article # 79



by Jayne W. Dye and Karin Sixl-Daniell
(click on photos to enlarge image)

Historismus Silver-Gilt Dessert Set by Hermann Ratzersdorfer

Setting the stage:

Beginning about the mid 1700's a rediscovery of the art forms of the 1500-1600's strongly influenced what people envisioned as good taste, high style, or desirable of emulation A variety of descriptive terms were applied varying by locale, which art form was being described (buildings, paintings, objects d'art, clothing fashions, etc), and which previous period was being used for inspiration/admiration/imitation. Rococo, Baroque, Empire, Romanticism, Classicism, Romantic Classicism, and Historicism all had differing qualities and emphasis in their reflections of the past. One hundred years later, circa 1870 - 1910, fine arts produced in Austria, are now designated by the term Historismus. One Swedish historian of silver works of art referenced 1830 - 1895 as the "Period of Eclecticism" (note 1).
set of Dessert Flatware, circa 1872 - 1878 by Hermann Ratzersdorfer

For the purposes of this article and the illustration of one set of Dessert Flatware, circa 1872 - 1878, I find most appropriate and pleasing the terms Historismus and Historicism.
"Late Historicism, with its fascination with the picturesque and with motion, partly inspired by (French) neo-Baroque tendencies, placed emphasis upon the Gesamtkunstwerk ("total work of art"): theatre buildings, festive processions, sumptuous interiors, decorative arts, furnishings, drapery and fashion all received careful felicitous attention " (note 2). Harmony was sought in exterior building style, interiors, decorative arts, furnishings and even costume (See note 3 on the Imperial Hotel).
spoon, knife and fork from Hermann Ratzersdorfer's dessert set
In the era of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign (1848 - 1916) this flowering of Austrian art brought Vienna international recognition. Vienna’s city walls came down in 1857 to be replaced by the Ringstrasse (perimeter road) in 1861 along which many public buildings were erected - ministries, museums, the Opera and the Court Theatre. The legendary Grand Hotel on the Ringstrasse, one of the first Grand Hotels of Europe, was inaugurated on May 10th, 1870 near the Hall of the Vienna Musical Society (Musikverein).
European royalty enjoyed the elegance of the surroundings and the lavish service of the restaurants. In 1872 Johann Strauß the Younger was playing valses of Vienna; Johannes Brahms was conducting the Wiener Singverein (Vienna choir). Vienna, in the 1870’s, was noted for the charm and elegance of the Imperial & Royal Monarchy; (it was) a city dancing to the music of the Strauss family (note 4).
This is the courtly period and background for which this Dessert Set was created.

Setting the table:

spoon, knife and fork from Hermann Ratzersdorfer's dessert set: detail
Viennese silver led European style during the fourth quarter of the 19th century. This was the epoch of Historismus.
The two areas making up the Austrio-Hungarian Empire already had an unequalled history of enameled jewelry production which led directly to the expansion into other decorative art pieces.
The Imperial Treasury housed many inspiring mediaeval and renaissance objects for study, providing inspiration and leading to reproduction.
" The secret of the Viennese enamellers was their success in following the trend set by the interior decorators of mansions and great public buildings with regard to color schemes and pictorial themes from classical mythology. That repertory remained within the principles of good taste of the nineteenth century while allowing depictions of men with heroic physiques, voluptuous women draped in diaphanous robes, and putti, the symbols of earthly love, fluttering in the sky.
The pictures were often bordered with arabesques and grotesques and were supplemented by tinted, patterned sections. The background colors for the patterns also echoed the fashions for luxurious wall ornamentation or sumptuous draperies, which favored muted pink, mauve, olive green, light blue, and pale straw yellow. These were, in fact, enamel tints that were technically among the most difficult to fuse flawlessly and evenly over large curved surfaces. Nonetheless the Viennese expert enamalist/silversmith/goldsmith made a specialty of successfully using this range of hues." (note 5).

