ASCAS Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver


article # 227
by Bill Jackman
(click on photos to enlarge image)


Literature about this subject matter is scarce and few written material is available to support collectors in their research.
The author has a collection of 35 ships gathered in three years of research.
Usually silver models of boats are very accurate in design and although there is no shortage of them the better ones are hard to find and can be expensive.
Early Chinese boats are much sought after, especially those fitted with cannons. Some of them are no more than 50mm long.
As many examples are unmarked, the collector can't know where the boat was made or who made it.
The first silver ships were called nef. They were a dinner-table ornamental or utilitarian article in the form of a model of a ship, with masts, sails, rigging and with various figures on board.
The ancient examples (13th-16th centuries) were drinking cups. The later were receptacles for dining implements.
Such pieces were used in France, Germany, Spain and Italy but most of the extant nefs were made in Germany at the end of the 19th century.
There is disagreement about nef's use. Someone believe that they began as incense boat of the church, other believe they were an ancestor of brass and silver "Burgundy waggons" or a drinking vessel as noted in 13th century French romances.
The nef was an important part of Continental elegant dining, bearing in its hollow hull the spoon, knife, napkin, spices of the host.

The nef illustrated is owned by Wax Antiques of London, costing a five figure sum and they authorised the image reproduction.

Another example is a nef in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It is known as Burghley's nef and was made in 1482. The silversmith who made it was Peter the Fleming.

This picture is printed courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum and the book Miniature Silver Toys by Victor Houart.

Boats of the Netherlands
The Dutch made thousands of silver sailing ships models. The most prolific dates were 1600-1750, but they carried on until the present day. Many of these models went to export to all European countries, with England in particular.
The main center for making silver boat models was Hoorn, a small sea town to the North of Amsterdam. It has been famous for its gold and silver work since the 16th century.
Due to the refusal of the Government to allow cheaper fee for hallmarking of small silver pieces, most of them have remained unmarked until the early 19th century when a new date system became mandatory and was imposed to silversmiths.
Another center of production is Schoonhaven, a little town near Rotterdam.
Schoonhaven is famous for producing silver toys since the 19th century. Today it is a very industrious town in the production of silver, most of which are copies of their Dutch predecessors. The town is today the main silver producer in Holland.

This is a three masted Dutch schooner, possibly made in Hoorn. The characteristic wire shaped pedestal keeps the craft up right simulating its sailing motion at sea.
Many Dutch vessels are not fitted with rockers but are supported by brackets.
Another feature of Dutch manufacture is the way the rigging is stitched to the mast. A very time consuming work.

On this small fishing boat there is a maker's name which reads BU 63. It could be the maker's mark, as the boat appears to be early 19th century, possibly even earlier. The height of this boat is 90mm and the length 80mm.
Due to the irregularities of the many silversmiths in Holland and the desire of young apprentices to copy them, the field of being certain that a vessel was actually made by a well-known name is fraught with deception. My recommendation would be to buy what you like. Some of them are very frail and the rigging and the ropes have come apart. It is difficult and expensive to find a silversmith to undertake such repairs.

This design of sailing vessel looks to have all the characteristics of being made by Netherlands manufacturers. It is hallmarked on the rudder by J&DH, date stamped with an old fashioned M for 1871. Its dimensions are 115mm high and 80mm large. It has stitched sails and the wire base for it to stand on. The workmanship is of a higher standard than most Dutch ships of this size.

Ships of the Mediterranean
Boats from this area add confusion for the collector owing to their varieties. They are well made and usually mounted on a wooden or stone base. Some even come in presentation cases.
The actual country of origin on these small sailing craft is difficult to identify.
The main difference between them is the shape and number of sails. They are all well-built and there is plenty of them to choose from so it's a good starting point for a collector.
Some of the models have the local hallmark. Most will have hidden away somewhere the stamp for 800 silver or even 925. It appears that most of the boats were made for the tourist market. That doesn't mean that there aren't lots of early 20th century ones and a few 19th century ones.

This vessel has one masts and one sail.
Overall length is 130mm and height, not including stand, is 130mm also. The vessel is hallmarked along the keel with the initials VM. There is then a set of stamped hallmarks which includes 925 silver. One might guess by its condition that it was made in the 20th century. All around the bow there is a highly detailed embossing.

