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19th Century "Renaissance" works of art and jewellery: A Question of Supply and Demand
It is only in the last twenty years or so that jewellery and silver historians have begun to realise the sheer number of pieces made in the latter part of the 19th Century in the Renaissance style. The discovery, in the Victoria and Albert Museum library, of some 1,000 designs for jewellery and the mountings of hardstone by the goldsmith, Reinhold Vasters of Aachen, has revolutionised our thinking on the subject (1). Work by Charles Truman and Dr Yvonne Hackenbroch on Vasters and, more recently, by Rudolf Distelberger on the Parisian jeweller, Alfred André, have to some extent clarified the picture (2). However, the links between these two craftsmen, their workshops and the collector and dealer in Paris, Frédéric Spitzer, remain somewhat obscure. It has been known then for two decades that perhaps chief among the clients for Vasters' productions were the Rothschilds and, of that extended clan, it was the Parisian Rothschilds who bought most heavily. The current sale of part of that Rothschild collection, including several examples of work by both Vasters and André, provides an extraordinary opportunity to examine in detail the work of these exceptionally talented 19th Century goldsmiths.
Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909) was born near Aachen and entered his mark as a goldsmith in that city in 1853. He was very shortly thereafter appointed restorer at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury. His early work seems to have concentrated on church silver which he marked, very straight-forwardly, R. VASTERS in a rectangular punch (3). In addition there are two recorded Renaissance style jewels from this period which bear an RV conjoined mark struck on a small applied plaque on the reverse, which are almost certainly by him (4). By the late 1860s he seems to have given up making new church silver and turned to working mainly on unmarked secular pieces in the Gothic and Renaissance style. It is particularly interesting that, in 1865, the Cathedral authorities ordered an early 16th Century pax in the Treasury to be altered to a clasp. According to Stephen Beissel, writing in 1909, a dozen or so copies were made at that time one of which found its way into the collection of Frédéric Spitzer in Paris (5). The supposition must be that Vasters was responsible for making these clasps. The designs for the whole, or part, of at least twenty other pieces in the Spitzer collection are found among the Vasters' drawings (6).
From this period on, Vasters seems to have become increasingly wealthy and by 1880 was publicly exhibiting works of art from his personal collection. Indeed the 1902 Dusseldorf exhibition, 'Kunsthistorische Ausstellung', included no less than 500 pieces owned by Vasters. As Edmund Renard observed at the time of the exhibition 'Among the smaller private collections that of the Aachen goldsmith Reinhold Vasters offers a highly characteristic picture - throughout one notes the specialist and technician. Several decades of cooperation with the greatest genius among nineteenth-century collectors, Spitzer has had a distinct influence on the formation of the collection.' (7). Predictably the highlights of Vasters' collection included mounted Milanese rock crystal and enamelled jewels.
Frédéric Spitzer (1815-90) owned an antique business in Aachen from about 1850 till at least 1868 and it is during this period that he almost certainly came across the Cathedral goldsmith. In 1871 Spitzer gave the Cathedral a silver-gilt clasp which was part old and part brand new and in all probability was made-up by Vasters. In 1852 Spitzer purchased a large house in Paris on the rue de Villejust, which became known as the Musée Spitzer. Here he amassed a huge collection of Renaissance and Renaissance-style gold and silverwork and other works of art of every description. Sometimes the pieces were 'improved' as was the case with the six Aldobrandini tazze which he owned. It appears that he commissioned a goldsmith, presumably Vasters, to melt the original plain detachable fluted feet of the tazze and replace them with more elaborate examples which seemed, to contemporary taste at least, to be more truly Renaissance in spirit (8).
Preferring to be known as an amateur, Spitzer was clearly a brilliant dealer moving in the most elegant social circles in Paris. On one occasion he entertained his friends and presumably clients with a musical recital by Liszt. As the introduction to the Spitzer sale held in Paris between April 17 to June 16, 1893 noted 'pendant douze ans (1878-1890), l'hôtel de la rue de Villejust a été le pèlerinage de toute l'aristocratie européenne, aristocratie de naissance, de talent ou de fortune'.