Featured here is an elaborate vermeil and enamel set of dessert cutlery by Hermann Ratzersdorfer circa 1872-1878; in the last decade of a 38 year artistic career. For comparison three other pieces of his work sold recently by Sotheby’s are pictured. In addition, a ewer (maker unknown) of the same period and style as the dessert set is pictured. The creativity and beauty of the Ewer, its artisanship and enameled scenes, all are closely related to the decoration of the cutlery featured here.

The dessert set

There is a leather cover on the box containing 18 pieces in all; a knife, fork, and spoon for 6 place settings in two fitted trays, with a red satin lining and the H. Ratzersdorfer label in gold.

Dating of the set:

The address on the lid lining was used as a storefront showroom by Hermann Ratzersdorfer until about 1878 and he retired in 1881. The Hallmark was mandated for Austria on March 10, 1872. It is a five lobed punch with the head of Diana in profile, a crescent moon touching her forehead, the city mark under her nose and the fineness mark at the nape of her neck. In this mark the city is ‘A’ for Vienna. The fineness is ‘3’ for 800/1000. This was the expected silver quality for articles produced in Austria, at this time period, for the domestic market.

The small HR mark placed on a little flange of the spoon shank is not unusual but could easily be missed if examining a single piece of silver art.

All the silver has been gilded; spoon bowls, tines, blades and shanks. Desserts often had an acidic nature that would harm silver utensils. Gilding, at this time in Vienna, was unusually heavy, being 7 microns thick. It has not worn through in any area (gilded pieces could use as little as a 2.5 micron layer of gold).

The connecting shanks have a variety of cast human and animal faces, one on the back and a different one on the front of each utensil (six faces in all).

The spoon has a 7.5 cm shank, and a 5.5cm bowl (22cm with handle). The fork is 21 cm; the knife, 22.2 cm.; the enameled handles are 9 cm on all pieces. The handles are copper based, full round, hand decorated enamel with chased and finely gilt caps on both ends.

There are six oval scenes, 3 cm x 2 cm, different on the front and back of each piece. They are random in arrangement. Each depicts a man on the right, a few in military attire, conversing with a women in flowing gowns on the left. Mythology is suggested but none depict a specific Greek or Roman myth. Outside the oval scenes are putti and arabesques, flowing but stylized foliate tendrils and blossoms, foretelling the more organic forms to follow immediately after this era in the Art Nouveau period (Art Deco, Jugendstil). Carefully looking at several of the same scenes on different pieces emphasizes the differences. This is well illustrated in the Arabesques, also.

In the first two decades of the 20th Century mass produced items very similar in nature lacked the fine qualities of the best early pieces by such goldsmiths as Ratzersdorfer and Böhm (dating from around 1870)

The artist:

Hermann Ratzersdorfer was born in 1817 and raised in Pressburg, Austria, a thriving community of 40,000 inhabitants (Bratislava now, the capital of Slovakia). His father Solomon, a dealer in true antiquities, received unflattering mention by a contemporary writer who remarked, "His (Solomon’s) oldest son, Hermann Ratzersdorfer, who moved at the beginning of the forties to Vienna, soon found it more lucrative to imitate rare pieces, instead of searching out and carefully picking originals, and he established such a factory, the first of its kind in Austria. …..this production of imitated old furniture, old porcelain, decoration and other art articles of earlier centuries has spread far and wide" (note 6).

On December 14, 1843 he started his business and registered his own maker’s mark certifying his recognition as a master silversmith. In Vienna, this signified he had served an apprenticeship, usually 4-6 years, worked as a journeyman, often another 6-10 years, taken instruction at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and presented, for judgment by the appropriate guild, a master’s piece. Since it was guild policy for many years to keep the number of masters as low as possible very few journeymen could become a master (note 7).

