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Joseph Heinrichs: The Aztec Vase Massive Antique Sterling Silver Vase, New York City, c. 1905

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Monumental in both size and presence, this magnificent vase is an extremely rare example of Heinrichs working in solid sterling. Featuring an exceptional three- dimensional realistically modeled Native American set vertically along the vase, it includes applied, die-rolled, acid etched and hand engraved decoration.

Resting on a spreading foot with acid etched decoration of American Indian inspiration, the large vase has an extruded band with more acid etched decoration. Upon this band rests two applied shields with applied hanging feathers. The Indian figure stands upon a three dimensional bison head along with pine cones, needles and maize leaves in deep relief.

The brilliantly executed figure of the American Indian, measuring 11 inches tall, emerges from the vase with his lower portions in deep relief while his upper portions are three dimensional. Fully clothed with a feathered headdress, he stands proudly holding a peace pipe.

Behind him, two die rolled bands and more acid etched decoration continue up the neck which ends with a rolled rim. 'Aztec' is artistically engraved on the reverse of the body.

At the end of the 19th century, as Native Americans became less of a physical threat and the American frontier 'closed', Americans began to romanticize the native inhabitants. Tiffany and others began to use Native American designs for inspiration and both the 1901 Buffalo 'Pan-American' and the 1904 St. Louis 'Louisiana Purchase' expositions had 'ethnographic' exhibits that included natives of the Americas.

American Indians often symbolized (a circa 1900 concept of) a respectful coexistence with nature and a romanticized view of an important and proud people.

Joseph Heinrichs is best known for his exceptional copper pieces inspired by the American west. Usually these pieces incorporate applied silver mounts and sometimes include applied horn, bone and/or arrowheads attached with silver thread resembling Native American sewing with withes. Click here for an example. Pieces by him in solid sterling are extremely rare.

Considering the exceptional quality of his 'artistic' copper and silver wares, very little is known today about Joseph Heinrichs. He was born to Johann Michael and Gurtrud Heinrichs in Vital, Adendorf, Rhineland, Prussia on the 23rd of February, 1866. Arriving from Germany on the 10th of May, 1895, he was naturalized as a US citizen on July 1, 1902. Those records indicate he was a silversmith and lived at 134 West 22nd St.(1)

Heinrichs' shop was located in the fashionable section of Manhattan across from the Flatiron Building at 948 Broadway in a building known as Madison Square Hall. The hall included space open to events such as political meetings, sporting events (billiards) and art exhibitions. The American Art Association/ American Art Galleries (later to become Anderson Galleries which was subsequently subsumed by Parke Bernet and later bought out by Sotheby's) had office space, galleries and auctions at 6 Madison Square South and around the corner at 940-948 (Madison Sq. Hall) and 950-958 Broadway.(2) Heinrichs located his shop in the perfect place to be known by New York's art cognoscenti.

Many of his shop's wonderful creations were sold wholesale to such varied stores and geographic locations as Tiffany's in New York; Shreve, Crump & Low in Boston, J. E. Caldwell in Philadelphia and Shreve & Co. in San Francisco. Hence some of his pieces are signed and many others are attributed - bearing only a retailer's mark.

Unlike many of his competitors, Heinrichs never exhibited at world's fairs. He is not listed as an exhibitor at the 1901 Buffalo 'Pan-American'(3), the 1904 Saint Louis 'Louisiana Purchase'(4) or the 1914 San Francisco 'Panama-Pacific'(5) expositions. Possibly this was to appease his retailer clientele as his best objects are certainly exposition quality and his western themes would have been popular at each of these fairs.

According to Heinrichs' newspaper ads and listings in directories, the thrust of his retail business was innovative 'bi-metal'(6) coffee urns and chafing dishes heated with both improved traditional alcohol burners and modern electrical elements. In promotional stories, he claims to have over four hundred styles of coffee urns in stock at his store.(7)

He advertised his coffee urns in the New York Times, Tribune and Argus; he listed himself under 'Coffee & Tea Pots & Urns' in city directories, claiming to be the 'best coffee pot, chafing dish and tea kettle store in existence'.(8) NYC Directories list his 948 Broadway shop from 1902-29 and another shop at 461 5th Ave in 1916.(9) By then, he had moved his home to 148 West 21 Street.(10)

Patent records show his inventive nature. He patented improvements to coffee urns, an alcohol burner for coffee urns and chafing dishes, a cocktail ('drinks') shaker and serving dishes.(11)

Heinrichs' customers included many hotels and restaurants. A 1903 directory listing indicates he manufactured 'hotel specialties'(12) and the 1937 bankruptcy filing notes 'manufacture and selling of restaurant, club and hotel supplies'.(13) US patent number 1717974 assigned to Heinrichs on June 18, 1929 is for improved stacking dishes and covers of 'great importance particularly for hotel uses.'(14)

Yet it is his success with these more commercial lines that allowed Heinrichs to pursue the artistic copper and silver that we remember him for today. Examining the occasional pieces that come on the market today, it would be hard to argue with this contemporary reviewer's description of Heinrichs' shop contents:

...the latest development in the evolution of copper as an ornamental metal...beautiful pieces of plain copper and hammered copper and bronzed copper and copper that has been experimented on [mounted with silver, horn and artifacts] with the most satisfying results, every piece of artistic color and shape and perfect in detail. (15)

This stunning vase measures nearly 20 inches tall and weighs 97.4 troy ounces. It is marked 'STERLING' underneath and was marked 'Joseph Heinrichs/ Paris + New York'. Most of his mark has been buffed off (we assume by a retailer), but is still possible to see the start of his mark. It is in very good/ excellent antique condition.


  1. Conversation with D. Albert Soeffing, July 9, 2013. Don believes this information supersedes that published in Silver in America in 1994.
  2.  American Art Galleries/ American Art Association address at the time was 6 East 23rd Street (Madison Park South) and during parts of this period leased parts of 940-948 Broadway and owned 950-958 Broadway. See The New York Supplement, Volume 141, Permanent Edition, (New York City: West Publishing Co., 1913), pp. 353-54.
  3. Correspondence with Susan Eck, private researcher, June 17, 2013.
  4. Official Catalogue of Exhibitors, Universal Exposition, St. Louis, USA, Revised Edition, (St. Louis: The Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company, 1904)
  5. Official Catalog of Exhibits, Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915 (The Walgreen Company, N.D.)
  6. Trow's Business Directory of Greater New York, 1902, lists Heinrichs as "Bi-Metal & French Steam Coffee Pot Co." where he is a 'partner and general manager'.
  7. 'To Make French Coffee' in the New York Daily Tribune, 18 December 1904, p. 4.
  8. Trow's General Directory of New York City, 1914
  9. Trow's General Directory of New York City, 1916
  10. Loc. Cit.
  11. US patent records numbers: 747705, 766618, 851417,950288, 1357051, 1717974.
  12. Trow's Business Directory of Greater New York, 1903.
  13. 'Business Records' in The New York Times, 19 April 1937.
  14. US Patent number 1717974, lines 92-93.
  15. 'Things Odd and Beautiful in Copper, for use in Den, Library and Dining Room' in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 6 August 1905, p.6.