Art Nouveau metalworkers reveled in vines, leaves, fruit and the human figure, bringing nature’s forms to the dinner table.
By Sallie Brady
Say “Art Nouveau,” and Hector Guimard’s wrought-iron Paris Métro arches, Tiffany & Co.’s leaded-glass peony lamps, and pastel-washed posters of maidens with long flowing hair all come to mind. Rarely does one think of silver. The fact is that this short artistic period, which ran from 1890 to World War I, was one of silver-making’s most exploratory, as artists all over Europe and America rejected mass-produced wares in favor of the creative, individual and handcrafted.
A number of factors in the latter half of the 19th century birthed the Art Nouveau movement: the looking backward of the Gothic Revival, led by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in France; the Arts & Crafts workshops of William Morris in England; and the fashion for anything and everything decorative from Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan. Siegfried Bing’s famous gallery, La Maison de l’Art Nouveau in Paris, which sold imported Japanese works of art, gave the movement its name. The railway and steamship age enabled more people to travel, and Art Nouveau’s trends crossed borders more quickly than ever, brewing an international stew that universally embraced sinuous organic lines, natural motifs and a rejection of traditional forms.
The medium of silver was well suited to Art Nouveau’s wispy vines that worked as water pitcher handles, delicate clusters of grapes or rose buds that lidded chocolate pots, and the sensual femmes-fleurs, inspired by England’s pre-Raphaelites and Belgium’s Symbolists, whose outstretched arms and arched backs upheld candlesticks and candy dishes. While the names of famous Art Nouveau makers such as René Lalique, Emile Gallé, Louis Majorelle, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh are well known, those of the era’s silver-makers—perhaps with the exception of Tiffany—are less so. However, there were key makers in France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Britain, Denmark and the United States who top the wish lists of today’s collectors of Art Nouveau silver. When comparing pieces from various countries—all largely made by hand—note how each country interpreted and executed this new international style. Many incorporated elements from their own ancient mythological traditions, as Liberty of London makers did with symbols from Celtic art. Ornamenting silver with semi-precious stones, glass, and etching was also popular.
The seminal moment of the Art Nouveau period was the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where 51 million people took in the glass, ceramics, textiles, furniture, posters, jewelry, metalwork and silversmithing of Art Nouveau craftsmen from across Europe and the United States. It was at this event that Gorham, the Providence, R.I.–based silver company, staged the global debut of its Martele line of hand-hammered and hand-chased sterling silver pieces. Because the Martele pieces were so labor-intensive, the output was limited. Phillip Youngberg of M.S. Rau in New Orleans says that Gorham went to the 1900 Expo hoping that Martele would attract the French market. While the firm won numerous awards, “it didn’t work. The French only wanted to buy French,” says Youngberg. M.S. Rau has a rare 1897 Martelé flatware set for 12 of 285 pieces, one of only two Martelé flatware sets that Gorham made. The asking price is $350,000.
Dealers report that more than a century on, collectors still tend to be nationalistic in their buying practices. Connie McNally has been selling silver for 35 years from her gallery, McNally & Company Antiques, in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. She recently acquired a portion of what she says must be one of the world’s largest private collections of Art Nouveau silver and is offering 67 pieces that were made in the United States, Europe, even Russia. “The Martelé sold first,” says McNally, who is also the editor emeritus of Silver Magazine. “Then the Tiffany.” The collection belonged to an Israeli-American who spent 40 years working with scouts in Europe to assemble it. McNally and Youngberg agree that American collectors tend to strongly favor American silver makers, “unless they’ve travelled extensively overseas,” says McNally.
Timothy Martin, of S.J. Shrubsole in New York, says that overall, more Europeans collect Art Nouveau silver than Americans, but he does occasionally sell Martelé pieces. The gallery is bringing an unusual 1905 Martelé sterling silver inkstand decorated with a woman’s ethereal face and an owl (a frequent northern-European mythological motif of Art Nouveau) to The International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show in New York (October 21–27).
The Tudor Rose Antiques gallery in New York says that they see mostly American and English Art Nouveau silver. “There are some good pieces around, but people tend to keep them because they are, really, just so pretty,” says Myra Donowitz of Tudor Rose. The gallery has a number of examples of the period’s fashion of blending glass with silver, such as an intaglio cut-crystal powder jar with a sterling silver lid of two-dimensional full-bloom roses and a cranberry glass perfume bottle with climbing vines made of sterling silver overlay.
