|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published 1951 )
Since time immemorial, precious metals, and particularly silver, have been used to make ornaments and the fine articles of daily life. The very knowledge that he is working with a costly material inspires the craftsman, and the malleability of the metal permits him to vary form and decoration. Beautiful pieces of silver have always been in demand. In times past, when money values fluctuated considerably, fortunes were often invested in silver. In the well-to-do peasant's cupboard there was usually a shelf of solid silver spoons, and the wealthy burgher or nobleman had weighty silver services locked away in coffers and cabinets. In periods of strife, people buried silver, and many a rightful owner did not live to unearth his fortune, which remained for centuries until plow or spade happened to strike the treasure. A famous example is the Lohe fortune, which lay hidden in the double floor of a Stockholm house for almost two centuries, and came to light only when the house was razed in 1937
The role of silver as heirloom and investment involved a strict system of guarantees as to purity. In countries outside Sweden, hallmarks were issued as early as the thirteenth century. In Sweden it was decreed in 1485 that gold- and silversmiths should "put their mark on whatsoever they made." Duke Karl IX in 1596 proclaimed that along with their marks, smiths should imprint the insignia of their city arms on each piece. In 1689 they were also ordered to include year mark or date letter. This decree to mark silver properly was intended solely as guarantee of purity of metal, but for posterity it has had another benefit. Today collectors and connoisseurs are not so concerned as to whether an old piece of silver is of proper weight and standard, but they are interested in what marks * reveal as to where a piece was made, when, and by whom.
Thanks to hallmarked pieces, dating from the late sixteenth century, gold- and silversmithing occupies a unique position in the history of Swedish artcrafts. In fact, no other articles offer such possibilities for exact identification as those of gold and silver. Nor is it necessary to be an expert to understand them. Any layman with a book of marks and a little patience can interpret their meaning.
Identifying medieval Swedish silver has not been so simple, for it was not consistently marked. In other countries, the marking of silver was likewise carried out sporadically, so we cannot conclude that a piece is of Swedish origin merely because it is unmarked.
Swedish museums and old churches contain medieval relics of silver, many of which were doubtless made by native craftsmen. But it is futile to try to separate chaff from wheat. Some antiquarians believe that the simple and clumsy articles were made in Sweden, and that those more skillfully fashioned were imported. There is some basis for this idea. In many European countries the art of forging silver and gold was already far advanced in the Middle Ages and there were wealthy patrons to inspire the craftsmen. It is unfair, however, to condemn Swedish craftsmen without positive proof. Very possibly there were a few highly skilled smiths during this time, also in Sweden.
It is the opinion of Carl R. af Ugglas, one of Sweden's foremost historians of the Middle Ages, that many of the silver pieces from this period which are in the National Historical Museum in Stockholm are of Swedish origin. Some belong to that extraordinary treasure unearthed on the Dune estate in the parish of Dalhem on the island of Gotland. Buried about the time of King Valdemar's invasion in 1361, this find contains pieces of foreign as well as local origin. Among the latter treasures, af Ugglas places a silver bowl, about four inches high and made around 1300. It is wide and shallow and rests on a high standard. Underneath, it is engraved with leaf garlands and bird-motif medallions, reminiscent of woven patterns on Persian silks. Such material was probably imported by the wealthy traders of Gotland [then the stronghold of the Hanseatic League-Translator], and very likely patterns were copied from the silk by a Gotland silversmith.
Among Dune treasures is a belt buckle made about 1250. It is cast in high relief, gilded, and adorned with inch-high figures, which are exquisitely fashioned in a style very like that of a Gotland sculptor known only as the "Tingstade master." The casting has certainly been done a cire perd2t, the model being made of fine wax baked in the molding sand with funnels. When heated, the excess wax melted and ran out, leaving the model cast in the mold. With this method a new wax model was necessary for every casting.
Medieval silver spoons have been preserved in relatively large quantities, but it is difficult to fix origins and dates. The spoon here pictured dates from the early fourteenth century. Swedish origin is established by the inscription in large Gothic letters on the handle: "herr Mathias owns me." The rounded bowl and rather long handle are typical of the early Middle Ages. Later, in the sixteenth century, the bowl often had a turned-in point. The handle was usually short, ending in an ornate knob, sometimes formed of two cherub heads in relief.