Other two vessels of the "Mediterranean fleet"

This picture shows a vessel in its presentation box. The box is silk lined, coloured and very sturdy. Obviously it was made for the tourist trade. The vessel is well fitted out and stamped 925 silver. It stands on a detachable plinth. Its dimensions are 115mm long and 120mm high.

Chinese boats
China has made model silver ships for centuries, but little can be found about makers and age of these miniatures. The preferred subject is war armed ships and the most common ones are obviously the Chinese junks. These boats fetch higher price than most other examples, especially that of small size and intricate shape.

Ancient Rome warship
Roman warships used both wind and human power, and had a square sail and a large number of oars on each side.
They had a heavy spike usually made of bronze that was used to pierce the hulls or break the oars of enemy ships.

This model shows at least two dozens of men at oars. The dimensions of the model are 117mm long and 110mm high

This is a much smaller model without visible oars long 50mm and high 40mm. It was bought in Italy.

Galleons were large, multi-decked sailing ships used as armed cargo carriers primarily by European states from the 16th to 18th centuries during the age of sail and were the principal fleet units drafted for use as warships until the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-1600s.
Galleons generally carried three or more masts with a lateen fore-and-aft rig on the rear masts, were carvel built with a prominent squared off raised stern, and used square-rigged sail plans on their fore-mast and main-masts.

A four masted well detailed galleon armed with cannons standing on a polished marble block.
No visible hallmark is present on the model but it's credited to be a work of St James House Co, Birmingham, 1983. The dimensions are 140mm long and 115mm high.

This freestanding model of Sir Walter Raleigh0s Golden Hind was purchased in an Italian market.
The model is unmarked but, according to the seller, the metal is 800/1000 silver.
Its dimensions are 159mm long and 140mm high.

This model of the Golden Hind mounted on a wooden stand was created by Michael J. Softley on commission of The Royal Mint. It is hallmarked London 2002 and belongs to a limited edition of 250 pieces (this is number 149). Its cost when new was £ 895.

The model of a 19th century fighting ship is the Chinese version of the European galleon.
It is armed with four cannons and, on the rear, grappling irons and spears to engage enemy ships.
Six long oars were used to obtain supplementary speed when necessary.

Filigree models
The term filigree is derived from Italian word filigrana, which is originally from the Latin word filum, meaning a thread of wire and granum meaning a grain or bead. Early practices of wirework jewelry and decorative items were created using small pieces of metal or granules for design. Filigree refers to the process and type of design that uses twisted wire to create delicate, lacy, openwork jewelry. Usually made from finer metals like gold, silver and platinum, filigree has been used for centuries to craft jewelry such as pins, rings and pendants.

A filigree ship of Columbus Santa Maria caravel.
The model (unmarked) is 175mm long and 140mm high.

A filigree Rabelo boat. This is traditional Portuguese wooden cargo boat that was used for centuries to transport people and goods along the Douro River. It is flat-bottomed, with a shallow draught, which was necessary to navigate the often shallow fast-flowing waters of the upper Douro prior to the construction of dams and locks from 1968 onwards. Native to the Douro region, it does not exist in any other place in the world. Its history is closely linked to the production and trade of port wine. Before the arrival of the railway, the rabelo was the fastest and the most efficient means of transport between the Douro Valley, where port wine is produced, and the city of Porto, where it was traded and exported worldwide. A long oar over the stern called espadela was used to manoeuvre the boat, by sailors standing up on a wooden structure called apégadas. From there, it was easier to control the boat as well as to check the water currents and unexpected obstacles.

A little three masts filigree ships (80mm long and 60mm high)

Sailing Yachts
The yachts are recreational boats differing from working ships mainly by their leisure purpose.
Yacht lengths normally range from 10 metres (33 ft) up to dozens of meters (hundreds of feet).

This model was made by Japanese master silversmith Seki Takehido.
It stands on a silverplate rippled sea inside a glass cabinet.
The model, signed "Takehido" and marked "985", is 163mm long and 175mm high.

Bill Jackman
- 2018 -