This handsomely illustrated volume produced by the Georg-Dehio-Gesellschaft with a grant from German government demonstrates that the gold- and silversmiths of what is today Estonia and Latvia produced high quality products which have survived the political turmoils of the past in surprising quantity and condition. It also provides a narrative history of these craftsmen from c.1350 to 1920 and a visual commentary on the social habits of the Baltic German upper and middle classes.
Artisan guilds (Schra in the Low German used in the Baltic) provided protection for their members against unregulated competition, guaranteed assistance for ill and aged members, and assured a respectable burial service; they were the members' voice in local politics; their oversight of production limited the temptation to produce goods too fast or with inferior materials, thus guaranteeing customer satisfaction. The "Große Gilde" and "Kleine Gilde" (the "large" and "small" guild, merchants and workers respectively) maintained extensive ceremonial silver collections, mostly customary gifts presented by office-holders upon assuming their duties. Other guilds possessed similar ceremonial silver collections, most famously the Blackheads of St. Mauritius.
Churchmen required candlesticks, crucifixes, and communion cups; laity needed drinking cups (sometimes very elaborate ones), serving vessels, silverware, and eventually coffeepots and teapots. Fine examples have survived, customarily decorated with Biblical scenes, coats-of-arms, and inscriptions. Sporting clubs provided elaborate cups for winners of events, most commonly the shooting competitions. All that seems to be missing in this volume is coinage, which did not fall under the oversight of the guilds and which can be seen in numismatic publications.
A good knowledge of German is essential to fully appreciate the commentaries with their rich information on the changing customs of the guilds and societal tastes. The "Willkommpokale", for example, were originally masterpieces for entry to the goldsmiths' guild; these elaborate display cups 50-70 cm in height in the baroque and rococo styles were usually surmounted by a knight or ship; they were purchased by the richest guilds for their new members, to be displayed prominently in homes or places of business. Tiny silver shields with individual names were customarily hung about the vessel's neck, making for an uncomplicated change in ownership. Less wealthy guilds provided new members with elegant but more practical drinking cups.
Some plates and vessels were purely for display, others combined ostentation with utilitarian purposes. Minimal German will suffice to appreciate this. The photos are enhanced by the large size of the page and the high gloss paper used throughout the book; a few illustrations are in color, to remind those of us who live largely in an aluminum and stainless steel world of the extraordinary beauty of gold and polished silver.
The last third of the volume is a collector's guide to the trademarks of the various masters, organized by the twenty-four cities and towns that had guilds, together with a skeletal biography of each master. Each trademark is produced exactly, so there can be no doubt as to its appearance on any silver piece one may have. An index to the masters, an extensive bibliography, a glossary, and facsimiles of various documents conclude the work. All in all, a production that should earn the author entry into the master's guild of art books.