ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver


article # 216
by Maurice Meslans
(click on photos to enlarge image)


Research is fun, although sometimes it doesn't pay financially. It can be a bit like a genealogist who finds a horse thief in his family tree.
I purchased this item some years ago, almost on a whim. I couldn't really decide what it was even called, in order to find other examples to research. It is out of the norm, a kind of silver decoupage of a hunt scene. It was suggested I should try relief, haut-relief or bas-relief. A previous owner Desmond Coke was a famous collector of silhouettes, which in a sense it resembles. There is essentially no agreement as to what to call them (plaques, plaquettes, Médaillons, reliefs, etc) or even how they were made. The one name that occurs most in descriptions is Kirstein.

The first person of that name to work as a silversmith in Strasbourg was Joachim Friederich Kirstein I (1701-1770, master in 1729), who was son of a "forestier" named Kirstenstein in Beelitz in Prussia. The Kirsteins most connected with these plaques are Jacques Frédéric Kirstein (1765-1838, established in 1795), and his son, Joachim Frédéric Kirstein II (1805-1860) who worked with him and followed him in the business.
Hans Haug usually refers to them as "bas relief repoussé et ciselé" (chiseled). In "Deux Siècle d'orfèvrerie à Strasbourg" they are usually referred to as "argent fondu" (cast silver). Interesting enough J. F. Kirstein gave us his own version in "Bulletin De La Société D'encouragement Pour L'Industrie Nationale" of 1811. In it he describes a process which seems to be standard repoussé work with the exception that some pieces are made to stand out by separating at least part of them from the background. Thus a tree branch would still be connected to the trunk but would otherwise be floating above the rest of the work. This would obviously be a very labor intensive process. The other thing to note in the article was that while six of the works were either rural or hunting scenes, for which he is well known, the other four were political (Napoleon, Frederich the Great) or battle scenes. Below you see an example found in the Strasbourg catalogue.

The works of J. F. Kirstein are usually round or oval, and all examples I could find in museum collections are signed, usually "Kirstein à Strasbourg" except for one which had no place to be signed. Three rectangular examples found, in gold, are also signed.
Haug does show two unsigned ones which he attributed to J. F. Kirstein, one was later found to be signed, the other now attributed to his son. In 1834 a silver medal was given to a M. (Mr.) Kirstein, usually thought to be J. F. Kirstein, and he may well have received the medal as it was his shop's work, but whether the work was made only by him, his son or another apprentice named Charles Raeuber (1816-1892), couldn't be known. Those which came from the Kirstein shop are characteristically only or mostly repoussé work, the most impressive would have an area where the separated items would float above the rest. Another example can be found at this link:

This one shows the back. As nearly as I can see the work is repoussé not cast or "fondu" . As you should notice, the back is an accurate mirror image of the front. If it were cast, as most false repoussé pieces made in Hanau, the back would be smoother and less exact than the front. A cast piece could obviously be produced more reasonably, especially if reproduced in a series. Although I obviously could not inspect those in the major collections, I would doubt the description of being cast is correct. I could find no examples that were not unique so there would be no great advantage to casting them. Also cast silver does not lend itself to repoussé work. The 1811 article says they were repoussé work on sheets of silver a millimeter thick or less, which does admittedly seem impossibly thin, and would preclude any casting. Finally I could find no reference that called them cast, except the 2004 catalogue. It seems very likely that all of Kirstein's works were mounted under glass. Firstly if they were silver and not enclosed, they would tarnish, and they certainly did not lend themselves to being polished. The gold ones wouldn't tarnish, but would still have pieces sticking up which would easily be damaged. Of course glass has the disadvantage of being breakable as well as being susceptible to scratching.

As to the work in my possession, it has quite a few differences from the known J. F. Kirstein signed works. I found several examples in both gold or silver, usually at least attributed to Kirstein in auction catalogues.
Here is a list of the ways they differ from known Kirstein pieces.

While each example seems unique, they used exactly the same elements. The trees and figures all seem to be stamped using the same stamp. So the same hunter with a flintlock rifle, the same spearman, the same boar, and the same dogs are found in different examples, although always in different places. In one, the spearman will be in the forefront closer than the gunman, in another in the background.
In fact the same or at least very similar trees with 5 lobed leaves or droopy evergreens are found in most.
They do not seem to be repoussé work, they seem more like sheets of silver that were stamped out and applied to a background, at different levels.
The floating pieces seem to take the majority of the scene, in contrast to the Kirstein examples in which the majority of the scened is the repoussé work.
The background in at least two examples is exactly the same, so it too was stamped or rolled out.
None are signed visibly.
There are no round or oval examples, they are all rectangular.
The sheets of silver used for the most part, seem too thin to be repoussé work.

To me the conclusion is obvious: mine is not by any Kirstein. It was, considering the other examples found, no doubt produced during the working period of J. F. Kirstein. Since his son worked in his shop and produced items similar to his father, he also would not be a candidate. Nor would Raeuber, whose known works (by provenance, they are not signed) resemble his master's. Of course it is impossible to prove a negative, but it seems very unlikely that Kirstien or any of his apprentices, would have invented the competition.
Mine is a brilliant type of production. The craftsman produced an item which certainly could compete with that of Kirstein, and still does, but could be produced in a fraction of the time. If the purchaser did not realize the difference, he might pay the price demanded by Kirstein. The only problem with the invention is it was susceptible to damage. While some of Kirstein's works could have survived the glass covering being broken, none of the competition would have. In fact on some of the silver ones the infiltration of air has discolored the edges. This problem also keeps one from opening one and looking for a signature. One last detail to point out: the rolled edge of the frame shows a combination of a man hunting a stag with a flintlock rifle and dogs, and a rural scene. I could find this on no other example, it might be simply be a frame supplied by a retailer, but it might help identify the area of production, and certainly seems appropriate.
The frame is 14.7 by 12.4 cm the scene itself is 8.7 by 4.9 cm.

Maurice Meslans
- 2017 -