Neptune quartz cup

WB.122     1866–72 • standing cup

Curator's Description

Standing cup; formed of group of quartz crystals, ice-white body, points red or amethystine, mounted in silver-gilt; at back: figure of Neptune with trident, mounted on dolphin, behind which is double-headed monster; stem formed of marine monster with double serpentine tail, wings in place of arms and satyr-like head, riding on tortoise on the sea; circular base supported on three snails; inscribed.

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

How big is it?

14.8 cm wide, 22 cm high, 10.2 cm deep, and it weighs 861g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a:-

Origin: Uncertain; previously attributed to an Augsburg workshop (unidentified goldsmith, AW in monogram) c. 1590 or alternatively c. 1700; more probably made (with spurious 'Augsburg' punch-marks) by Reinhold Vasters of Aachen (Germany), c. 1865-70, but certainly, before 1872.

Marks :

(i) A spurious version of the Augsburg assay mark, the pine-cone.

(ii) A spurious maker's mark, an incomplete A (?) above three pellets (previously read as the monogram AW).

(iii) An illegible punch-mark of smaller size (previously reproduced in the line drawings as if it might be a defaced 'control' mark of the early nineteenth century).

The spurious Augsburg assay mark is punched between the other two marks.

Provenance: Baron Anselm von Rothschild, Vienna, between 1866 and 1872 (cat no. 564), by inheritance to his son Baron Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898).

Commentary: In Schestag 1872 this piece was described as “Augsburger Arbeit des 17. Jahrhunderts” and evidently was so highly regarded that it was selected for illustration. In Read 1902, where it was again illustrated, and in Dalton 1927 it was attributed to “Augsburg, about 1590” and on both occasions line drawings of the three marks were reproduced. Although it was noted in Hayward 1976 that the maker's mark was not recorded in Rosenberg's great four-volume work on goldsmiths' marks (1922-8), nevertheless it was confidently read and published for the first time as “AW in monogram” and the standing-cup was stated to be “Augsburg, late 16th century . . . derived with modifications from one of Cornelis Floris's designs for standing cups published in Antwerp in 1548”.

The maker's mark is not, however, to be found in Seling 1980 - a truly comprehensive compilation of Augsburg goldsmiths and their marks - although the cup itself was selected for comment and illustration. It was described as having a quartz bowl cut towards the end of the sixteenth century and the silver was dated “um 1700”, solely on the evidence of the particular form of the town-mark (the pine-cone); it was regarded by Seling in 1980 as a form of punch that was not used in the sixteenth century nor, indeed, throughout the greater part of the seventeenth century.

Such an unlikely explanation for the irreconcilable inconsistencies of this standing-cup necessitated a fresh, objective critical analysis and served only to highlight the dangers of placing too great a reliance on the marks. The detailed description of the construction of this piece has already emphasised a number of the techniques that would seem highly improbable in a work of the late Renaissance - for example the drilling, pegging and bolting of the quartz and the impossibility of dismantling the piece in the normal fashion. Therefore there is strong evidence to suggest that the punch-marks are most likely to be forgeries - that is, struck with false punches specially made for this purpose.

This tentative conclusion was greatly reinforced in 1978 when the author was carrying out his first detailed study of the 1,079 drawings from the workshop of the faker Reinhold Vasters of Aachen (1827-1909) that had just been rediscovered in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Charles Truman, Reinhold Vasters – the last of the goldsmiths?, ‘The Connoisseur’, vol. 200, March, 1979, pp. 154-61).

The major piece of new evidence, although capable of being interpreted in more than one way, was the large coloured drawing of a standing-cup (inv. no. E. 2657-1919), which incorporated many of the distinctive features of the Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup but at the same time differed in several major respects:

(i) The circular foot resting on the snails has an elaborate engraved strapwork design - not the triple mouldings of the Waddesdon Bequest example.

(ii) The domed base in the form of a turtle in the waves with other marine creatures is similar, though the area of water is narrower.

(iii) The stem in the form of a muscular winged triton riding on the back of the turtle is close, except that the triton does not have a satyr's head but appears, instead, to have a grotesque horned dragon's head and scaly neck.

(iv) The bowl is made not of irregularly formed quartz but of a smooth, fluted, shell-shaped, polished hardstone.

(v) The foliate silver mount and 'claw' extending out to the front of the bowl does not exist, and the long mount linking up with the Neptune group (at the top) is not made to divide into a double-headed lizard-like monster (on either side of the dolphin). In fact, the mount at the back of the bowl does not have two lizard legs - nor, indeed, any animal form at all. Consequently, the snakelike forms entwined around the wings and the back of the torso may be seen as belonging to the grotesque dragon-like horned head - not to the mount linking the triton stem with the Neptune finial at the rear of the bowl's rim.