Stephen Beissel writing in the year of Spitzer's death observed that Spitzer had 'as is well known, employed for almost fifty years a series of first rate artists in Paris, Cologne, Aachen etc., who made him old things'. While the identity of the Aachen artist has been known then for twenty years, it has recently been suggested that the Cologne supplier may be the maker and superb enameller, Gabriel Hermeling who worked from 1860 till 1904 (9). In Paris, the first rate artist seems to be, without doubt, the jeweller, Alfred André (1839-1919).
André established his first shop in 1859 and became known as a restorer of Mediaeval and Renaissance decorative art. In 1880 he converted a large four-story building on the left bank into a workshop for goldsmiths, hardstone carvers and ceramicists. His reputation as a leading restorer was widespread and culminated in him being employed to restore a Milanese rock crystal casket in the Escorial. For this he was awarded the Order of Charles III by the Spanish Royal family in 1885.
The survival of a large number of moulds for jewellery in the collection of the André firm in Paris leave little doubt that the workshop produced many Renaissance-style jewels (10). Jewellery and mounts, apparently cast from these moulds appear, not only in the Spitzer collection catalogue and the collection of the Parisian Rothschilds, but also in many of the world's leading museums, particularly those in the United States (11). It seems quite probable that Vasters may have concentrated on silver work such as the magnificent 2½ foot long Gothic-style silver-gilt mounted ivory horn formerly in the Carl von Rothschild collection in Frankfurt (12). Vasters also clearly provided designs for goldwork and jewels but the actual work for such pieces was in all probability carried out, in many cases, in the Paris workshop of Alfred André. However, there is some evidence among the annotations on the Vasters drawings that enamelling work was also carried out in Aachen and perhaps Cologne (13). Vasters apparently had a multi-story workshop in Aachen to rival André's (14).
Traditionally such Renaissance-style jewellery has tended to be dated to around 1880. However the discovery, during the preparation of this catalogue, of watercolours of two of the jewels (lots 50 and 56), and a pair of jewelled and enamelled vases (lot 67), which must date from prior to the artist's death in 1864, is of great interest. It is doubly fortunate that the mould for one of these jewels (lot 56), by André is extant (15).
It has been argued that the Rothschilds in Paris may well have been fully aware that much of the 'Renaissance' jewellery and works of art they bought were not Renaissance originals. It is true that it was accepted practice in the 19th Century to restore old objects to their former glory or, at least, the restorer's concept of their former glory. In the records of Lionel de Rothschild in England, there is mention of such work being carried out (16). Lionel de Rothschild is also known to have patronised the Maison André and the inventory drawn up on his death in 1879, makes frequent mention of 'Renaissance-style' jewels. However, it is of course more than possible that the word style did not, in the late 19th Century, have its modern connotation.
In the 1903 inventory of the contents of Alphonse de Rothschild's house at 2 rue de Saint-Florentin many of the Renaissance jewels in this sale are listed. While there is no mention of 'Renaissance-style' on this list and they are briefly described without a date, slightly later pencilled annotations, probably done prior to, or in 1905, date them as circa 1580 etc. In addition incomplete accounts ledgers, or 'Comptes Courants', from 1870-1905 survive. These list some of Alphonse's purchases over a thirty-five year period from André. As well as a considerable amount of restoration work and purchases at the Spitzer sale of 1893, there is mention of several jewels being from the 'époque Renaissance'. While the descriptions of the jewels are too brief to allow for positive identification it is likely that they refer to some of those in the present sale.
Legitimate straight-forward 19th Century works of art were of course made in Paris in a plethora of earlier styles but one would expect them to be hallmarked. Many of the jewels in the Rothschild collections and indeed all the jewels in the present sale are unmarked, which would seem odd if the pieces were commissioned by, and/or legitimately sold to the Rothschild family.
In any event it is a tribute to the skill of the makers that so many Renaissance-style jewels and works of art, whether made as deliberate fakes or to satisfy the desire for a princely Schatzkammer look, have been accepted as genuine throughout much of the 20th Century. Indeed their work was so sophisticated that it is only through the chance survival of the Spitzer catalogues, Vasters' drawings and André's models that it has become possible to identify with any degree of certainty their productions today.
