A Thimbleful of History

… and intrinsic value. While they originated as sewing implements, over the centuries their decorative features evolved to complement their new functions as fashionable gifts, status symbols, and tokens of affection.

In the preindustrial era, the significant amount of domestic sewing made thimbles and other sewing implements common household possessions. Over time, they became increasingly valuable. For example, by the sixteenth-century, silver thimbles were listed in wills and other …

Tags: 18th century 19th Century Decorative Art Design History gold

ALVR Blog: Consider the Kovsh

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Enamel and Gilded Silver Kovsh

Pictured above is an ornamental ladle called a kovsh, a type of Russian drinking vessel in the shape of a duck. Traditionally, various vessels were intended for different beverages. Kovshi, which come in a range of sizes, were intended for drinking kvass or beer. They were also used for drinking mead, a honey based drink that varied in flavor from using different fruits and berries. Silver kovshi were used for white mead, while golden kovshi were used for red mead.

They were originally made of wood and some early kovshi were made of tightly woven cloth.  In the 16th century, they began to be made in silver and increasingly assumed a ceremonial status. The kovshi in our collection are nineteenth and early twentieth century pieces of the Old Russian style, seen in the multicolored enameling inspired by sixteenth and seventeenth-century patterns. A yearning for a Russian art unmarred by Western influence contributed to what became the Russian Revival in the 1870s and 1880s. Interest in exploring early Russian artistic traditions provided craftsmen with a rich body of sources for creating beautiful, distinctly Russian works of art. Cloisonné enameling is but one example; another is trompe l’oeil, discussed in this blog post. While many such pieces were ornamental, a few could function as punch bowls or salts depending on their size.

These pieces illustrate how time and again the functional and artistic merits of the decorative arts can be appreciated both independently and harmoniously.

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Kvasniki

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Kvasniki

Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.

Russian Antique Decorative Arts and Jewelry

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The most noted Russian jeweler from the late 19th century to 1917, the year of the Revolution, was Carl Fabergé. He produced some of the world’s finest enamel work, featured on many different types of items, ranging from clocks to frames to jewelry.  Works of art included sculpture such as hardstone flower studies and miniature animals, and household items such as bellpushes, often made for the Tsar and other wealthy Russian families. Original Fabergé works of art have become some of the most coveted antique items on the market.  (More to come.)

ALVR Blog: A Toast to Russian Art

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Once simply traditional Russian drinking vessles, the kovsh and charka assumed an increasingly ceremonial status over the centuries, evolving into works of art. Check out our video or continue reading below:

The kovsh form has existed in Russia for centuries, originating as a type of drinking vessel in the shape of a duck. They were made of wood, and some were also made out of tightly woven cloth. In the 16th century, they evolved into presentation objects and began to be fashioned in silver. By the 17th century, kovshi (plural for kovsh) designs became more elaborate, rendered in both gold and silver.

Two examples of kovshi in our collection were made by the Russian Court Jeweler Carl Faberge (1846-1920). While famous for his Imperial Easter Eggs, he designed a wide range of decorative objects, often transforming traditional Slavic forms into his own beautiful precious jeweled vernacular. This yellow kovsh features rich guilloché enamel, a technique typical of Fabergé’s work, and for which he was renowned, and in this special case over 18k gold. The 5-ruble coin of Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741-1762) set in the base is a modification of an old Slavic tradition of insetting metal objects with coins. Traditional in form with a European touch, it’s an exquisite example of Eastern and Western aesthetics converging into a beautiful design. It was made in St. Petersburg, Russia’s window to the West, where art and architecture followed a European model. Moreover, we’re particularly fortunate to have Fabergé’s watercolor sketch. 

Our other Fabergé kovsh, of particularly impressive stature, was by contrast made in Moscow, and its polychrome enameled design reflects those origins, a hallmark of the eastern, Muscovite style. This circa 1910 example is Fabergé’s take on Slavic Revival, a stylistic movement that emerged in the nineteenth century when Russian artists turned to the medieval past for design inspiration. Also referred to as Pan Slavic, this style was a specialty of Fabergé’s Moscow branch.  Featuring contrasting fluid, bold art nouveau forms on the handle and upper portion of the cup, with purely geometric designs in a pastel palette on the base, this kovsh is also distinguished by the inscription on the handle, translating to “To the good memory of Russian friends,” for its 1914 presentation. 

side view, Antique Russian Gold, Red Lacquer, and Emerald CharkaThe charka, or charki (plural), is a small cup used for drinking strong drinks, predominantly vodka. They were traditionally made of silver, and their designs varied widely.  Like kovshi, in time they evolved into decorative objects, some inscribed as presentation gifts, others with drinking maxims. This example is by Alexander Treiden, head workmaster for the Russian court jeweler Carl Hahn (1836–1899), Fabergé’s highly regarded contemporary. Simply designed in red enamel and gold, the handle is set with an emerald.

No longer simply drinking vessels, over time the kovsh and charka became objects as worthy of display as any other work of art. And to that, we raise a toast!

