ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver


article # 221
by Maurice Meslans
(click on photos to enlarge image)


For over 40 years I have enjoyed learning about French 18th century silver. It was always a bit exciting when I found a control mark that I hadn't seen before and had to look up. I also have always been interested in finding and trying to explain inconsistent marks, and even more interested in finding fake marks.

About a year ago I saw a piece of French silver in an online auction catalogue. As is almost the norm for auction houses, they didn't supply enough information or pictures, and didn't respond to an inquiry. As nearly as I could determine, at the time, the piece had just two marks, a maker's mark and a boar's head mark with a number 1 in an oval cartouche (not shown here). I knew about Robert Massart's excellent article LE POINÇON DE RECENSE EN FRANCE (, in which he shows a little known boar's head mark said to be 1795. But there was a problem, he shows a right facing head. The mark I saw was left facing. At first I thought somehow someone had turned the photo of the mark around, a mirror image, but comparing the marks there is no question they are very different. I marked it down as an unexplained problem, but kept a photo for later research.

Right and left facing boar's head marks
Right and left facing boar's head marks

Recently a friend purchased a cruet stand with a very similar mark. Cruet sets have an interesting characteristic, lots of pieces, so lots of marks. He sent me some very well done photographs of all the marks. The maker's mark seems absolutely correct, that of Jean-Joseph BOURDIER. The other Paris marks are also correct, although the 1st Coq mark has a cartouche or frame that shows some deterioration. It should be remembered that the tools made to make these marks were made in some quantity, and wore out, and were replaced, and often varied a bit. The boar's head mark was very similar to the one I had seen before, but significantly different, although it too has an irregularly shaped oval cartouche, and of course very different from the one shown in Massart's article.

Marks on cruet set
Marks on cruet set

When I first started to write this article I took as a given that the marks shown by Robert Massart were from a law of 1795. However I now have my doubts. Of course there may be some general confusion. On another page on this site, the right facing boar's head is listed as a 1797 first standard mark, ( I then did a survey on line and found some people think the Boar's head mark is somewhat like the Greek woman's head, and that it is an Association of Goldsmiths mark. Some refer to it as a "poinçon d'essai". This is a term coined in Dictionnaire des Poinçons de Fabricants d'Ouvrages d'Or et d'Argent de Paris et de la Seine 1798-1838, probably by one of the authors Catherine Arminjon. It is not a common French term. It is rather self explanatory, but also perhaps a bit confusing. I searched the internet to find other examples, there are not very many, most are using the term because of what was written by Arminjon et al. But searching the term, I ran across this on an online forum.

which is going to save me a lot of typing and translating. I suggest the reader look at it.

I believe some interesting references are left out of the parts of the subject cited.
Arminjon et al. wrote:
La présence de poinçons rencontrés sous L'Empire et la Restauration a côté du poinçon de fabricant, s'ajoutant à partir de 1798 aux 3 poinçons officiel (fabricant, titre, et Garantie) pose un certain nombre de problèmes. ils accompagnent le poinçon de fabricant et les poinçons officiels et se présentent sous les formes suivantes à Paris: pour l'argent, soit une "tête de femme Grecque" ; avec un P ou un 1, ce dernier étant peu plus tardif, soit une "tête de sanglier" avec un 1 à droite ou à gauche; il se présente aussi parfois avec une "tête de cheval" accompagné d'un 2,...

The presence of marks encountered under The Empire and Restoration alongside the fabricant's mark, in addition to the 3 official 1798 marks (fabricant, title, and guarantee) poses a number of problems. They accompany the fabricant's mark and the official marks and are presented in the following forms in Paris: on silver, either a "Greek woman's head" with a P or a 1, the latter being a little later, or a "boar's head" with a 1 to the right or to left; He also sometimes presents himself with a "horse's head" accompanied by a 2;...

