Circumcision knife

WB.204     about 1850–93 • Enamelled gold, agate and steel • circumcision-knife

Demand for Judaica (objects associated with Jewish faith and culture) stimulated faking in the 19th century. This knife has been attributed to the workshop of the notorious faker Reinhold Vasters, who ran a network of workshops supplying the art market.

Curator's Description

Knife for circumcision with octagonal handle of gray agate, mounted with two bands and a pommel of gold, enamelled white and black with flowers in translucent engamel. Pearl at butt.

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

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1991a

Origin: Uncertain; previously attributed to a 'Dutch workshop, early 17th century', but more probably made in the mid-19th century, perhaps in Paris or in Aachen (workshop of Reinhold Vasters, the faker).

Description: Circumcision knife with a short steel blade which is straight with a rounded end and has no punch-marks. The tongue, which appears to be circular in form and located in the middle of the flat edge, disappears into the centre of the handle; although rigidly fixed, however, the handle does not fit closely against the flat upper edge of the steel blade but leaves an unexpected gap. The handle is made of grey agate, cut and polished with four broad faces alternating with four narrow faces, is square in section with chamfered corners but has hitherto been described as octagonal. The agate has been gently tapered so that the handle is narrowest at the base where it joins the blade. The agate is set in three enamelled gold mounts: firstly, the wide band at the base; secondly, the narrower band in the centre; and thirdly, the pommel-like mount that caps the top of the handle and is surmounted by a pearl vertically pierced and mounted in gold. The design of the enamelled decoration is essentially the same on all three mounts, though minor alterations have been introduced. The background is consistently white enamel with the narrow border motifs painted in black enamel, while the zones of floral ornament are executed in coloured translucent enamels directly on the gold, using the technique of basse-taille enamelling. The narrow mount in the middle of the handle has a raised central band decorated with floral scrolls in this technique, closely bordered (above and below) by the black painted enamel motifs on narrow strips that are stepped down from the middle zone. This arrangement is repeated on the mount at the base of the handle but with a difference: the narrow border strips have been separated from the raised middle floral band by two plain gold zones. The lower zone is recessed and the upper, which is narrower, is raised almost like a moulding. The pommel-like mount has only one narrow border of black painted enamel, above which is the floral band, but as the mount then curves inwards to form the cap there is a second floral band, within which there is a slightly raised octagonal area of white enamel with a large single flower. The translucent enamelled flower has four large rounded petals alternating with four small pointed leaves, each bordered by two black enamelled 'tendrils'. From the centre of this large single flower rises the vertically mounted pearl.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: In Read 1902 the piece was described as having a Dutch origin in the seventeenth century, and this was repeated in Dalton 1927 but with the date amended to read “early 17th century”. However, the present attribution of this knife to the workshop of a faker, probably working either in Paris or in Aachen during the second half of the nineteenth century, is based on a detailed reappraisal of the enamelled gold mounts and the generally unconvincing construction and design of the knife as an entity.

This knife should be compared with the irrefutably spurious large pendant watch in the Waddesdon Bequest (see WB.189; Hugh Tait, ‘Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, I: The Jewels’, London, 1986, no. 50, pp. 247-56, col. pls XXXA, B, C, D, XXXIA and figs 214-30). This watch, with its very similar white and translucent enamelled gold mounts and its massive but false émeraude soudé’ (soldered emerald) made by the doublet method of imitating gemstones, provides the most reliable evidence for the existence of a workshop engaged in faking this type of luxury object in the style of the early seventeenth-century goldsmiths. On the gold mounts of the watch the translucent enamelled decoration with its background of white enamel exhibits the same disturbing characteristics as on this knife-handle, but the design of the former's bird-inhabited foliate and floral scroll is far more ambitious - and, indeed, more accomplished.

Consequently, it is necessary to compare the knife-handle mounts with a similar, but proven, work of Reinhold Vasters - the enamelled gold mounts incorporating a recumbent dog on a jasper standing-cup in the Altman Bequest of 1913 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1913, 14.40.657; see Y. Hackenbroch, Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith, ‘The Metropolitan Museum Journal’, vol. 19/20, New York, 1986, p. 235, figs 152-4, where the Vasters working drawing (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. no. E. 3445-1919) for a part of this enamelled mount flanking the recumbent dog is reproduced). The enamelled gold mounts on the foot, the stem and the shell-shaped bowl of this jasper standing-cup are even closer to the agate knife-handle mounts than those on the faked 'emerald' pendant watch. Fortunately, a second related Vasters drawing has survived in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. E. 2626-1919; see Hackenbroch 1986, p. 235, fig. 156), which depicts the very same recumbent dog being used to decorate the enamelled gold mount above the obviously spurious rock-crystal shell-shaped bowl (engraved with pseudo-Renaissance motifs) that forms the upper part of a standing-cup similar to the jasper one in the Altman Bequest. The latter, which had formerly belonged to the notorious collector/dealer Frederic Spitzer, seems to be entirely the product of Reinhold Vasters' workshop in Aachen - including the polished hardstone foot, stem and bowl (with its unusually elongated shell form, yet lacking the carved and curling features of the narrow end); nevertheless these three parts have recently been attributed, without convincing evidence, to Daniel Mayer of Augsburg, c. 1670 (Hackenbroch 1986, p. 235, figs 157-8). The collector's pursuit of rare items of Judaica during the second half of the nineteenth century must have fuelled the energies of fakers and dealers like Vasters and Spitzer, and consequently similar, though less expensively made, items were being exhibited in many parts of Europe and occasionally published - as, for example, in Breslau in the 1920s (see ‘The Catalogue of the Schlesisches Museum für Kunstgewerbe und Altertümer’, Breslau, 1929, cat. no. 425; see also ‘Monumental Judaica’, Cologne, 1964, pl. 36; the ‘Encyclopaedia Judaica’ and R. D. Barnett (ed.), ‘Catalogue of the Jewish Museum’, London, 1974). For a related discussion of the problem concerning the origin of many of the more elaborate Jewish marriage-rings, which were formerly thought to be of sixteenth-century date but are now recognised to be more modern, see two exceptionally fine examples in the Waddesdon Bequest (Tait 1986, nos 51-2, pp. 257-64, col. pl. XXIXA, figs 231-9). However, no doubts surrounded the amber-handled knife for circumcision that had been preserved in the Jewish Museum, Berlin; it was unreservedly published as “Königsberg, um 1600” by the distinguished authority Alfred Rohde (in ‘Bernstein, ein Deutscher Werkstoff’, Berlin, 1937, no. 55, pl. 17). Judging by this 1937 illustration, the amber version was similarly proportioned but, in addition, the amber bore a lengthy incised inscription in Hebrew and the openwork design of the mounts at either end of the amber was in a very different style and technique from that on the agate knife in the Waddesdon Bequest. Without fresh evidence, the former attribution of the latter to a Dutch workshop in the early seventeenth century seems no longer tenable and has, therefore, been abandoned.


  • 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. 204
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 204
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 3, The "Curiosities"', British Museum, London, no.23, figs.249-250
  • Image: Group photograph depicts British Museum registration numbers from left to right: WB.204, WB.205, WB.211, WB.212, WB.213.
  • 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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