Antique Russian Niello Dessert Service

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Gilded silver and niello dessert service, each piece richly decorated with intricately designed illustrations of gun dogs, wild game, and game birds set against varying landscapes.  34 pieces, comprising two sugar tongs, two cake servers, six coffee spoons, six teaspoons, six dessert spoons, six knives, and six forks.

By Nicholls and Plincke, St. Petersburg ca. 1850.

Images celebrating the hunt were a common design motif in nineteenth century decorative arts. The St. Petersburg firm Nicholls and Plincke, also known as Magasin Anglais, was established by two Englishmen, Constantin Nicholls and William Plincke, in 1829. One of the most important retailers of luxury items in Imperial Russia, the firm initially imported English silverware and also later produced designs inspired by it, in addition to a wide range of important works of silver, and thereby catered to Russian aristocracy’s growing taste for western design.

Niello is a method of decorating metal using a metallic alloy composed of silver, copper (or zinc), lead, and sulphur, which produces a blackish hue.  Used by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans, the technique later spread throughout Europe. It is known to have existed in Russia since the tenth century, and figured prominently in Russian decorative arts over the centuries.

other view of cutlery selection of antique Russian niello dessert servicedetail view of game bird decoration on Antique Russian niello dessert servicebox view of Antique Russian Niello Dessert Service

Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowl

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Fabergé silver-mounted Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware teapot and sugar bowl. The teapot features the Scottish motto “Tak a dish o’ Tea it’s unco refreshin,” which means, “Take a dash of tea it’s uncommonly refreshing.”  The sugar bowl features the motto, “Be canny wi’ the sugar,” which means, “Be careful with the sugar.”

This set speaks beautifully to Fabergé’s interest in mounting compelling porcelain and glass objects from other sources. This included decorative objects made locally in Russia, and abroad, such as this Cumnock Pottery, as well as Royal Doulton Burslem, Tiffany, and Gallé.

Established in Ayrshire, Scottland in 1792, Cumnock Pottery is most famous for its Motto Ware, which the company began producing around 1830. These pieces were inscribed with a favorite Scottish quote and usually requested for special occasions like weddings and christenings.

The pottery, Scottish, late 19th century.
The silver mounts, Fabergé, Moscow, ca. 1895.
Teapot height: 5 in.
Sugar bowl height: 5-1/2 in.

teapot only view of set of Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowlview of sugar bowl only of set of Fabergé Scottish Cumnock Pottery Motto Ware Teapot and Sugar Bowl

Fabergé Silver-mounted Kuznetsov Vase

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Kuznetsov pottery vase set in a silver mount by Fabergé, workmaster A. Nevaleinen.
St. Petersburg, Russia, ca. 1900.
Height: 3 ½ in.

This vase speaks beautifully to Fabergé’s interest in mounting compelling porcelain and glass objects from other sources. This included decorative objects made locally in Russia, like Kuznetsov, and abroad, such as Royal Doulton Burslem, Tiffany, and Gallé.

Kuznetsov founded his Moscow ceramics factory in 1810. The firm received the title “Purveyor to the Imperial Court” in 1902 and by the end of the Romanov era, had become the largest of its kind in Russia.

Fabergé Tenth Anniversary Frame

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A gift in 1901 from Grand Duke Michael Michailovitch to his wife Countess Sophie von Merenberg, a granddaughter of Pushkin, on the 10th anniversary of their marriage. Grand Duke Michael was a grandson of Nicholas I and a nephew of Alexander II.

The gilded silver and guilloché enamel frame features a Roman numeral ‘X’ with a wreath at its center, surrounded by four heart-shaped frames enclosing photographs of Grand Duke Michael (1860-1929) at the top, daughters Anastasia (b. 1892) at the left and Nadezhda (b. 1896) on the right, and son Michael (b. 1898) at the base, with their birth dates and framed scenes of their houses.

Provenance: Although the majority of Grand Duke Michael’s collection of Fabergé was at Luton Hoo, this frame descended in his family, as follows: Countess Sophie Nicholaievna von Merenberg, created Countess Torby; her daughter, Nadezhda (Nada), who married George Mountbatten, 2nd Marquess of Milford Haven; their son, David, 3rd Marques of Milford Haven; and his son, Lord Ivar Mountbatten.

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ALVR Blog: The Legend of Sadko

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Once upon a time, in late nineteenth century Russia, there was renewed interest in Russia’s past, and with that, a fascination with Russian fairy tales. This fascination transcended all art forms, from literature and theater to decorative arts. A ceramic charger in A La Vieille Russie’s collection brings this fairytale dream world to life. Executed in the Art Nouveau style, it features scenes from the eleventh- century Novgorod legend of Sadko.*

main view of ceramic charger depicting scenes from the legend of sadko

The oval central section depicts a grotesque octopus-like creature, the rim with Sadko on the right, playing a stringed instrument to three women (left) in diaphanous gowns and jeweled headpieces, on a moonlit shore, with bands of stylized motifs. Designed by Mikhail Vrubel and made by the Kuznetsov Porcelain Factory for the Imperial court.
Russian, 1889-1900.
Width: 28-1/2 inches; height: 24-1/2 inches

As the legend goes, one day a lonely and melancholic Sadko serenades the River Volkhov, proclaiming, “Rich man, poor man—it’s all the same to you. If only you were a woman! I’d marry you and live with you here in the city I love.” His music reaches the bottom of the river, so charming the King of the Sea that he rises to the river’s surface to invite Sadko to play at his palace feast.  As a reward, the King gives Sadko a fish with golden scales.

