Heron cup

WB.77     1850–72 • Rock crystal, gem-set enamelled gold • standing cup

Rock crystal cups of heron form were an important category in courtly art collections (Kunstkammern) in Renaissance and baroque Europe. This cup closely follows designs by Reinhold Vasters (1827– 1909) which survive in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The designs are for the complete cup, the engraved bowl, and the enamelled mounts. Vasters carefully set out to deceive collectors. He deliberately cracked the bowl and engraved over the crack to make it look like old damage and repair.

Curator's Description

Two-handled standing cup and cover; rock crystal; engraved and mounted in gold; enamelled and jewelled; oval bowl with two dolphins as handles; Triumph of Galatea on each side; reeded baluster stem, foot in two stages engraved with maritime deities; mounting on bowl and base with oblong fret in white enamel, each enclosing an enamelled fruit or ruby or diamond in raised setting; upper mount at mouth with lower border of formal leaves, enamelled green and purple; other mounts of two bands on stem enamelled with fruit and set with stones; mount on foot, which simulates cord passing through number of loops, enamelled alternately ruby and emerald; cover unmounted and represents seated stork with ruby eyes and gold collar on neck with pendant cartouche.

This object was collected by Anselm von Rothschild and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

18.2 cm wide, 27 cm high, 10.5 cm deep, and it weighs 994g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: German, workshop of Reinhold Vasters, of Aachen; before 1872, probably c. 1865-70.

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, between 1866 and 1872 (cat no. 568), by inheritance to his son Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898).

Commentary: Because rock-crystal vessels of this form in the Hapsburg collections were described in the old inventories as ‘Reiger’ (herons), the term has been adopted in this catalogue while, at the same time, recognising that it was not universally applied during the Renaissance.

First published and illustrated in Schestag 1872, the vessel was briefly described and captioned as “17. Jahrh.”. In Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 it was reattributed as “German, late 16th century”, and in each case selected for illustration. As late as 1941 it was published as an outstanding rock-crystal of the Renaissance and 'probably Saracchi workmanship' (see Bibliography).

The author's more recent doubts about its age and origin were dramatically confirmed when in 1978 the 1,079 drawings from the Aachen workshop of Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909) were discovered in the Print Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Truman 1979, pp. 154-61). Amongst those drawings were two that proved conclusively that the gem-set and enamelled gold mounts on this rock-crystal 'heron' cup were modern. The first drawing (inv. no. E. 2660-1919) is a finished coloured design for the projected rock-crystal standing-cup and cover, seen from the front. The rock-crystal areas are coloured a pale greyish tone, with the engraving on the rock-crystal reproduced with a light, but sharply defined, pencilled effect. The enamelled gold and gem-set mounts are reproduced in the various colours. The drawing, when compared with the finished product now preserved in the Waddesdon Bequest, differs in only a few-minor respects:

(i) The engraved motif on the lower stage of the rock-crystal foot appears to be a form of dentil ornament - not the concave ovals of elongated form linked by horizontal lines.

(ii) The horizon stretching behind the Triumph of Galatea is hilly, with numerous buildings - not the open sky above the sea.

(iii) The drapery above and below the putto blowing the horn (above Galatea's left hand) is not included in the drawing - nor is the large crack.

(iv) The bowl's rim-mount is shown with two alternative designs for the enamelled gold rim. The left-hand rim-mount is a pseudo-classical garland of fruit set with a gem-stone at regular intervals. The oblong fret design (in the right-hand half) of the rim-mount was the alternative chosen by the goldsmith when making the Waddesdon Bequest version, and it corresponds closely to the final result.

The drawing has pencilled annotations in Vasters' handwriting recording the number of rubies and diamonds to be used in all the mounts, except on the foot. This drawing, therefore, would enable the patron to see the effect of the two types of rim-mount on the 'heron' cup. However, the oblong fret design is shown on the foot-rim without the corresponding alternative (in the left-hand half), perhaps indicating a certain preference on the part of the goldsmith.

Any doubts about Reinhold Vasters' involvement in the production of the Waddesdon Bequest version are dispelled by the survival of a second sheet of twelve detailed coloured drawings (E. 3452-1919). This sheet is pasted to a large board along with several other sheets of jewellery designs (gold enamelled mounts, swags and even figures) without any indication that it relates to the rock-crystal 'heron' cup drawing (E. 2660-1919). On another large board one drawing (E. 3449-191) can be related to the mount on the foot of the 'heron' cup, and there may have been others that are now lost. The twelve detailed coloured drawings, annotated in ink with identifying letters (A-L) and the number of each required, also provide a record of the separate elements (like the raised settings for the gemstones and four different reliefs of fruits). Again, they correspond closely to the final version and leave no room for doubt that the workshop of Reinhold Vasters was responsible for the production of the gold, enamelled and gem-set mounts.