Mark J. West, an British glass dealer who shows at a number of U.S. fairs—including the upcoming New York Ceramics Fair (January 22-27)—is another good source for graceful Art Nouveau silver-mounted claret jugs, whiskey decanters and bona fide pieces by Stuart for Liberty of London. London’s Silver Vaults is also a good source, not just for silvered glass but for top English silversmiths such as Charles Robert Ashbee.
American Art Nouveau master Tiffany & Co. is, of course, synonymous with the Art Nouveau period. Tiffany’s 1870s “Japonism” silver vases sport dragonflies, butterflies and other insects that were drawn from Japan’s decorative arts and also used for the firm’s tableware and flatware that crawl with sterling snails, peapods and vines. Both M.S. Rau and Primavera Gallery in New York stock pieces.
While most Art Nouveau silver was made for the top end of the market, there were two U.S. companies that focused primarily on jewelry but also made small decorative items for more of a mass audience: Kerr & Co. and Unger Bros. Both companies were based in Newark, N.J., and were known for silver brooches of dreamy maiden’s faces encompassed by cascades of swirling hair. In Germany the Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik, known as the W. M. F. also produced pieces for the mass market, typically made of silver-plate and pewter. Despite the fact that the pieces are not sterling, they were equally desirable. “The designs are so magnificent,” says McNally. “They command big prices, even though they are silver-plate.”
In the coming weeks, some fine examples of European Art Nouveau silver will be on-view at antiques fairs. This month, Koopman Rare Art will bring a spectacular Belgian Louis XV revival centerpiece of putti and conch shells riding waves of sterling silver by Wolfers Frères & Sons to the New York International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show. The Brussels-based Wolfers was one of the finest silver makers of this era. “They were an amazing firm,” says Lewis Smith of Koopman Rare Art in London. “Their quality is really better than some of the French.” Specialists agree that Belgian makers of this era have been overlooked—and undervalued—as attention typically goes to the French.
French silver houses Christofle and Boucheron produced small collections of Art Nouveau silver in addition to their traditional lines, and some noted French jewelry designers, such as Lalique and Lucien Gaillard also made tabletop silver objets. A real French tour de force will also be on-view at the International Fair, this time on The Silver Fund booth, which will be showing a large ceramic vase in the colors of the sea and dripping with silvered-bronze fish, squid, and seaweed. The piece, which looks like it may have washed up from Atlantis, was made in 1900 and signed E. Sanglan.
Also at the International Show is a reminder of the stylistic range of Art Nouveau silver. Copenhagen’s Georg Jensen is so closely associated with 20th-century modern silver-making that it’s often forgotten that his turn-of-the-century works were a restrained Art Nouveau. Two examples till be exhibited by Drucker Antiques, who will have a Jensen coffee and tea service in the blossom pattern and a rare Georg Jensen lamp.
Another worker along the clean lines of the Art Nouveau spectrum was Josef Hoffmann, the founder of Vienna’s Wiener Werkstätte. Hoffmann’s geometric baskets, bowls, even chandeliers made during this era are so modern looking they could be in the MoMA gift shop. Bel Etage in Vienna, a Wiener Werkstätte specialist, will be showing Hoffman’s silver in its annual autumn exhibition (through December 22) and will also be bringing pieces to Maastricht (March 15–24). Wolfgang Bauer, the gallery’s proprietor, says silver by Hoffmann, particularly jewelry, is rare: “These pieces were not mass-produced. The coffee and tea sets, the boxes, and cutlery services, they were all commissioned.” Silver by Hoffmann and his colleague, Koloman Moser, has become very collectable. “Mr. Lauder’s opening of the Neue Galerie in New York has really opened up an international market,” says Bauer.
Indeed, there’s a little something for everyone in silver that was made in the run-up to World War I. Even Elizabeth Taylor collected. Christie’s sold her Art Nouveau silver mantel clock, figural vases, and picture frames in its December 2011 sale. Unsurprisingly—maybe that frame once held a snapshot of Richard Burton—they went for multiples of their estimates.