Two years later he showed his workmanship at the Viennese Trade Exhibition,1845. He exhibited at the London Exhibition of 1851 showing products of “Rococo Galanterie Waaren" and winning a medal for "a toilet glass … of elaborate and choice workmanship". At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 he won a 2nd class medal. In the London Exhibition of 1871 the price of a "Vase of Rock Crystal, silver mounts” shown by Ratzersdorfer was £140. He exhibited over £1,000 worth (no small sum at the time) of gold, silver and carved rock-crystal dressing table items in London (note 8, 9)

It is said he put his most effort into the pieces he created for the 1873 Exhibition in Vienna when this dessert set may already have been in existence]. His display for the Vienna Exhibition was praised by the French jurors for " … des coupes, des coffrets …, des cabinets de cristal de roche …, des hanaps … ornés de délicieuses peintures sur émail très-fines, imitant la belle époque de la Renaissance allemande" (note 10).
Hermann Ratzersdorfer was recognized as a master silversmith, and excelled as a goldsmith, enamelist, jeweler and sculptor of rock crystal. He became well know for many artistic creations, at times utilizing all of these media on a single piece. Often a creation showcased his firm’s expertise with one element and the others were used as enhancements.

He was given a diploma of honor at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition at which "critics and public praised the neo-Renaissance creations of the Viennese goldsmiths which were said to light up the gloomy Exhibition Rotunda with their colour and sparkle. He was represented by seven items in the Austrian Museum of Art & Industry's 1889 exhibit, as well as by nine items in their 1914 retrospective of 19th century works. He had by then retired, having turned his business over to his son Julius, in 1881. (notes 11, 12).

Discussion and examples.

Three other pieces by Hermann Ratzersdorfer show his skill working with primarily rock crystal in one piece, silver-gilt and enamel in another, and silver and gold in the third. The variety of pieces known to have come from his workshop grows daily and are fascinating to study

The enameled Ewer shown below is a Viennese piece of the same era, circa 1875, sold by Sotheby’s as ‘maker unknown’ . It would have been a fine complimentary piece to grace a table set with the featured Dessert Flatware.


This boxed dessert set is known to have been on display daily, unmoved, in an antique store on Pennsylvania Ave. Washington, DC for 12 years (1960 to 1972) until one of the authors decided to give it a home. It has been used many times in the subsequent 35 years; not for dessert, but for cream soup and fish entre dinners.


(collected while searching for information on Viennese cutlery of the Historismus style and period. Everyone quoted has seen the photos but none have handled the cutlery)

Quoting Erika Speel, well known author on enameling, who has seen a photo, not shown here, of a chipped area (email).: "I found, as you did, there is limited information …..on the topic of Viennese enamels generally. For your set of cutlery, the mounts are of course marked as silver as to be expected. The handles with enamel would have copper bases for technical reasons. The technique and subjects are as for some of the other Viennese painted enamels. There is a copper base; a thick white enamel grounding; then the tinted painted work lies just at the surface. The painted designs of the Vienna enamels were produced with a mixed technique using glass enamels and overglaze tints. ….small items were chiefly made from about 1875, with the same genre followed by all from that centre."

Quoting Peter Kaellgren, curator, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada, (email to the SSF): "Your boxed set for six takes its inspiration from enamels and silver cutlery made in the 1600s, about 1600-1680s. I have never seen a boxed set with a label before. However, that does not mean that a number do not survive. I suspect your set may have been intended for eating dessert. This is for two reasons. Most of the fancy sets of cutlery made during the 1800s were for dessert, which could be the most elegant part of the meal. Spoons with large bowls such as these and especially forks with long tines (following the so-called "sucket forks" of the 1600s) would have been used for desserts like brandied fruit and fruit compote."

Experts from both Sotheby's and Christie's have stated that they have not come across a complete boxed set before but may have seen a rare comparable single utensil.