A third Vasters drawing (inv. no. E. 2644-1919) has been published as “a simpler sixteenth-century model”, from which the Waddesdon Bequest 'heron' cup is said to derive (Truman 1979, p. 158). Furthermore, it is there maintained that this large pencil drawing, with its pale gold mounts (set with pearls) and its lion-mask handles on either side, is a pictorial record made by Reinhold Vasters of a surviving Renaissance object – “probably German, sixteenth century”. This exciting proposition is, after ten years, still incapable of being substantiated. If such a genuine object had existed in the 1860s, it is curious that it has since disappeared without any other record of its physical presence. Even if the object in the Vasters drawing is not made of rock-crystal - and there is nothing to suggest that the material might not be some other hard-stone - there is still no known record of such a highly individual object extant in any of the well-known collections of Europe or America. For that reason, it seems far more probable that this Vasters drawing represents no more than an imaginary creation, an alternative or earlier projected version of the Waddesdon Bequest 'heron' cup. Perhaps it was a sketched proposal that never received much support and therefore was not taken on to the next stage of the production process. Nevertheless, it was taken sufficiently seriously to be annotated, as follows: 'a' (on either side), lower part of cover; 'b' (on either side), lower stage of the foot; 'c', the upper stage of the foot; 'd', the baluster reeded stem; 'e', the plain bowl. Significantly, the head of the bird is also sketched in profile and, although it lacks the serrated upper edge to the bird's bill that the Waddesdon Bequest version possesses, it is otherwise very similar. Indeed, the cover itself in the final result corresponds closely with both drawings.

A rock-crystal cover of this form is, however, not to be found among the well-documented 'heron' cups of the princely collections of Europe. The Medici collections in Florence contain one of the finest examples, which has been attributed to the workshop of the Saracchi brothers in Milan and has been identified with the one inventoried there as early as 1589 (Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, ‘Il Museo degli Argenti’, Milan, 1967, p. 139, cat. no. 213; also Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti, ‘Capolavori del Museo degli Argenti’, Florence, 1969, p. 74, col. pl.; R. Distelberger, Die Saracchi Werkstatt und Annibale Fontana, ‘Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien’, vol. 71, 1975, p. 158, fig. 185; C. W. Fock, in ‘Splendori di Pietre Dure: L'arte di Corte nella Firenze del Granduchi’, exh. cat., ed. Annamaria Giusti, Florence, 1989, no. 3, col. pl.). On the Medici 'heron' cup, the single piece of rock-crystal (comprising the long beak, the head and long neck of the bird) are joined by an enamelled gold mount to the bowl - not to the cover. The cover, with its raised pair of wings attached to it, is quite separate from the bird's neck and head.

The same design and method of construction can be seen on the long beak 'heron' cup listed in the inventory of the Ambras Collection in 1596 and subsequently in those of the Hapsburg collections in Vienna (inv. no. 2238, see E. Kris, ‘Meister und Meisterwerke de Steinschneidekunst in der Italienischen Renaissance’, Vienna, 1929 (reprinted 1979), p. 184, fig. 534; Distelberger 1975, p. 156, fig. 182; both authors attributed it to the Saracchi workshop in Milan during the last quarter of the sixteenth century). Yet again, the same feature - the bird's head and neck being separate from the cover and joined directly to the bowl - is to be found on three similar examples (each without a long beak), one in the Hapsburg Schatzkammer in Vienna (inv. no. 2401; see Kris 1929 (reprinted 1979), p. 184, fig. 527; Distelberger 1975, p. 156, fig. 181) and two examples in the collection formed by Louis of Bourbon (died 1711) and known as the Treasure of the Dauphin in Madrid (D. A. Iñiguez, ‘Catálogo de las Alhajas de Delfín’, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1989, pp. 173-4, nos 109-10, col. pls). In all these rock-crystal examples the bowl bears some resemblance to the bird's body, and a rock-crystal tail is attached (with gold mounts) at the tapering end. Consequently, the ugly, truncated solution adopted by the Vasters workshop, where the bird is represented only on the cover and its form does not continue downwards or relate to the bowl of the cup beneath, is wholly inconsistent with true Renaissance practice. It is possible that Vasters may have based his idea on other splendid rock-crystals, such as the Saracchi ‘Drachenvogel’ in the Hapsburg collections in Vienna (inv. no. 2388; Kris 1929 (reprinted 1979), p. 184, figs 535-6; Distelberger 1975, p. 151, fig. 178) or those in the form of a basilisk, such as the example in the Treasure of the Dauphin in Madrid (see Iñiguez 1989, p. 175, no. 111), in the Munich Residenz (Brunner 1978, p. 160, no. 324) and in the Schatzkammer of the Landgraves of Hesse-Cassel (E. Link, ‘Die Landgräfliche Kunstkammer Kassel’, Kassel, 1975, p. 11, with col. pl.); on these four vessels the head, curving neck and uppermost part of the body do form the detachable cover - but once again the cover is an integral part of the overall design because the bowl is carved to resemble the creature's feathery body. In conclusion, the solution adopted by Vasters in the Aachen workshop has, undoubtedly, no direct connection with any rock-crystal 'heron' or basilik cup of the Renaissance, and for that reason the third Vasters drawing discussed above (inv. no. E. 2644-1919) is almost certainly not a pictorial record of an original Renaissance object but, more probably, a preliminary stage in the process of designing Vasters' pastiche that apparently entered Baron Anselm's collection between 1866 and 1872. The choice of the final design seems to be a compromise, chosen perhaps because it was less demanding of the craftsman who was responsible for carving the rock-crystal.

