(click on photos to enlarge images)
BELGIAN SILVER OF THE EMPIRE PERIOD
Elegant Austerity and Charming Personality (1798 to the 1830’s)
You may be surprised that I take such an interest in the
arts of the 19th century; traditionally, I should probably
concentrate my research work on ‘Higher Levels’ or ‘Earlier
Periods’ of Belgian silver, thus being more in line with the
interests of the ‘High Society’ of important Belgian collectors.
But personal taste and empathy attracted me to the
elegance of Belgian Empire period silverware. Contrary
to the long-accepted ?old fashioned school? of antique
scholars and dealers that production of silverware
deteriorated with the fall of Louis XVI regime, the
French revolution and the abolishing of the French
guilds in 1791, I admire the harmony between form and
decoration of the Empire period silverware, preferring
it to some silver items, made towards the end of the
18th century, dominated by an interpretation of Louis
XVI style where decorative overload and lack of balance
Pair of Sauceboats – Brussels – (1831-68) (Letter
Maker’s mark: A letter B in the middle of a
compass and a square.
In the 1990’s the value of Belgian 18th century silverware
raised considerably. This phenomenon did not surprise the
‘initiated’ connoisseurs. The value of Belgian silver had stayed
quite under-priced due to lack of knowledge and research work.
But now with a series of specialized Belgian silver sales by
major international auction houses, more research and public
support, prices appreciated considerably. The scarcity of high
quality Belgian silver objects of the 17th and 18th century had
one immediate consequence – the marketplace became a ‘battle
field’. Belgian collectors saw it as their patriotic duty to buy
these national treasures. But many others found these prices
prohibitive and started to look for new collecting fields, which
resulted in a surge of interest for 19th century Belgian silver.
We must stop looking at 19th century European silverware through
the deforming magnifying glass of prejudices; we must free
ourselves from judging it by 18th century standards; and we must
stop lamenting the application of new and modern techniques as
inferior. Rather than dismissing whole style periods, we must
recognize that one can find quality and trash in every style.
There are Empire period creations, documenting crafts-manship,
skill, refinement and originality being on a par with the best
output of 18th century, on the other hand one can find quite
light, low quality items made in Paris at the end of the 18th
century or under French influence in Belgium. Belgian/French
Louis XVI Style will sometimes originate in excessive and
disharmonious over decorations; deeper investigation and
research work related to its background, origin and
interpretation is needed.
Allow me a small excursion into French and Belgian history to
give you a little background for silver production of the early
19th century. The French Revolution brought about the
destruction of many 17th and 18th century works of art and
silverware. In France, the silverware of kings and the nobility
was sent to the crucible to help to reestablish financial order.
Much the same happened in Belgium. Church silver and tapestries
adorned with silver and golden threads were destroyed. One
example is St. Lambert Cathedral, Liège, which was totally
demolished. The revolution of 1789 brought about major upheavals
for the silversmiths, mainly due to the abolition of all guilds,
(France in 1798; Belgian territory the following years). This
was seen at the time as a social and humanitarian measure. It
dissolved the strict relationship of dependency of apprentices
and journeymen on their masters, but also destroyed the
traditional structure of learning the craft.
Another consequence was the development of competition, as well
as the transformation of traditional work and opened the path to
mass production and mechanization in order to satisfy the
demands of the newly created and rich ‘middle-class’.
The Empire Style, the last so-called 'Grand style' in France, is a
Neo-classical revival. The expression of Napoleon's
ostentatious interpretation of Greek and Roman antiquity,
it gave birth to antique architectural forms, such as
amphora's for coffeepots and coffee vases and antique
columns for the stem of candlesticks
Coffeepot Brussels (1814-1831)(Lettre A)
Maker : Carpentier.
‘Amphora form’ and one of the typical model of foot
for the Empire period in Belgium. Called ‘piedouche’
The decoration, mostly in low relief,
is harmoniously melded with the austerity and sobriety of the
form. Its inspiration derives mostly from vegetable or floral
form, allegorical animals or finds its characters in the
A high level of quality for the sculptures, chasing and
engraving can be observed. There is also a profuse use of the
Vermeil – a gilding method of silver using mercury. Vermeil is
also often referred to as ‘Fire Gilding’.
This technique was very popular in France, England and with less
frequency in Germany. We can speak of a certain democratization
of silverware here. Vermeil was the decoration ‘à la mode’ and
highly appreciated by the new middle class who wanted to ‘copy’
the golden works of art, made as royal commissions of bygone
eras, at a more reasonable price.