(vi) Finally, the winged dolphin and the figure of Neptune seem very alike, though the design of Neptune's trident is noticeably different.

Because there are no detailed technical working drawings among the 1,079 surviving Vasters drawings that can be related to this large drawing, its status and significance remain uncertain. Is it drawn by Reinhold Vasters himself? It can be compared with the only known signed Vasters drawing - a very large coloured drawing of a silver-gilt standing-cup and cover in the 'late Gothic' style (Victoria and Albert Museum, E. 2775-1919; see Truman 1979, p. 161, fig. 12). The two drawings, although executed in similar techniques, seem very different, for the drawing signed 'R. Vasters' is more impressionistic and less precise in its pen-work. Alternatively, was it a drawing sent to him of an existing genuine Renaissance object? Or was it a purely imaginary design by Vasters' workshop for a project that was subsequently abandoned without ever reaching the stage of making detailed working drawings to scale? Or was the project revised and was the Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup the result of that process of revision? As there can be no way of knowing what percentage of Vasters' workshop drawings have been lost and destroyed, there is always the possibility that those relating to this large drawing and the Waddesdon Bequest version were among those not chosen for mounting in meticulously symmetrical arrangements on those 160 large grey boards now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Their absence, therefore, is not necessarily of any significance -it could be no more than an accident of fate.

When this large drawing was first published (Y. Hackenbroch, Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith, ‘The Metropolitan Museum Journal’, vol. 19/20, New York, 1986, p. 242, fig. 169), it was described (without quoting measurements) as a “design for hardstone shell cup with gold mounts . . . ca. 1870-90”. Furthermore, it was grouped there with three other Vasters drawings for shell cups (figs 166-8) and it was stated that “no objects that correspond exactly or substantially to these [four] drawings have come to light”. Whilst it is still true that no gold pieces are known to be extant, there is no annotation on this large coloured drawing of the Triton-Neptune standing-cup, and consequently no way of knowing if gold or silver-gilt was being represented by the pale gold colouring of the metal parts - nor, indeed, precisely what size of object was intended. Finally, the date of the drawing is unlikely to be, as proposed, in the two decades after 1870; indeed, it is most likely to have been made some years prior to 1870, because the only closely related extant object - the Waddesdon Bequest quartz standing-cup - was acquired by Baron Anselm von Rothschild in Vienna before 1872. However, as it had not entered his collection as early as 1866, it may be assumed that it had not become available for purchase until some time within those five years between 1866 and 1872. As no previous owner has yet been traced, it may be conjectured that Baron Anselm was its first owner after its manufacture in Aachen, where Vasters would probably have had this large drawing in his workshop at the time.

Fortunately, there is one detailed working drawing among the 1,079 Vasters drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum that offers irrefutable evidence of his workshop's involvement in the making of this distinctive type of winged triton figure with a satyr's head - albeit in gold and on a slightly different scale. It is a coloured drawing (inv. no. E. 2948-1919) that has been carefully cut out and pasted on to a board with several other technical working drawings relating to the same engraved rock-crystal nef on wheels (inv. no. E. 2597-1919). The large drawing of the nef establishes that the winged triton was intended to form the terminal element of the balustrade on the poop deck of the nef and therefore was a relatively small enamelled gold figure - but presumably executed in the round. Although the muscular torso with upraised wings (in place of arms) supports a satyr's head in a similar pose, the wings themselves are of a different design and the satyr's face has a beard. Nevertheless, recent research now indicates that it was frequently the practice of the Vasters workshop to take a particular motif and then keep reusing it, amending and adapting it to suit the needs of each subsequent occasion.