Quoting John Jaffa, a well known dealer in fine enameled pieces,: (email) "….the set is certainly not unique…" Pictures of others he has sold would have added another dimension to this article. We have found no pictures, no mention, of other sets of Viennese Historismus enameled cutlery in any publication to which we have access. It is our hope that a reader of the ASCAS Journal may be able to provide that which we could not find. "Viennese enamels and rock crystal, perhaps the most decorative of all 19th [century] works of art.."
differences on the same scene painted on three handles proving that it is hand painted
One last picture is shown to illustrate the variations of the same scene when rendered three times. The painter had an example of the scene at his work bench and he painted it with some variety; not being required to do exact replicas. Note the positions of the shield, the sleeves, clouds, greenery, and shadows. It was earlier stated the figures on the right were male and yet this one may be female. Enlarging the individual scenes (pictured earlier) shows coarse stippling most notably in the sky and greenery. The same technique was used exclusively within all the scenes. This is not pixilated digital artifact. A much finer stippling was used in the mid 1700s in painted enamel portrait miniatures.
1. The Renaissance circa 1520-1650, the Baroque circa 1650-1700, the Late Baroque circa 1700-1720, the Period of Fredrik I circa 1720-1750, the Rococo circa 1750 –1775, the Gustavian Era circa 1775 - 1810, the Empire circa 1810 - 1830, the Period of Eclecticism circa 1830-1895 and the Jugend Style or L’Art Nouveau circa 1895 – 1910 Abstracted from a Swedish Silver article at]

2 . Http:// Copyright Wolfgang Karolinsky 16 November 2006

3. "One of the greatest achievements in Wright’s career was the Architectural and Interior Design of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1923. This included all the carpets, textiles, furniture, tableware and cutlery for the main dining room and cabaret-restaurant" Clients of F.Ll.W., moving into the home designed for them, were expected to take only their clothing. Source:

4. The MAK CD “Viennese Gold and Silversmiths from 1781 to 1921 and Their Marks. 2004

5. Source: Magazine Antiques of April, 2006 supplied by ASCAS member Thomas Feilenreiter.

6. The MAK CD. Includes the quote attributed to Sigmund Mayer, in Die Wiener Juden: Kommerz, Kultur, Politik 1700-1900 (Vienna: 1917)
Note the history of the MAK - On the 7th of March, 1863? the Emperor Franz Josef finally sanctions an Imperial and Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry?..The museum is to serve as an exemplary collection for artists, industrialists, and the public, and as a training and higher education center for designers as well as craftsmen. 1867 - Founding of the School of Applied Arts where theoretical and practical training are united. 1871 - After three years of construction, the new building on Stubenring is opened on the 15th of November - the first museum on the Ring. 1873 the World Fair in Vienna.

7. The MAK CD.

8. Various portions or this article rely heavily on information published by Sotheby’s in their catalogues and is used with their permission. This includes the fine Ewer, circa 1875, which so clearly shows the type of pieces that would have been used on the table with this dessert set, and the other Ratzersdorfer pieces. Sotheby’s press relations office has granted permission to use these pictures and the accompanying descriptions in conjunction with this article presenting the dessert set.]

9. In the mid 1860s an Engineer earned110 GBP /year, an Indian Civil Service officer 300 GBP/year, and an Army Cornet (lowest officier rank in the British Cavalry equiv to a Sub-Lieutenant) earned 200 GBP per year . Source:

10. AltaVista Babelfish: .. “of the cuts, the boxes..., the rock crystal cabinets..., of the goblets ... decorated with gorgeous very delicate paintings on enamel, inspired by the beautiful time of the German Renaissance

11. For more details on the company’s history refer to Waltraud Neuwirth’s “Wiener Silber 1781-1866. Page 248; and Viktor Reitzner’s “Alt-Wein” Lexikon für Österreich u. Süddeutsche Kunst und Kunstgewerbe, Edelmetalle, Vienna, 1952) which devotes several pages to H. Ratzersdorfer.

12. A catalogue for the Viennese Exhibition in 1873 and extensive quotes from other original commentators exist but unfortunately have not been located. It would be of particular interest to know if cutlery with enameled handles, or other flatware sets were exhibited or commented upon
Jayne W. Dye and Karin Sixl-Daniell
- 2007-