Incense-spoon; silver; parcel-gilt; glass stem pierced throughout length, with twisted wire passing through hole; shovel-shaped bowl with, on upper part, figures of St Jerome and St Catherine, angel playing lute between; Virgin and Child on end of handle, two angels and Gothic foliage at her feet; clasped hands on back of bowl; inscribed.
This object was previously owned by B Kalf Oz, Pichot van Slijpe, van Slijpe, Godard van Slijpe and Jan Willem van Slijpe, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.
How big is it?
4.2 cm wide, 24.2 cm high, 2.2 cm deep, and it weighs 60g
Detailed Curatorial Notes
Text from Tait 1991a:-
Origin: Uncertain; no silver punch-marks; probably Lower Rhenish or Belgian, second half of 19th century.
Marks: No punch-marks have been struck on this piece.
Provenance: In Read 1902 it was stated to have come “from the Church of St Servatius at Maestricht; it was carried off by a canon on the arrival of the French in 1793, and came into the possession of the Pichot family, who sold it”. In a letter to Read dated 6 December 1902, Baron Pieter de Huers admitted that he was responsible for this story of the spoon's supposed history. In its place, Baron de Huers provided the following information:
(i) It had been “bought by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild from B. Kalf Oz, of Amsterdam”, who had purchased it “from the families of Pichot van Slijpe and Pichot of Maestricht”.
(ii) It had been inherited by the Pichot family of Maestricht “from Miss van Slijpe (died 1880), of Severen House, near Maestricht”. She had inherited it from a member of the family, Godard van Slijpe.
(iii) Godard van Slijpe was stated to have “received it in 1816 from a cousin, Revd Jan Willem van Slijpe, of Zwolle”.
(iv) It was the latter who is said to have recorded in writing in 1816 “that the spoon had been from time immemorial in the possession of the family, and that it came from the Abbey at Slijpe in het Vrije van Brugge [a district in Flanders] in the vicinity of Nieuport”.
However, upon further investigation it was discovered firstly that there had never been an abbey at Slijpe, and secondly that there had been a Commandery of Malta there. Consequently in Dalton 1927 the earlier version of the provenance of this spoon linking it with the church of St Servatius in Maestricht was abandoned (without comment) and the new version was published in the following cautious terms: “Perhaps from the Commandery of Malta at Slijpe, near Nieuport”.
For the reasons given under Commentary this second version of the spoon's history seems no more reliable than the first. Both versions are here discounted as valueless fabrications, or at best uncorroborated family traditions.
Recent research conducted by Dr A. M. Koldeweij of the University of Utrecht not only on the ancient church treasury of St Servatius in Maestricht (or, according to the modern form, Maastricht), but also on the former possessions of the Church of Our Lady at Maestricht and of the abbeys and ecclesiastical houses at 's-Hertogenbosch, lends support to the view that neither this spoon nor any spoon of a similar description was ever owned by any of these ecclesiastical foundations.
Commentary: In Read 1902 and Dalton 1927 the spoon was said to be “Flemish, about 1480” and the stem of the spoon was described as being made “of rock crystal pierced throughout its length, and through the hole passes a twisted wire”. Because the necessary expert drilling of a thin, cylindrical rod of rock-crystal (L. 13.2 cm) in the late fifteenth century seemed highly improbable, this spoon was recently re-examined; it was found to be made of glass. A hollow tube of the purity of this example and made of this type of glass was not available anywhere in Europe in the late fifteenth century, and so the stem of this spoon does not date from the late medieval period.
If the claims for this spoon's late medieval provenance have now been discredited and its so-called 'rock crystal' stem has been shown to be modern glass, the only remaining questions are the age and origin of the silver finial and upper mount and the shovel-shaped bowl and lower mount. From both the technical and stylistic points of view they appear to have originated in the same workshop. The cylindrical mounts at either end of the glass tube are equally poor in execution, with little decoration except for the crude band of cresting in the Gothic manner. The figures lack definition and are, without exception, feebly modelled; the details of the two angels, back to back, supporting the Virgin and Child group are as indistinct as those of the angel luting between St Jerome and St Catherine, whilst the lion is almost comically rendered with a pointed tuft of hair rising between its protruding ears. The coarse thistle foliage (complete with a thistle bloom) is lifelessly trailed around the upper end of the bowl without any convincingly late Gothic rhythm or pattern. The engraving on the reverse of the bowl is, perhaps, the most competently executed aspect of the decoration, but the hands themselves are devoid of character and the drapery of the sleeves is insensitively monotonous. There is, therefore, a marked absence of quality in the execution of every aspect of the silver on this spoon - a fact that is particularly disturbing on an object that purports to be an objet-de-luxe of the late medieval period. A genuine late fifteenth-century rock-crystal spoon of this kind would have been a very special commission from the wealthy patron whose initials were to decorate the bowl, and, undoubtedly a far higher standard would have been normal in the Flemish or German workshops at that time.