In this case, the stem of the Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup appears to have been a misguided conflation of borrowings from at least two different but well-known sources. On the one hand there is the widely circulated engraved design by Cornelis Floris (1514-76), which appeared as part of a set of prints published in 1548 in Antwerp by Hieronimus Cock (see R. Hedicke, ‘Cornelis Floris und die Florisdekoration. Studien zur niederländischen und deutschen Kunst im XVI Jahrhundert’, 2 vols, Berlin, 1913, II, pl. IX; Hayward 1976, p. 356, pl. 199). It depicts a standing-cup, the bowl of which is a large shell with a Neptune figure seated at the rear end; the shell is borne aloft by the two upraised hands of the seated satyr beneath; the underside of the shell rests on his shoulders and the back of his head as it bends forward under the weight. The bearded satyr sits on the back of a tortoise, a leg on either side - the left hoof reaching down as far as the upper rim of the high oval stand (or socle) with its claw feet. The widespread popularity of this print is demonstrated by variants in silver - for example, the well-documented Schneggenbecher by the Augsburg goldsmith Valentin I Huetter that was presented in 1564 by a Swiss merchant living in Lyon to the Zurich Society of the Nobles at the Sign of the Snail (see C. Keller-Escher, ‘Der Silberschatz der Gesellschaft der Schildner zum Schneggen’, Zurich, 1913, p. 35, no. 2; Hayward 1976, p. 382, pl. 465; A. Gruber, ‘Weltliches Silber, Katalog der Sammlung des Schweizerischen Landesmuseum’, Zurich, 1977, p. 182, no. 265; Seling 1980, p. 243, fig. 95). In this imaginative variant, the satyr is no longer seated but is shown standing astride the turtle as he pushes upwards with all his might to keep the bowl (in the form of a huge snail) from crushing him. Exceptionally, there is even proof that within less than a decade this Floris print of 1548 was being closely copied in Spain by a young Barcelona apprentice, Gomes Alonso, because his version - a drawing in brown ink dated 1556 - is still to be found in the ‘Llibres de Passanties’, folio 182, in the Instituto Municipal de Historia de la Ciudad, Barcelona (see P. E. Muller, ‘Jewels in Spain, 1500-1800’, Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1972, p. 37, fig. 39).

On the other hand there is the second motif, similar in general effect but fundamentally different because, instead of a satyr, it is a triton that is seated on the back of a turtle. Being a triton, the figure has a double, fishlike, serpentine tail. Furthermore, its muscular torso has both human arms and a human head. An early instance of the use of this motif by the Nuremberg goldsmith Jörg Ruel the Elder (master in 1598, died in 1625) demonstrates how equally effective it can be when the figure is designed as a caryatid with its arms stretching upwards; it survives in this form as the stem of a nautilus-shell standing-cup by Ruel preserved in Wetzlar in the collection of Dr Irmgard Freiin von Lemmers-Danforth (see W. Koeppe, '. . . alles in vergüldte Silver gefafst', ‘Kunst & Antiquitäten, part I, 1989, pp. 34-42, col. pls 2, 6, 9, 15, 19). For the first time, it is there proposed that the stem figure group may be derived from the very similar group in bronze, where it is used to support a shell salt-cellar. The bronze has been attributed to Girolamo Campagna (c. 1550-1626), who was active in Padua, Venice and Verona (see K. Pechstein, ‘Bronzen und Plaketten’, Kataloge des Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, 1968, no. 107, for a discussion of the example that came in 1917 from the Hesse collections in Kassel); this bronze is illustrated by W. Koeppe alongside a significantly different gilt-bronze variant (blowing a conch shell) now preserved in the Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt). The Frankfurt gilt-bronze version may, however, be directly related to the silver-gilt group made about 1620 by the Dresden goldsmith Georg Mond, which originally belonged to another object but now forms the stem of a much-altered nautilus-shell cup in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, USA (see H. Seling, in ‘J. Pierpont Morgan, Collector’, exh. cat., ed. L. Horvitz Roth, Wadsworth Atheneum, 1987, no. 20, col pl.); Seling states most misleadingly that “the foot and bearer-figure reveal a striking relationship with the unmarked [sic] goblet in the British Museum, the cup of which has been cut out of quartz geode . . .”. In fact, there are far more differences than similarities - and the reason is simple. The maker of the Waddesdon Bequest quartz standing-cup has created on the back of the turtle a creature that is neither a satyr nor a triton. In their place he has produced a strange, armless hybrid, on to whose muscular torso he has grafted a pair of bat-like wings.

This hybrid creature finds no parallel among the many proven works of the leading German goldsmiths from the Renaissance to the baroque, as reference to the Schatzkammer collections, particularly in Dresden, Moscow and Vienna, will confirm. Even in association with the mythical - and therefore imaginary - griffin, the triton remains correctly depicted by the Augsburg goldsmith Cornelius Gross (master before 1534, died 1575), as on his famous drinking-horn which was first recorded in the Ambras Collection in 1596 and is now preserved in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 889). In this lively and highly original achievement (c. 1560-70) the goldsmith has represented the legs and claws of the griffin forcefully astride the top of the turtle's shell, with the turtle's neck extended and its head raised apprehensively, while the triton carrying his horn in his outstretched arms appears to have settled unnoticed between the wings of the griffin, as if seeking a ride on the griffin's back. Fantasy may be indulged - as with so much of the art of Mannerism - but the German goldsmith of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seems rarely to have departed from the established repertoire and created new hybrid creatures.