Consequently, there is no evidence to support the optimistic opinion published in 1979 about the cover of the Waddesdon Bequest 'heron' cup, when it was stated that the cover “seems to be the only original element” (Truman 1979, p. 158). Undoubtedly it is more convincingly engraved than the figural scenes on the bowl and the foot, but the engraving of human figures always reveals the weakness of the faker or copyist more conclusively than, for example, the feathering of a bird or its long beak and its head. Furthermore, the details of the engraving techniques observable, for example, on the two Hapsburg 'heron' cups are greatly superior, and even the rendering of their feathers has a livelier, more varied and more subtle quality than on the London version, which is perhaps more akin to the surface cutting of the Kassel basilisk.

If, therefore, the entire rock-crystal 'heron' cup - the mounts, the cup and the cover - cannot be attributed to a workshop before the 1860s, when and why were the cracks and breaks introduced into the bowl and the upper stage of the foot? They do not appear in the drawings and, unfortunately, the 1872 description is typically brief and not concerned with such details; furthermore the 1872 illustration, which shows the 'heron' cup in profile, records only the least damaged end of the oval bowl, where the crack is partially disguised by the winged putto and the floating piece of drapery (above and below). However, its very existence in the photograph suggests that the piece was probably acquired by Baron Anselm von Rothschild in the present damaged state, and no doubt these 'scars' were treated as evidence of the great age and quality of the engraving since it had apparently been so highly valued during the late Renaissance period that 'protection' had been given to the rock-crystal by adding precious enamelled gold and gem-set mounts.

Vasters would appear, therefore, to have been a craftsman who was prepared not only to fabricate an elaborate and costly fake but also to inflict artificial damage on it and then engrave over part of it to make the crack look older than the 'Renaissance' engraving. To go to such lengths in order to deceive is in the tradition of the more ruthless and determined breed of forgers, and so credence can no longer be given to those who suggest that Vasters was unaware of the deceptive purpose of his creations.

Finally, Reinhold Vasters has on this occasion revealed a sound knowledge - acquired directly or at second hand - of a truly exceptional rare object preserved in the Hapsburg Imperial collections in Vienna. His use of the oblong fret as a motif for an enamelled gold mount is most unexpected, but in Vienna there exists one extraordinary instance of its application by a Renaissance goldsmith, probably while working at the French Court under the influence of the Fontainebleau School of artists in the mid-sixteenth century. It occurs on the enamelled and gem-set gold mount around the rim of the curious glass ewer, to which have been added, probably at two different periods in the sixteenth century, a rock-crystal cover and, subsequently, a rock-crystal foot and its enamelled gold foot-rim mount (H. 21.8 cm). This small ewer comes from the famous Ambras Collection, largely formed by the Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol (1520-95), and was already accurately described in detail in the Ambras Inventory of 1821 (no. 64: “eine weiss glazner Kanne mit Gieschnabel und Handhabe . . .”. Since the Napoleonic era it has been preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. 1393, and it is illustrated in the Museum's official publication, ‘Meisterwerke’, Vienna, 1955, pl. 112, where the goldsmiths' work is attributed to a French workshop; also E. V. Strohmer, ‘Prunkgefässe aus Bergkristall’, Vienna, 1947, p. 29, pl. 20; J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, p. 372, figs 367-8). Each oblong of the fret pattern is set alternately with a precious gemstone and an enamelled relief of fruit leaves - as was faithfully copied by Vasters - but the fret itself is enamelled blue, whereas Vasters has executed it entirely in white. However, the striking similarity between these oblong fret mounts now preserved in Vienna and London suggests a direct dependence, either because Vasters travelled to Austria to study the original or because he was supplied with detailed drawings by others - perhaps by Frederic Spitzer, who lived in Vienna before his move to Paris in 1852 and who subsequently did much to foster Vasters' career as a faker. If this faked 'heron' cup had been created specifically to sell to Baron Anselm in Vienna - and he was sixty-seven years old in 1870 - then it was tactically very shrewd to borrow a highly conspicuous distinctive motif, like the oblong fret, from one of the most exquisitely mounted objects from the famous Ambras Collection which had been brought from Innsbruck to the Lower Belvedere Palace in Vienna in 1806. If this conjecture could be proved, it would add a further sinister dimension to the fraudulent operation being run by Reinhold Vasters and Frederic Spitzer.


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’, zweiter theil, Vienna, 1872, no. 568 (with illus.)
  • Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 77, pl. XVI
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 77, pl. XI
  • Charles R. Beard, Rock-crystals of the Renaissance, ‘The Connoisseur’, 1941, p. 188, fig. IX
  • Charles Truman, Reinhold Vasters – the last of the goldsmiths?, ‘The Connoisseur’, vol. 200, March, 1979, p. 158, fig. 5
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. III. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.41, figs. 349-354
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.254-255.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991

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