by Dorothea Burstyn
click on images to enlarge
The Antique Silver Industry of Hanau
This article was inspired by the many inquiries to various publications showing that Hanau silver is still often mistaken for old silver, and that the spurious marks are a consistent source of confusion for many collectors.
Additionally, many collectors believe that the cheap, massproduced items were all the Hanau silver industry created. In fact until World War I, Hanau was an important manufacturing center for highly ornate, decorative, and handmade items, and
even the silver lover who prefers a plainer look must admire the workmanship and skill of the Hanau silversmiths.
With the production of "antique silver", Hanau found a market niche, which brought its silver manufacturers enormous prosperity and worldwide reputation. The "father" of this industry was August Schleissner. Son of an old silversmithing family, he apprenticed with his father, then worked as a journeyman for Antoine Vechte (click note 1) in Paris, where he perfected his chasing technique. Vechte was a virtuoso silversmith, who excelled in chasing and embossing in the manner of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Having already received orders from Hunt & Roskell while working in Paris, Vechte relocated to London after the revolution of 1848, where he became employed by this firm.
In 1849 August Schleissner had to flee Germany because of his political activities. He came to America via Switzerland and Belgium. In New York he worked first as a painter of "wanted" posters, but soon found employment in Massachusetts with an Attleboro silver company.
After being pardoned by the German authorities, he returned to Hanau in 1861, and together with his brother took over the Schleissner company. He immediately introduced a line of antique reproduction silver in the Gothic, Renaissance, and Mannerist styles. Because of his superb craftsmanship he soon received royal commissions.
From 1869 on, Schleissner made silver for Bebenhausen (click note 2) , a princely hunting castle. Designed in the neo-Renaissance style, the silver had to match the decor of the castle. Along with opulent buffet pieces like plates, tazzas, and ewers, Schleissner made numerous items connected with drinking ceremonies and games, so popular in the Renaissance and Baroque eras. There are double cups, "Willkomm" (welcome) cups, and above all the "Diana Trinkspiel" (drinking game), a beautiful centerpiece that featured Diana, the hunting goddess, riding on a stag.
The range of silver made for Bebenhausen is typical for the Schleisser production of Many decades to come. An eminently talented silversmith and a good businessman, he attracted the most discerning clients. One was Baron Karl von Rothschild, who declared his admiration by creating the expression "Style Schleissner". (click note 3)
The other leading firm of Hanau was Neresheimer, founded in 1890 as a partnership of August and Ludwig Neresheimer with Jean Schlingloff. Right from the start Neresheimer offered a wide range of highly decorative objects like nefs, tankards, coconut and nautilus cups, and other sumptuous sideboard pieces. An article in The Watchmakers, Jewellers and Silversmiths' Trade Journal gives a contemporary account of a visit to the Neresheimer company in 1903. The visit must have been an enormous success. Of the Neresheimer production the author states: "Nothing was too small or too large, everything being copied with a care and minuteness which were indeed creditable." The idyllic setting of the factory, the modern, well-lit premises, the tasteful furnishings of Neresheimer's private office, and the affability of his host contributed to his assessment that the establishment "breathed the very air of artistic feeling." (click note 4)
Of the many Hanau companies, only a few can be mentioned here. There were the older firms of W.H.Laufs and Backes & Co., then Weinranck & Schmidt, who offered table silver and luxury goods in the modern and antique genres. Georg Roth & Company produced silver that leaned strongly on French styles - festoons and portrait medallions are ever-recurring features. Along with its antique reproductions, the firm of Carl Kurtz offered miniatures and doll silver. (click note 5)
In the nineteenth century Hanau silver was produced either from work drawings, which included the exact measurements and gauges of silver sheets from which the parts could be raised, or from carefully prepared master model from which the parts could be duplicated by the lost wax method of casting. By 1900 these models played a more important role in the production. They became the main capital of the silver manufacturers, and some companies had collections of more than 10,000 models.(click note 6)
In Hanau most of the silver companies did not specialize. On the contrary, the bread-and butter items like fancy cutlery and domestic silver financed the large, prestigious showpieces created for important customers and world expositions. (click note 7) These expositions promoted Hanau's export business. Neresheimer enjoyed a decades-long successful business relationship with Berthold Mueller, his agent in London, England. Neresheimer products made for the English market have the English import marks next to the sponsor mark BM. Schleisser had an active export business with America. It is interesting to note that his export production was stamped variously with: "Le Trianon", "Buchholz &Zelt" (an import firm in New York), "Beverly Hills, Cal.," and "Tiffany &Co., Sterling" (click note 8)
All companies supported the school of design in Hanau, the Koenigliche Zeichenakademie, where courses in art history, drawing, chasing, modeling, etc. were held, and which company workers and apprentices had to attend. Two leading designers, August Offterdinger and Max Wiese, worked as professors at this academy.(click note 9)
The period 1880 to 1900 was a time of enormous economic growth. Neresheimer, for instance, started in 1890 with only two workers, and by 1903 had developed into a firm with eighty employees.(click note 10) Work conditions in the industry were exceptionally good. The percentage of unlearned labor was minimal. Workers who saw their company as lifetime employment were rewarded with high wages, and health and pension plans.
