie,” she says. But she explains that her affinity for cookware from bygone days is really rooted in nostalgia. Beyond her copper-stocked kitchen, Beth Ann keeps entire closets outfitted with vintage apparel and accessories: old hats, gloves, tea linens, brooches and “Chanel anything. I love anything vintage, anything antique, anything retro, anything old. I always say I should have lived in the forties.”
This wife and mother of two young boys has cultivated a rare niche as a finder and vendor of antique European copper cookware, pieces that sometimes can be traced to Europe’s most pedigreed kitchens. Through a carefully cultivated network of sources across the pond, Beth Ann specializes in unearthing dingy, nearly unrecognizable finds and making them look as new as a freshly minted penny. Her Stamford-based cottage business, Coppermill Kitchen, sells these vintage French and English pieces to anyone from top chefs (who value their superior heat conductivity) to discerning home decorators and cooks who crave the antiques for their well-appointed kitchens.
As Beth Ann’s personal collection and related business grew, her pots also became vessels that simmer with poignancy and meaning. During the difficult years when Beth Ann worried about the increasingly fragile health of her husband, Tim (a cystic fibrosis sufferer who underwent a 2009 lifesaving double lung transplant), her stockpots provided much-needed comfort on days she was “just losing it,” particularly as Tim’s pre-transplant health failed. Her “therapy” often involved a search for a new (old) pot. “I know it sounds crazy but smiles became precious. A shiny new pot made me smile.” And as Tim recovered from his transplant, his wife would sneak batches of his favorite homemade meals—chili, stews and pot roasts—into his recuperation room in her copper stockpot. “I cooked my way through the tragedy. And you know how hospital food is. I would bring Tim vats and vats of chocolate mousse.”
When Tim made remarkable post-transplant strides that included running the 2010 New York Marathon with one of his surgeons, his wife began to reflect on the seize-the-day lessons that came from their
experience. Tim, a personal trainer at Darien’s Equinox gym, encouraged her efforts to take her copper-scavenging further. She began to sell some of her finds, eventually quitting her job to devote herself to the project. “Prior to Tim, I would have been too scared to try this. But we learned how important it is just to follow your heart and passions. Doing this, I don’t feel like I’m working. I’m just surrounded by pretty things.” Her collection, which retails from $200 to $2,000, can be found locally at Putnam Kitchens in Greenwich, for a limited time through food52.com, and in private Fairfield County homes where Beth Ann has consulted as a kitchen stylist.
The beauty of what Beth Ann vends is all in the details. While today’s copper is no longer made by hand, she explains, a vintage copper pot reveals its pedigree by way of marks of expert workmanship: distinctive dovetail joints, hand-riveted handles and telltale signs of originality that collectors value. Beth Ann knows she’s scored a great find when the restored copper reveals its “maker’s marks,” the name, initials or insignia of the original manufacturer. Also significant: the distinctive markings of its owners, usually affluent Europeans who had their valuable kitchenware stamped for cachet (and to prevent theft).
Beth Ann loves finding pieces owned by chefs who had their full names etched into lids. “It’s the ego of a good cook. They like their whole names there.” Her “biggest gets” are recently found pots with royal crowns etched into the lids. Those crowns, she explains, suggest the pots were used in a palace kitchen somewhere. An even better find: a coffeepot with a crown and the letter “D” etched underneath. “It’s for the Duke of Devonshire. Exciting.”