On the other hand very many silver items, especially ecclesiastical objects, were increasingly being made in the late Gothic style by skilled craftsmen during the middle and second half of the nineteenth century, working in the Rhineland and along the borders of the Low Countries at centres like Aachen, Frankfurt, Koblenz, Trier and Cologne (see Norbert Jopek in ‘Schatzkunst Trier’, exh. cat., Trier, 1984, pp. 250-84, nos 214-74, with illus.). Indeed, in Aachen the workshop of Reinhold Vasters (born 1827, died 1909) is now known to have been producing not only 'honest' neo-Gothic chalices, croziers, crosses, monstrances and so on for church patrons - often marked 'R. Vasters, Aachen' - but also many deliberate fakes, particularly using a combination of rock-crystal and precious metals. Because the market for secular Renaissance objects was larger and more lucrative, most of Vasters' fakes are in the Renaissance style (Hugh Tait, Reinhold Vasters and his ‘Renaissance’ Fakes, in ‘Fake? The Art of Deception’, ed. Mark Jones, exh. cat., British Museum, London, 1990, pp. 200-4, nos 211-13); only a few in the Gothic manner have yet been detected. However, Vasters was not the only craftsman involved in the production of these fakes and, in the absence of a design specifically relating to this spoon among the 1,079 Vasters workshop drawings preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see Charles Truman, Reinhold Vasters – the last of the goldsmiths?, ‘The Connoisseur’, vol. 200, March, 1979, pp. 154ff., and Y. Hackenbroch, Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith, ‘The Metropolitan Museum Journal’, vol. 19/20, New York, 1986, pp. 163ff.), it must remain an open question whether this spoon is a fake from Reinhold Vasters' workshop or from one of his contemporaries (see Norbert Jopek, Notizen zu Vasters, ‘Festschrift für Peter Bloch’, Mainz, 1990, pp. 373-81, figs 1-11).
Because so many of Vasters' fakes were in the collection of Frédéric Spitzer (1815-90), an Austrian who, after settling in Paris in 1852, had close links with Aachen and became a notorious purveyor of fakes, it is highly significant that he also possessed an exceptional, and supposedly late Gothic, silver-gilt spoon, with a bowl of similar shovel-shape form, and of equally dubious authenticity (see ‘La Collection Spitzer’, Paris, 1891, Vol. III, p. 219, no. 16, pl. IV; also the Paris sale catalogue of the Spitzer Collection (P. Chevallier), 17 April-16 June 1893, lot 2330). This collection was dispersed by auction in Paris in 1893 and the spoon, also described as 'cuiller à encens', entered the extensive collection of Sir George Salting, only to be bequeathed by him in 1910 to the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. M. 563-1910). A recent study of it in good daylight confirmed not only that the gilding is modern - after the two Paris Warranty marks of the nineteenth century had been struck - but also the general adverse opinion previously formed of its workmanship. There is no doubt that the craftsmanship is uncharacteristic of the late medieval period, and that the pointillé decoration covering the shovel-shaped bowl is hesitantly executed and feeble in design. Furthermore, the use of the two thin, diagonal, openwork strips linking the 'frame' of the bowl to the handle is as unconvincing as the inclusion of the two openwork letters KM (for 'Katharina Martyr', as it is printed in the ‘Spitzer Collection Catalogue’ of 1891, p. 219). These two disproportionately large initials flank a miniature silver figure of St Catherine of Alexandria holding the executioner's sword and broken wheel. This figure is of poor quality - rather in the manner of the figures of the Virgin and Child and the two saints on the Waddesdon Bequest spoon - but the rear half has been cut away and only the front part of the figure has been crudely soldered into position. Finally, Spitzer's incense spoon has a very inferior, blue enamelled, budlike finial with a small hole at the apex and, beneath, an openwork calyx formed of four silver-gilt fleurs-de-lis of a strangely stiff design.
Perhaps the Spitzer spoon offers one clue of some potential value, because on the reverse of the bowl (near the straight edge) it purports to carry two genuine punch-marks - a B and a very heavily struck but unintelligible mark (resembling a bird's wing?) - and these spurious marks may yet help to determine the location of the modern workshop that was responsible for the manufacture of this pastiche. Although Spitzer himself did not attempt to identify the marks, his attribution of the spoon to a French workshop was published without any cautionary reservations whatsoever (see ‘La Collection Spitzer’, III, 1891, p. 219). However, this proposed French origin had ceased to find support by 1910, when the spoon was described as 'German' in the Department of Metalwork's Register at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and, more recently, it received no mention whatsoever in the Museum's official Catalogue (see R. Lightbown, ‘French Silver: Victoria and Albert Museum Catalogue’, London, 1978). Subsequently it has been labelled “Flemish, 15th century”, but now it is withdrawn because of the present doubts surrounding its authenticity.
