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German Classical Fruit Set, c. 1840's, Engraved with Early American Scenes

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This exceptional 20 piece fruit set is a rare (and possibly unique) extant example of its type. The steel blades are decorated with early American scenes, similar to those found on historical blue Staffordshire of the 1820-40 period, but unheard of in commercial silver. Scenes represented include:

'Washington's Family Vault',
'Capitol Washington' (2),
'City of New York',
'Old Court House Philadelphia' (2),
'The City of Boston' (2)
and 'The City of London'.

These blades are truly exceptional. Made from steel, the scenes are acid etched (you can't engrave hard steel) probably twice - the scenes have more depth and precision than a single etching would allow. Then they were parcel-gilt by a chemical precipitation process. Lastly, a chemical 'bluing' agent was applied to give them a deep rich color on some - not all - of the ungilt surfaces. Each of these steps required highly skilled and detailed hand work.

We have shown these to Otto Suchy, the former conservator at the Higgins Armory in Worcester, MA (who supplies most of the above process information). The blades remind him of swords made in Solingen, the important steel making town in Germany near Dusseldorf. Suchy says, "I've never seen work this good."

The silver hollow handles feature neoclassical decoration of Biedermeier style. The end is capped with a trellised dome with reeding extending down the handle (similar to columns on a building). In the center, a shield in a cartouche leads to a swirling foliate and floral design. A band of diagonal reeding meets the blades.

The print source for these scenes is currently a mystery. The Capitol in Washington did not have the Charles Bullfinch dome depicted here until 1828 and Washington's tomb was not completed until 1837. Bartlett's famous prints, circulated widely in Europe after 1840, do not seem to match these blades. It appears that some original designs on the knives may have been stretched to fit the blades. Liberties have been taken with 'Washington's Vault,' and it may be based on a print that predates the 1837 completion.

Each piece is marked near the blade with a '13' in a rectangular cartouche, typical of early/mid 19th century German (usually southern) silver marks. There are no makers marks. The knives measures 7.625 inches long and the forks are 6.75 inches long.

They are in good/very good antique condition, the original bluing shows varying amounts of wear from use and there is a little pitting to the steel. Steel does not last well in domestic food-related settings. Any original blade from this period is rare, and the survival of this set is extraordinary.

Provenance: From a private collection. This collector purchased these in the early 1990's indirectly from the estate of Norman Aslin, a Baltimore antiques dealer.