The Battle of Jemappes in 1792 brought the French invasion and
as a consequence the ruin of the country. Many Belgian religious
orders, the clergy and nobility were abolished. The ‘Corporation
system’, essentially the organization of the trades into guilds
was also destroyed. From 1798 to 1814, my beloved fatherland was
under French ‘Regime’ and as a consequence of the new French
organization, was subdivided into 9 French ‘Départments’. The
most important ones are the ‘Départment de la Dyle’ for the
cities of Brussels and Louvain, the ‘Département de l’Escaut’
for Gent and Oudenaerde; the ‘Département des Deux Nèthes’ for
Antwerp; the ‘Département de la Lys’, for Bruges and Ypres; the
‘Département de l’Ourthe’ for the city of Liège, and the
‘Département de Jemappes’ for the cities of Mons and Tournai.
During the period from 1798 to 1814, the silverware from our
Land reflects mostly the French influence with a spicy perfume
of English and Dutch taste. There is one exception, however, the
Empire style in France originated important objects of
‘prestige’ in ‘Vermeil’, and the Belgian silversmiths did not
often use this kind of ‘gilding’. Reasons for this absence might
be found in the way of life of our society - or the economical
depression - Belgians were not attracted to this prestigious
type of ornamentation.
Characteristic for the silver production of that period is the elegant
design with simplified 'Neo-classical' architectural
forms, adorned by stylized floral rims and borders.
Vertical convex or concave fluting or parallel groove
decoration is often found and popular,
Teapot 1798- 1809 - Brussels – (Dept. 26)
Handle attachments, finials and spouts mostly
represent mythological or Napoleonic symbolist animals
(Figure 5) or use stylized empire vegetal decoration.
‘Sprays’ of lightly engraved vegetal motifs will give a
very ‘charming’ accent to the otherwise sober, quite
plain and simple forms. Grace, elegance, austerity,
harmony - these are the qualities of the Belgian Empire
Teapot 1831-68 Brussels (lettre A)
To name a few important masters:
talented and imaginative crafts-men were Petrus Gabriel Germain
Dutalis, Joseph Germain Dutalis (son of the former) and Josse
Allard in Brussels; JB Verberckt in Antwerp, G. Drion in Liège,
'Veuve' (Widow) Roelandts and de Bapst Tiberghien in Gent. From
1814 to 1831, following the French annexation, the Dutch
invasion brought a new authority of the Netherlands and its
Protestant king: Willem Oranje-Nassau to Belgium. This period is
very interesting and rich due to the economical development and
as a consequence the artistic production -a long lasting Empire
style silver- reflects the austerity of Dutch Protestantism
mixed with a zest for English taste.
The gap of creativity due to the disappearance of the 'Corporations (Guilds),
in France as in Belgium, made the influence of English
silversmiths welcome. Protestant austerity of the
Netherlands gave birth to rather severe objects and
design schemes, which sometimes make us, think of an
early Art Deco. Typical decorations of Belgium silver at
that period are: Neo-classical forms underlined by
vertical fluted ornamentation, or totally plain clean
forms with strong lines and 'deep' empire style borders.
Chocolate Pot Ghent (1814-31), (Lettre C)
Marabout type. (Typical model for Belgian Empire
The economical prosperity now provokes
a demand for high quality silver. William of Nassau, his court
and the ‘High Society’ ordered important objects from important
Belgian silversmiths such as Joseph German Dutalis who created
wonderful works of arts in vermeil with a distinct Parisian
The quality of creations of this artist may be compared to those
of a Jean Baptiste Claude Odiot - one of the most famous
Parisian silversmiths of the Empire Period.
The work of J.G.Dutalis are highly appreciated today – a ‘Psyche',
standing mirror, made by Dutalis fetched the enormous price of €
254,000 when sold at an International public auction in 1994.
At the beginning of the Belgian Realm (early
1830's), due to fashion or affinity we still enjoy a
long lasting or long cherished Empire style.
This period reflects less austerity though more flourish
and richer expression, which probably is the real style
interpretation of our wealthy middle class. At last we
finally became independent and a real country of our own
‘Warwick vase’ in Vermeil, Brussels
Maker : Joseph Germain Dutalis
I want to outline the main principles
of the Belgian marking system. Information about the marking
system found in Marc Rosenberg: Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen are
obsolete and have been corrected thanks to the research work of
Walter van Dievoet in his important work: ‘De Geschiedenis en de
officiele merken van de keurkamers voor de waarborg van Goud en
Zilver in Belgie can 1794 tot nu.’ Edited by Gemeente Krediet
Bank, 1980. (This book is written in Flemish with a few pages in
French – I think you know about our linguistic complexities.)