1) The first object to appear at auction with the design correctly attributed to Vasters was a magnificent Renaissance-style jewelled and enamelled gold-mounted agate bowl and cover, sold by Christie's New York, 28 March 1979, lot 237 ($66,000). This piece is now in the Al-Tajir collection, London, and was included in the exhibition catalogue, The Glory of the Goldsmith, London, 1989, p. 20, no. 220.
2) C. Truman, 'Reinhold Vasters, The last of the Goldsmiths', Connoisseur, Vol. 199, March, 1979, pp. 154-61.
Y. Hackenbroch, 'Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith.', Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 20, 1985, pp. 163-268, from which much of the above information on Vasters and Spitzer is extracted.
R. Distelberger, et al., Western Decorative Arts, Part I Medieval, Renaissance and Historicizing Styles including Metalwork, Enamels, and Ceramics, Washington, 1993, pp. 282-304, from which the above information on André is extracted.
A. Kugel, R. Distelberger & M. Bimbenet-Privat, Joyaux Renaissance, Une Splendeur Retrouvée, Paris, 2000, Annexe.
3) M. Rosenberg, Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen, Frankfurt, 1922, Vol. III, p. 12, where Vasters' silver mark is illustrated.
4) See Truman, op. cit., p. 158 and fig. 11. The mark illustrated by Truman is on the reverse of each of the links of a necklace, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (696-1868). The other jewel with this mark is a fairly poor quality enamelled gold pendant. This could well date from circa 1853. It is now in a private North American Collection.
5) S. Beissel, Gefälschte Kunstwerke, Freiburg-im-Bresgau, 1909, p. 86.
6) C. Truman, op. cit, p. 158.
7) E. Renard, 'Die kunsthistorische Ausstellung', Düsseldorf, 1902, Rheinlande: Monatschrift für deutsche Kunst, 1902, pp. 41-2.
8) For the most current analysis of the Aldobrandini Tazze, written by David Wille, see Christie's London, 5 July 2000, Works of Art from the Wernher Collection, lots 18-19.
9) We are grateful to Marion Campbell of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for this suggestion. See W. Scheffler, Goldschmiede Rheinland-Westfalens, Berlin, 1973, pp. 674-6, no. 210-13 for details of his work.
10) Detailed illustrations of the moulds are to be found in A. Kugel, R. Distelberger and M. Bimbinet-Privat, loc. cit.
11) eg. in the collections of J. Pierpont Morgan, Benjamin Altman, Jack and Belle Linsky and Robert Lehman all now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, P.A.B. Widener in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.
12) Described and illustrated by Hackenbroch, op. cit, pp. 260-7. The 30 in. (76 cm.) long horn was subsequently sold by Christie's New York, 29 April 1986, lot 220 ($88,000).
13) C. Truman, op. cit., p. 158, where he mentions a German note on one of the Vasters' drawings for a mounted crystal cup that reads in translation 'This gold surface very thin but I think I can enamel this design into it'. As the cup survives and is clearly 19th Century, this surely proves that the drawings are not copies of existing objects but rather designs for new ones.
14) We are grateful to Norbert Jopeck of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, for the information on the size of the Vaster's workshop which still stands in Aachen.
15) We are grateful to the jewellery historian, Diana Scarisbrick, for drawing our attention to the watercolour of the jewel and allowing us to reproduce it. Similarly, we would like to thank Galerie Jacques Kugel for allowing us to reproduce the watercolour of the vases.
16) We are grateful to Michael Hall, curator at Exbury, for this information.
Christie's would like to thank a number of leading experts in the field of metalwork and antique jewellery for their help in the preparation of the catalogue. These include Claude Blair, Yvonne Hackenbroch, Diana Scarisbrick and Charles Truman.
We would also like to thank the André family and Alexis and Nicolas Kugel of Galerie Jacques Kugel, Paris, for generously allowing us to reproduce the portrait of Alfred André and the various André moulds for jewels.
Finally our thanks are due to Miriam Krautwurst for drawing our attention to several of the relevant designs among the 1,000 or so Vasters' drawings at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is currently preparing her PhD at the University of Bonn entitled Reinhold Vasters-ein niederrheinischer Goldschmied des 19. Jahrhunderts in der Tradition alter Meister. Sein Zeichnungskonvolut im Victoria & Albert Muzeum zu London.