Similarly, the virtuosity of the stone-cutter was one of the major aspects of taste in the age of Mannerism, and yet in this Waddesdon Bequest quartz standing-cup the quartz has been left almost entirely in its natural state. Where the quartz has been cut, the carved and polished surfaces are plain and wholly devoid of any artistic merit. Neither the interior of the rim of the bowl nor the convex panel on the front of the bowl is worked in a fashion that accords with the well-attested practice of the principal workshops that were supplying the Courts of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Furthermore, the underside of the quartz bowl is crudely polished flat - creating no Mannerist forms or outlines. Such insensitive handling of this block of quartz seems far removed from the artistry of the hardstone and rock-crystal carvers of the Milanese and Prague workshops around 1600 or from the 'naturalism' of Wenzel Jamnitzer, who more than once incorporated mineralogical specimens of ore into his rocky backgrounds - as on the lid of the Electress Sophie's writing casket of 1562 which entered the Dresden Kunstkammer in 1623 (Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, inv. no. v.559); see J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe zu Dresden’, vol. I, Leipzig, 1925, pp. 48ff., pl. 24; ‘Wenzel Jamnitzer und die Nürnberger Goldschmiedekunst 1500-1700’, exh. cat., Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1985, p. 225, no. 20). Wenzel Jamnitzer's mastery of the 'stil rustique' led him on this occasion in 1562 to place the reclining parcel-gilt figure of Philosophy, executed in the round, on a high grassy mound of enamelled silver, inhabited by silver lizards and insects (partially cast from life) and interrupted by the occasional fragment of glinting ore protruding from the mound's surface. Such a highly disciplined use of hardstone in its natural state by Jamnitzer is in sharp contrast with the uncontrolled dominance of the uncouth rectangular lump of quartz by the maker of the Waddesdon Bequest standing-cup.

Nevertheless, in creating this quartz cup the maker was almost certainly desirous of emulating well-known Kunstkammer objects in which the natural state of the stone has remained intact. Perhaps, therefore, he drew much of his inspiration in a rather misguided fashion from the famous pair of Black African figures in the Grünes Gewölbe, each bearing a tray laden with a minerological specimen in the natural state (inv. no. VIII, 303 and V, 156; H. 63 cm and 67 cm respectively; see J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe zu Dresden’, vol. IV, Leipzig, 1932, p. 132, pl. 46; Joachim Menzhausen, ‘Das Grünes Gewölbe’, Leipzig, 1968, p. 107, col. pl. 129; ‘‘The Splendor of Dresden, Five Centuries of Art Collecting’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1978, p. 162, no. 291, col. pl. on p. 44). It may not have been appreciated by the goldsmith of the London quartz cup, however, that the Dresden Black African figures were not made until 1724 (by J. H. Köhler, J. M. Kinglinger and Balthasar Permoser), nor that the natural matrix on one tray containing sixteen large emerald crystals embedded in its midst had been presented to the Elector of Saxony in 1581 when he had paid a visit to the Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. This rare cluster had been found in Colombia, but it was not until Augustus the Strong's new installation of the Grünes Gewölbe early in the eighteenth century that the emerald cluster and the companion rock-crystal cluster were ordered to be displayed on trays in this highly three-dimensional, evocative and artistic manner, symbolising the natural wealth that the continent of America had to offer. However, in neither case is the bizarre quality of the untouched mineralogical cluster not effectively matched by the barbaric splendour of the gold accoutrements of the two Black African figures. No comparable masterpiece of balance has been achieved by the maker of the Waddesdon Bequest quartz cup, who feebly resorted to plagiarising a mid-sixteenth century design by Cornelis Floris - with disappointing consequences. All these weaknesses betray the hand of a faker, especially the known characteristics of Reinhold Vasters and his workshop in Aachen. This piece, therefore, remains a valuable document of his output before 1872.


  • Franz Schestag, ‘katalog der Kuntsammlung des Freiherrn Anselm von Rothschild in Wein’, zweiter theil, Vienna, 1872, no. 564, with illus.
  • Charles 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. 122, pl. XXIX
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 122
  • J. F. Hayward, ‘Virtuoso Goldsmiths and the Triumphs of Mannerism 1540-1620’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, 1976, pp. 381-2, pl. 464
  • H. Seling, ‘Die Kunst de Augsburger Goldschmiede 1529-1868’ 3 vols., Munich, 1980, p. 243, fig. 93
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.35, figs. 308-313
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.26-27.
  • 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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