Dievoet’s book is the best modern study of Belgian marking
system and features very accurate photos of the different marks.
Belgian silverware bears the same marks as those of the French ‘Département’,
but is stamped with the department numbers registered for our
I am confident that the above information and the sharpness of
your educated eyes will help you to recognize the fine detail or
the softness of the decoration and make you appreciate the
subtle charm of Belgian Empire silverware.
FIRST EMPIRE PERIOD: 1798 - 1809
Called: ‘au 1er Coq’ = ‘First Rooster’.
Belgian silverware bears the same hallmarks as those for the
French ‘Départements’, but are stamped with the department
numbers registered for our regions
Assay mark - silver standard: ‘Rooster’ used for the
first or second ‘alloy’ (with number 1 for: 950/1000, or
2 for 800/1000). The second assay with 2 - 800/1000 was
used in Belgian territories at the same time.
Guarantee mark - Hallmark: A ‘Facing head’ with the
number of the department placed to the side. The
department number will help you to know in what
department or city the silversmith was working.
Maker’s mark: two or three initials, or the full name,
with or without a ‘symbol’ are displayed in an either
vertical or horizontal lozenge form.
SECOND EMPIRE PERIOD: 1809 - 1814,
Called ‘Au second coq' or 'Second Rooster'.
Belgian silverware bears the same hallmarks as those for the
French ?Départements?, but are stamped with the department
numbers registered for our regions
1- Assay mark - silver standard: The so-called
Second Coq (four variations) with a double line. The
second standard 800/000 is more frequent. Not many items
of this period are extant.
2- Maker's mark: two or three initials, or the
full name, with or without a ?symbol? again in either
vertical or horizontal lozenge form. This system of
marks is used in France till 1819, in Belgium only until
1814 due to the Dutch invasion.
3- Guarantee mark – Hallmark: A ‘helmeted
warrior’, the number of the department is engraved
inside the helmet, which is sometimes difficult to read.
HALLMARK SYSTEM UNDER DUTCH
OCCUPATION: 1814 – 1831
Assay mark - silver standard: In a rectangular form with
cut corners: A Figure 1 above two Crossed Laurel
branches, for 934/1000 silver. (Adaptation to the Dutch
Regime) - Or In a Square form: A Figure 2 above two
crossed laurel branches, for 833/1000 silver.
Guarantee mark – Hallmark: Which will determine in which
city the silversmith was registered. The punch mark
called: ‘A la main fermée’ - In a circle: a hand holding
a stick. In the circle above the hand we’ll find a
letter. A different letter represents each city). (Ex: A
for Brussels, B for Antwerp, C for Gand, D for Liège,
and E for Mons etc. Cf. Tardy Poinçon d’argent.)
Maker’s mark: Different possibilities. The same type of
marks as in the two first French periods or the same
type of maker’s mark used in the Netherlands, Letters
and/or symbol in a square form. Consult: Poinçons
d’argenterie belges – Stuyck- Standaard Uitgeverij. &
HALLMARK SYSTEM DURING THE ‘BELGIAN
Assay mark- silver standard: In a rectangular form with
cut corners: A ‘LYRE’ a figure 1 and letter T (for 1er
Titre = 950/1000 silver content). Or more commonly used,
the ‘JANUS’ double head in a rectangular form, with
figure 2 (for 800/1000 silver content).
Guarantee mark – Hallmark: In a circle a ‘MINERVA’ head,
face turned right. Engraved in the helmet is a letter. A
different letter represents each city. (Ex: A for
Brussels, B for Antwerp, C for Gand, D for Liège, E for
Mons etc. Cf. Tardy Poinçon d’argent
Maker’s mark: Different possibilities. Lots of various
forms. Consult: Poinçons d’argenterie belges – Stuyck-
Standaard Uitgeverij. & Editions Erasme.
BOOKS OF REFERENCES:
• 'Poinçons d’argent' - Editions Tardy.
• 'De Geschiedenis en de officiele merken van de Keurkamers voor
de waarborg van Goud en Zilver in Belgie
van 1794- tot nu' - Uitgever: Gemeente Krediet van Belgie-
1980. / Edition: Credit Communal de Belgique - 1980
• 'Poinçons d’argenterie belges' - STUYCK - Standaard Uitgeverij.
(To find a maker’s mark)
• 'Orfèvrerie au Poinçon de Bruxelles' - Jacques Van
Wittenberghe - / Edition: Ville de Bruxelles
et Societé Générale de Belgique
Edited in 'The Silver Society of Canada Journal' - spring
2004 with the efficient help of Dorothea Burstyn President
of The Silver Society of Canada