Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909), is not a famous metal-smith renowned through history as a true artisan of the craft. Benvenuto Cellini and others commanded name recognition he did not achieve, though his artistry is exquisite in its own right. No, sadly Herr Vasters true gifts are only considered in provenance and attribution as forgeries. The mere discovery of his records, found in the archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum, creates such controversy many museums are reticent to credit him with acknowledgment. Bought at auction in 1919 this large stock of the goldsmith’s designs clearly came from his workshop. In many cases, these elaborate drawings turned out to match completed objects of art thought to date from several centuries earlier. Giving credence to possessing an item viewed as a ‘fake’ makes any institution shudder, bringing entire collections under scrutiny. Vasters was a man of high quality whose motives may not have been primarily mercenary. A review of his drawings and records by an astute archivist in the 1970’s only proves that his hand created, copied or faked many pieces of jewelry and other items of splendor, based on true Renaissance pieces.
Working in Aachen, Germany during the 19th century, the young metal-smith left his maker’s mark on several items he restored at the Aachen Cathedral. A special commemorative anniversary of the church exposed his abilities to various dealers, one being Frederic Spitzer; dealer of antiquities, restorer of family heirlooms, salesman extraordinaire and jeweler to the stars of the day, including the Rothschilds. The passing of these two ships may not have amounted to anything, and Reinhold would continue on his path, working through a guild and perhaps making a name as a true artisan. Fate soon took hold, the death of his wife Katharina Hammacher in 1859 left him with two young daughters, the need to raise funds took on urgency, and his acquaintance with Spitzer brought work and money he did not question.
The Napoleonic conquests had resulted in an unprecedented destruction and dislocation of works of art in Europe. A gradual reawakening of national consciousness stimulated new interest in these scattered treasures. Frederic Spitzer appealed to this new society of bankers and merchants with his penchant for personal magnificence. Capitalizing on the practice of revitalizing broken or damaged works of art, particularly those made of metal is a practice of long tradition and not in itself illegitimate. The difficulties arise with deceptively optimistic descriptions and pedigrees attached to those results; and for this, Spitzer had a gift; his salon was visited by the new monied elite willing to overlook particularities of provenance in order to obtain objects worthy of their station in society.
Reinhold Vasters kept a library of drawings, prints and lithographs, as most artists, and it is from these pages we are able to glean the evidence of his collaboration with Spitzer and his meticulous instructions for creating reproductions. A variety of pendants and other jewelry illustrated in these pages are based upon true Renaissance pieces; a small scent bottle from the Medici collection now at the Museo Degli Argenti in Florence, possibly illustrated in one of the many pattern books from earlier periods that were in his possession.
While the design was augmented into a pendant, the original gold mounted bottle is banded with agate and set with rubies and diamonds. The enameled figures appear attired in the fashion of the day (1515-20), the period of the youthful Francois Medici I. A sketch by Vasters shows this bottle embellished with Schweifwerk, substituting the secular characters of the original with the busts of bearded Old Testament figures, named on the enameled bands as Abraham and Jonas. The bust portraits correspond in style to Paris enamels made about 1400. A matching piece, formerly owned by Spitzer, is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of the Lehman collection.
The archive additionally has several drawings for pendants in the form of mermaids wearing either a diadem or crown, sometimes holding a sun scepter, a motif known only in a prototype from the Medici collection in Florence.
Small changes in pendants to satisfy a client would be no matter, and these trinkets would have passed through history undetected, if not for that leftover library of drawings, which brings us to the Rospigliosi Cup. A treasure of immense value attributed to the colorful goldsmith Cellini now enjoyed by many visitors at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mentioned first in the Rospigliosi inventory of 1722 and later in a large colored illustration published by C. Becker and J. von Hefner Alteneck in Frankfurt, 1852. Description: Salt vessel of gold, enameled in different colors from the years 1540-70, said to be made by Benvenuto Cellini, the property of Prince Rospigliosi of Rome.
As a matter of record, Vasters owned a copy of this book. Eugene Plon included a photographic reproduction in his study of Cellini published in 1883, naming the Prince as the owner, but giving the location as the family ancestral seat at Lamporecchio in Tuscany. Plon stated that the prince had no documents authenticating the attribution to Cellini, but knew only that ‘this magnificent object’ had belonged to his ancestor, grand master of the court to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Nothing more was heard of the cup until 1909, when in London, dealer Charles Wertheimer sold the cup to Benjamin Altman, who bequeathed it to the museum.
Without detailing the metalwork on the cup and the question of workmanship, I offer a small item; the surprising detail of a small red crab found inside the shell of the cup; both in the 1852 illustration and in the museum’s version, where one might expect to find a pearl. It is significant that in its appearance and placement, the crustacean in the plate of 1852 differs slightly from its counterpart in the Museum’s cup; and the sketches of two comparable crabs exist among Vasters’ drawings.
Frederic Spitzer did publish an ambitious catalog of his collection in 1890, an illustrated six-volume work, with contributions by a number of well known specialists. When the collection was sold in 1892, a two-volume catalog was reissued. Both catalogs were listed in Vasters’ library when it was auctioned in 1919. His ownership of these volumes can only indicate that he was aware of Spitzer’s duplicity, and a willing accomplice. Without this evidence, it would be almost impossible to link Spitzer’s name with such an extraordinary array of objects, ranging from quality to made-to-order fakes. No doubt a great many items passed through Spitzer’s hands before he decided to catalog his collection, but no other record of these transactions remain.
As for Reinhold Vasters, he purchased a house in 1872, in which he would live until his death in 1909. The last year in which he was active as a goldsmith is 1890, the year of Spitzer’s death. According to Aachen city records, he was not registered as Rentner (retired) until 1895. During these later years, Vasters was a man of considerable means, no longer dependent wholly on the sale of church silver, but on other, more lucrative sources of income, evidently sufficient to enable him to participate as a collector of decorative arts in the Dusseldorf exhibition of 1880, and again in 1902, when he exhibited almost 500 objects.
Looking at the record of attribution much is assumed to be deliberately concealed, and may never be known. The connection with Spitzer, one of the great collector-dealers in Europe of the time, is firmly established. While there is a missing sense of Vasters the man from historical records, the financial rewards of his anonymous activities were sufficiently seductive to compensate for the loss of professional recognition. In spite of his attempts to avoid publicity, it is possible to link some examples of nineteenth century jewelry and goldsmith work to his name, acknowledging Reinhold Vasters as a striking interpreter of historic-ism in Europe.
Do you think Reinhold Vasters was a forger, or an artist, caught in the economic trap of times? Post your comments below, I would love to hear your opinions.
My thanks to Yvonne Hackenbroch, Curator Emeritus, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Until next time,
Mary Jo Gibson