I think my translation is accurate enough, but clearly wrong in one sense. I don't know anyone who has found a boar's head mark with a 1 to the right or the left. In fact of the five or six boar's head marks I have seen they all have a number 1 above the head. I think the original text should have been stated differently and the translation should read "a boar's head mark pointing to the left or right with a 1".
This would mean that to Arminjon that the left facing boar's head mark is no less correct than the right facing mark, and that both were used in a similar capacity as the Greek woman's head. Notice she also talks of the horse head mark but doesn't mention where the 2 was located. What exactly was the capacity in which these marks were used? I wish the original text had been a bit more explicit and used photos.
I found it interesting that the author writes of Provincial marks being of the same "nature", but had an initial, in three cases, corresponding to that of the different assayers in the offices of Lille, Douai, and Toulouse. A picture would have been worth a thousand words.

I, like Arminjon, tried searching for the pre-1797 laws on the subject. She no doubt did a far more exhaustive job at the archives of the mint, I just checked those issues of the "Bulletin des Lois", available on line. All I could find was the law about 1795 declaring silversmiths had to register their marks, and strike them on a placque. This was also mentioned in her book.

I agree with the conclusion that everyone seems to hold, that lozenge marks were not used before 1797, and therefore the various "poinçons d'essai" are all post 1797. Quite honestly, I never understood why the horse head mark would be .843 fine as it made little sense. To get it under the old system it would be 10 derniers (.8333) plus 3 grains (.0104) which would equal .843, depending on how many decimal points would be used. It is a standard I have never found in France, and wouldn't match the .950 quality of the first standard which was the standard required by the 1797 law. I now wonder if it was a typo; the only references I could find were obviously using Massart's article.

boar's head and horse's head marks
Le 15 Vendémiaire an V (6 octobre 1795) le Conseil des Cinq-Cents décida d'exprimer les titres en millièmes.
Deux poinçons étaient crées: une tête de sanglier pour le titre de 950 millièmes et une tête de cheval pour le titre de 843 millièmes
(from Massart's article)

I would stress again some of the parts of the 1797 law. There is a penalty of 10 years and forfeiture for use of false marks. One part calls for the destruction of previous "Titre" stamps when the new ones became available. Also the tolerance allowed under the new law was slightly less than under the old law, and that while the old system of denier and grains were used to describe the new decimal standard the new standards were .950 and .800 meaning they were based on the decimal or metric system.

Now we are trying to make a logical conclusion. All three silver "poinçons d'essai" were used in a semi-official capacity probably by official assayers, but they did not carry any official weight. The variations included left and right facing boar's head marks. All three marks were recognized by those officials who applied "Titre and guarantee marks", but not considered false marks, or official marks. It makes sense that they were often used on assembled pieces, to make sure they would pass the official testing. I think it also may have been useful in having a very decorated piece assayed before it was completed, as it would save a loss of labor, etc, if it failed the final test. If any of the three marks or any of the found versions were fakes it would set up some very odd situations. Taking for example the cruet set: a known Paris silversmith would have to put a fake mark put on his cruet set then, some time later, the same silversmith would have to take the cruet set in and have numerous legitimate Paris marks put on it. So the officials stamping the legitimate marks would have had to ignore the presence of the fake mark. While I don't know what marks were on the wine taster they describe it as having "marks of Paris" and there does now seem to be at least one other mark on it, so the same problem would exist in that case, as the maker's mark at least is identifiable. It seems far more likely the marks are official or semi-official than that they are fakes, especially considering the penalty for faking. My friend also posted the set on an online silver marks forum, as of this writing 16 days later no one has explained the mark. Which is odd, as at least one person, mentioned above, who contributes should know the mark.

Now, because like all true Frenchmen I like to find the exception: Arminjon stated that a first standard "poinçon d'essai" always was found on pieces with first standard titre and guarantee marks. With the wonder of the internet we can replace a lifetime of research with a few minutes of Google search. If you Google "Cuillère à Saupoudrer Argent Rares Poinçons Vieillard XIX Silver Sprinkle Spoon", you will hopefully still find a second standard horse head "poinçon d'essai" mark on a piece with 1819-38 Paris first standard marks. Perhaps it started as an assay mark, but eventually it seems to have become decoration.

We would like to hear about other instances of either boar's head marks (mail to )

Maurice Meslans
- 2017 -