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Author Topic:   Mysterious inscriptions
iconnumber posted 04-08-2001 11:11 PM           Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Here's a mystery that's been puzzling me for a while. I've got an 18th-century French silver marriage cup, properly hallmarked for Paris, 1784, and of the correct style for the period. The only odd thing about it is that the rim is inscribed with the name and date "de Roquefeuille 1779." Now, why would a 1784 cup end up with a 1779 inscription?

Moreover, this is something I've noted quite often with French silver of the late 18th and early 19th century: there's an inscription that includes a date earlier than the hallmark. The phenomenon seems especially common on goblets, beakers, wine-tasters, etc. And I've never seen anything like it on English or American silver.

I can think of a few explanations for this, none of them quite satisfactory. One, of course, is that the inscriptions were added by unscrupulous dealers to make the pieces more attractive. But on my marriage cup, as on the goblet I've linked to, the inscription is in proper 18th-century style, with as much wear as the rest of the cup. Furthermore, until recently, most collectors preferred pieces without inscriptions (some still do).

Another explanation is that the date commemorates some important earlier event (eg, the date the owner was born, as in the case of the goblet). But why? And my marriage cup was naturally bought for the occasion of a marriage ... so why would they engrave a date of five years earlier?

One final theory I came up with is that later, 19th-century family members, having inherited the pieces and wanting to show off the fact that they were heirlooms, engraved them with the family name and (since they couldn't interpret the hallmarks) a date that seemed about right, erring on the side of making it older. This seems the most plausible explanation, but it still doesn't quite ring true.

Does anyone else out there have any ideas?

I'll try to post photos of the marks and inscription on my 1784/1779 cup.

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iconnumber posted 04-08-2001 11:45 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for wev     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I have no real knowledge of the family habits of the French (who does?), but I can suggest one possibility by way of a personal example. My uncle bought 2 dozen silver punch cups by Dirk Van Erp in the late 40s. He has been giving them out to all the new-borns in the family, with appropriately dated inscriptions, for nearly 60 years. He even gave a retroactive pair to my sisters who were born several years before he acquired them. A hundred years from now, cup in hand, someone may pose the same sort of question as you have. The point is that inscriptions can be introduced to a piece for a variety of reasons, probable and improbable; there may be cultural traditions at play here or just family idiosyncrasies, to say nothing of revolutions.

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iconnumber posted 04-08-2001 11:53 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for wev     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I seem to remember -- and I may be having a wee fugue here -- something from a Victor Hugo story that may pertain. It had to do with the laws of inheritance - passed down family goods were exempt, but new items were subject to a steep tax. If true, it would seem a good reason to back-date a bit of pricey silver. might be worth a bit of digging.

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iconnumber posted 04-09-2001 09:06 AM           Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks, wev, for reminding us that all families have their eccentricities ... and perhaps French ones have a few more than usual. Hmmm, perhaps this little mystery holds the key to understanding what makes the French tick! Well, I won't bet on it.

Seriously, these kinds of questions -- the way that objects "remember" things about the cultures that created them -- are what make silver (and other artifacts) so fascinating to study, right?

I do like your tax-inspection explanation -- especially the Victor Hugo part. True, Europeans (and even some Americans!) have been known to do all sorts of ingenious things to avoid giving the government its share. But if I noticed that the inscription was earlier than the hallmarks, wouldn't the tax inspectors have been wise to the trick as well?

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