The Waddesdon Bequest type of spoon (with its non-detachable shovel-shaped bowl) might be supposed to have existed as early as the fifteenth century in Italy if the origin of the privately owned example in Venice has been correctly identified (F. Rossi, ‘Italian Jewelled Arts’, London, 1957, pl. XXVIa). This spoon is an unmarked and undocumented spoon of ecclesiastical character, having a half-length angel of silver-gilt linking the shovel-shaped bowl to the long handle (with its hardstone 'column' inset in the upper section); nevertheless, Rossi has confidently described it as a “Eucharist spoon (Florentine), fifteenth century”. Without an opportunity to study the piece, no conclusion can be reached about its authenticity, but it seems to share the same doubtful origins as the half-length angel 'Eucharist' spoon preserved in the Musée Départemental des Antiquités, Rouen. Both spoons have much in common, including the silver-gilt half-length angel linking the bowl and the long handle. Furthermore, although the rock-crystal spoon in Rouen does not have the shovel-shaped bowl that distinguishes the specimen in Venice, both bowls have the same components: a polished hardstone (forming the centre) and an enveloping silver-gilt 'frame'; furthermore, both handles incorporate sections of polished hardstone. Significantly, 'la cuillère eucharistique' in Rouen (as it is described in the Museum's records) has no known history before it was published in the Rouen Museum's first ‘Catalogue’ of 1836 (p. 33), where it is listed among the antiquities given by outstanding local personalities of the day. The form of the finial, with its naturalistic design, is a more accomplished version of the enamelled, budlike finial of the Spitzer Collection 'cuiller à encens'; however, it still terminates in a small pearl, whereas the Spitzer example now has an empty little round hole at the apex; and instead of the openwork calyx of four silver-gilt fleurs-de-lis, which looks so curious on the Spitzer spoon, there is the standard late Gothic ragged foliage in silver-gilt - just as on the Waddesdon Bequest 'incense' spoon. However, the Rouen spoon's 'herringbone' leaves (around the bowl and at either end of the rock-crystal handle) are both crisp and out of character for the fifteenth century - even the castellated masonry of the silver-gilt mounts on the handle is unexpected.
Indeed, the handle, which is too massive for the small caryatid half-length angel that links it to the bowl, makes the spoon seem unbalanced - and particularly vulnerable to damage at the angel's head and neck. However, the spoon is excellently preserved and presumably had been made as a pastiche in the 1820s or early 1830s, when the interest in the Gothic period was becoming very fashionable among French collectors.
The unusual shovel-shaped form of the bowl of the Spitzer 'incense' spoon, the Eucharist spoon in Venice and the Waddesdon Bequest 'incense' spoon is derived from a late medieval type that is now rare but is represented, on a particularly grand scale, by an armorial pair (L. 28 cm) in the famous and well-documented civic plate of the wealthy mercantile city of Lüneburg (see H. Appuhn, ‘Das Lüneburger Ratssilber’, Lüneburg, 1956, cat. no. 6; also J. M. Fritz, ‘Goldschmiedekunst der Gothik in Mitteleuropa’, Munich 1982, p. 279, fig. 669). Some forty of the 255 inventoried pieces of plate belonging to the city of Lüneburg in 1598 have survived and since 1874 have been preserved in Berlin. Each of the armorial pair (Kunstgewerbemuseum, inv. no. 1874, 404-5) has been made as a combined fork and spoon and, as on the small folding example in the Waddesdon Bequest (WB.214), the silver bowl on each has been made detachable. On the back of each bowl of the Lüneburg pair are two silver tubular 'sleeves' that are designed to slide over the two long prongs of the fork. When the bowl is thus in place, the visual effect is of a long, thin stem issuing from the apex of the shovel-shaped bowl and terminating in a small silver figure of a saint surmounting a miniature architectural finial. This parcel-gilt pair, made in 1480 by Albert Sommer of Lüneburg, has always remained together and has survived unaltered as part of the city's civic plate.
For the faker, a knowledge of such pieces and of Flemish and German paintings of the fifteenth century - increasingly popular with late nineteenth-century collectors - would have fuelled his fanciful ideas. The fashion for depicting rock-crystal as realistically as possible had become, for some of these painters, an almost obsessive challenge, though their designs and shapes were not always realistic. Therefore to re-create such objects with rock-crystal would frequently have presented great difficulties for the faker, and consequently may have led him to use glass in its place. Thus the faker Salomon Weininger (1822-79), who flourished in Vienna until his trial in 1876, used glass when he made his copy of the eleventh-century Fatimid crescent-shaped rock-crystal set in the famous Gothic reliquary monstrance of the ‘Geistliche Schatzkammer’ of the Hofburg, Vienna; Weininger's fraudulent substitute is still in Vienna, whereas the original is preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg, which was able to purchase it in 1887. Just as it is not known which glassmaker in Vienna assisted Salomon Weininger in perpetrating that deception, neither is the identity of the glassmaker who supplied the faker of the Waddesdon Bequest spoon yet established. At that time glassmaking was a flourishing industry in Liège, which is only a short distance from Aachen, and it is therefore an attractive theory to link the name of the Aachen forger Reinhold Vasters with this fraudulent deception that had been so skilfully provided with a spurious history linking it with the ancient Church of St Servatius in Maestricht, an historic town equally close to Aachen.
- 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. 209
- O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 209
- Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. II. The Curiosities', British Museum, London, 1991, no.46, figs. 383-386.
- 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
- Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
- Tait 1991a: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; III The 'Curiosities', London, BMP, 1991
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