“Your Majesty, you are too generous!”

“Say no more about it! said the King. “Music is worth far more than gold. If the world were fair, you’d have your fill of riches!”

Sadko quickly sells the golden fish before commencing his journey to the palace deep beneath the ocean waves. Once there, Sadko’s music pleases the King of the Sea so much that he offers one of his daughters in marriage. Sadko chooses a bride, but is warned by the Queen that the slightest embrace will trap him beneath the sea forever, never to return to his beloved Novgorod. With this in mind, Sadko resists the Princess’s charms and awakens to find himself back in Novgorod.

Was it all a dream? Who knows? Sadko lived a good life in Novgorod – he became a wealthy merchant, married, and raised a family. While life was good, he never really forgot what lay beneath the River Volkhov.

“Sometimes still on a quiet evening he would walk out of the city alone, sit on the bank, and send his tinkling music over the water. And sometimes too a lovely head would rise from the river to listen—or perhaps it was only moonlight on the Volkhov.”

Legend has it that the Princess of the Sea can be seen at A La Vieille Russie, where the unusual is usual.TM See her for yourself, for more than an ephemeral glance, at 745 Fifth Avenue.

The end.

*excerpts from Aaron Shepard, The Sea King’s Daughter: A Russian Legend. New York: Atheneum, 1997. http://www.aaronshep.com/stories/032.html (accessed 7/21/20)

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ALVR Blog: A Shakespearean Star (Ruby)

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While we cannot enjoy the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park this year, for your viewing pleasure we are pleased to present a production of our own: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, starring July’s birthstone: ruby!

main view, Gold Midsummer Night's Dream Tiffany Brooch with Star Ruby

This Art Nouveau brooch by Tiffany & Co. takes inspiration from one of Shakespeare’s most famous works. The turn-of-the-twentieth-century movement focused on using new, freer forms of expression in an effort to break away from nineteenth-century historicism. Stylistic characteristics included nature, fantasy, curving lines, and female figures. A sinuous form surrounded by winged insects, a dragonfly and moth, and the brooch’s fantasy theme are quintessentially Art Nouveau. In the United States, Tiffany & Co. was the foremost company producing not only jewelry but also decorative art works in the Art Nouveau style. It is only fitting that an early Tiffany Art Nouveau piece would take inspiration from the fairy realm of a Shakespearean play.

The brooch features a 5.84-carat oval cabochon star ruby – referring to the six-pointed star visible within the stone. The use of such a stone in this design is particularly clever, with the lines of the asterism emphasizing the gold spider web surrounding it. The asterism gives the stone a magical, otherworldly quality, an enchanting phenomenon that inspires The Bard in all of us.

Tiffany Midsummer Night's Dream Brooch, ruby

In gemology history and lore, ruby is considered the king of precious gems, a title coming from the Sanskrit word, “ratnaraj.” The stone’s rarity and hardness (second to diamond) befit this title. Ruby was also valued for its perceived powers, like curing inflammatory diseases, predicting misfortune, soothing anger, and bringing success in love.

As a symbol of passion and power, ruby is an appropriate choice for a jewel inspired by one of literature’s most famous marital quarrels. To recap, Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, are estranged because Titania refuses to give Oberon her Indian changeling. Oberon retaliates by calling upon the fairy Puck to help him create a potion from a flower called “love in idleness.” When the concoction is applied to a sleeping person’s eyelids, they fall in love with the first living creature they see upon awakening.

“Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

Oberon hopes Titania will fall in love with an animal so he can shame her into giving up her changeling. The brooch depicts this moment of enchantment, when Oberon applies the potion to Titania’s sleeping eyelids and says:

“What thou seest when thou dost wake,
Do it for thy true-love take,
Love and languish for his sake:
Be it ounce, or cat, or bear,
Pard, or boar with bristled hair,
In thy eye that shall appear
When thou wakest, it is thy dear:
Wake when some vile thing is near.”

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Antiques and the Arts Weekly Speaks with ALVR’s Mark Schaffer

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Laura Beach of Antiques and the Arts Weekly (the “Bee”) learns more about Mark Schaffer and his gallery, A La Vieille Russie.  “Mark Schaffer, PhD, is a principal at A La Vieille Russie (ALVR), leading specialists in fine European and American antique jewelry, Fabergé, gold snuffboxes, objets de vertu and Russian decorative and fine arts. The company recently moved to sleek new quarters at 745 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The sun-splashed gallery is the fifth New York venue for this firm founded in Kiev in 1851. We caught up with the peripatetic dealer…”   Click here for the full article.