From 1890 to 1934 the number of antique silver producers increased to ninety-eight. Naturally this led to some unhealthy competitive practices. Retailers often bought only samples of new lines and asked other companies to produce cheaper copies, thereby saving the high cost of preparing a model. To protect themselves, firms that had already financed expensive models were forced to pay additional fees for patent registration. Companies were constantly forced to underbid each other. The mixing of styles - for instance, a rococo-style item would be furnished with feet or handles in the neoclassical style - appears most often on post-1900 production. This was often based less on indifference to purity of style than on hard economic considerations. It was so much cheaper and quicker to use findings from existing stock than to cast new parts faithful to the style of each item. (click note 11)
The increased competition eroded first profits and then quality of workmanship, and brought about the deterioration of working conditions. Hanau became a center for mass-produced articles, which were assembled from stamped out parts and cheaply seam-soldered. Easily identified, these items are mostly what come to mind today when we speak of Hanau silver.
Additional Bibliography (click here)
various cup and covers
Hanau cup and cover, made by Laufs, 1848
Hanau cup and cover, made by Laufs, 1848
Parcel-gilt nef by Schleissner Company.
These ships are modeled on the German nefs of the fifteenth-seventeenth centuries. The Hanau production is exuberant in details, chasing and size. The nef weighs 412 oz.,
Sotheby's, NY, April 19,1991, lot 221
Typical export production of Hanau end of 19th century.
At top, Schleissner copies of the twelfth century eagle vase of Abbe Suger of St. Denis, now in the Louvre. The eagle vase is pictured in Schleissner's model book, N.8833, and was made ca 1875,
right after the Bebenhausen silver. The original has a porphyry body; the Schleissner version is all silver and shows extensive chasing of battle scenes.
Equestrian knights, highly decorative items, were a standard part of the production of many Hanau firms.
Hanau produced enormous numbers of the marriage or wager cups, made for another drinking game. While the female wager cups were often exact copies of originals, Hanau developed a male counterpart of this type, which surfaced first in Schleissner model books around 1900.
All Photos courtesy of Christie's, New York, April 21,1993.
Hanau had a prolific output of all kinds of animal cups, inspired by the fifteenth-seventeenth century welcome cups, which were made mostly in forms of huntable games. The examples shown, even though their heads are detachable, have lost all practical purpose and are purely decorative.
Photo courtesy Christie's, New York, Oct. 15,1996
Monumental center piece by Neresheimer
Sotheby's New York, Oct.31, 1991
Neoclassical bon-bon dishes, stamped and steam-soldered, a typical product of twentieth century Hanau, J.L.Schlingloff, ca. 1920
Part 2 of this article on next ASCAS newsletter will discuss the spurious marks used in Hanau
Dorothea Burstyn - 2004
this article was published in Silver Magazine Sept/Oct.1997 - reproduction on ASCAS website is authorized by the Author and the Editor of Silver Magazine