Dating Late Gothic Statues: A figurine of doubtful origin
Dating Late Gothic Statues: A figurine of doubtful origin.
After the Napoleontic wars a periode of technological development and economic grow begins. This results into a new generation of very rich people a couple of decades later. Many of the nouveau-riches start collecting objects of art. In particular small objects from the late middle ages and the early renaissance. As a result of the high demand for such objects the stock of original objects is exhausted fast.
Art trade started to make objects in the style of the late middle ages and the renaissance; a new industry was created. To prove that newly made objects were “authentic old” objects were given monograms of famous artists like Dürer and traces of wear. Objects of boxwood, ceramics, Limoges email and glass were popular among forgerers because these material have a good resistance against damage and wear.
In other words, an old object looks like a new one and a new one has the appearance of an old one. A significant detail is that a new object was seldom a copy of an existing object. Always “in the style of” and that makes it difficult to identify the object’s real age.
This article is about the history of a small boxwood figurine that I believe was made mid-19th century.
The figurine “Richly dressed lady”was bought in 2020 by the Bonnefanten museum in Maastricht from Blumka Art in New York as an early 17th century object. The Bonnefanten museum was able to identify this figurine as to be carved by Jan van Steffeswert by his signature. Jan van Steffeswert was a Dutch woodcarver active in Maastricht early 16th century.
4 owners are known: Anselm Salomon von Rothschild, Nathaniel Meyer von Rothschild, Alphonse Meyer von Rothschild and Ernest Brummer.
Anselm von Rothschild (1803-1874) bought the figurine between 1848 en 1853 in Vienna from art dealer Ampichel14.
The first description of the figurine dates from 1860 in the cataloque of the Exhibition of objects of art (Ausstellung von Kunstgegenständen)
organised by the Wiener Alterthums-Vereine. It was described as “Portraitstatuette”.
In 1866 the statuette is called “Costumefigürchen” by Franz Schestag who compiled his “Katalog der Kunstsammlung von Freiherr Anselm von Rothschild in Wien, vol 1”.
The figurine, by inheritance in the collection of Alphonse Meyer von Rothschild, was confiscated by the Nazi-regime in 1938. Registrated as A.R.2458 (ZentralDepotKarteien, Wenen) the figurine was described as a “Nürnberger Patrizerin in reiche Tracht”, 16. Jh.5. On the photo the figurine is standing on a postament in deuzième-empire-style.
In 1948 the figurine was returned to the Von Rothschild-family.
In 1950 art collector and art dealer Ernest Brummer bought the statue from Blumka Art. In 1979 “the Ernest Brummer Collection” is on auction. The figurine, described as “A richly dressed Lady”, early 17th cent, Germany, buxus, is lot 145.6 The figurine is on auction without a postament. It is not known if the figurine was sold at that time.
In 2019 Blumka offers on their website the figurine for sale with the description of 1979.7 The statuette was also on the Tefaf New York fair in 1919.
The Bonnefantenmuseum buys the Ritchly dressed lady in 2020 from Blumka Arts and pays
€ 120.000, with a financial support of € 60.000 given by Vereniging Rembrandt.
In the NRC-journal of 01-10-2022 an article was published about looted art by Nazi-Germany.8
The article also contained an explicit notice about the fact that Tefaf vetting committee unanimously believed that the figurine was an early 19th centuty figurine. Some discussions later the vetting committee agreed with Blumka’s early 17th century dating.
A couple of weeks later the Bonnefantenmuseum attributed the statuette to Jan van Steffeswert. This attribution surprised the vetting committee very much according to one of the committees members.
The explicit mention of this fact by the NRC is noteworthy because the age of the figurine was not the subject of the article.
Doubts about the age and no proper dating research
There are first the doubts of the Tefaf vetting committee who estimated the date unanimously as early 19th century.
The auction catalogue of the “de Brummer Collection” mentioned early 17th century; also 100 years later than the working life of Jan van Steffeswert.
From early 19the century boxwood became very popular and many small statuettes and other small luxurious objects with and without carvings were made from boxwood. Many of these statuettes were made in late medieval and renaissance style. The Richly dressed lady fits in terms of style in that 19th century period.
The presence of Dürer’s signature on the Ritchly dressed lady is also a reason to doubt the age since Dürer’s signature is well-known for its use to counterfeit an object.
Dendrochronological analysis or a C-14 dating allows for a relatively accurate date of felling the tree. The felling date is a good indication of the carving date of the statuette. Both dating methods are basically indispensable tools to estimate or to check the age of a wooden object. In this case both dating methods can be used because the relatively large surface of the base allows for a sufficient number of tree rings and also allows for a spot to take a wood sample for a C14-dating. Most important fact is that the statuette and the base belong tot the same piece of wood.
Despite the doubts of the Tefaf vetting committee and all other mentionned reasons to look with a critical eye at the dating of the figurine are known to the Bonnefantenmuseum, a dating analysis was not carried out. The reason for not having a dendrochronological analysis was that no 50 tree rings were available to get a sufficient accurate result. In this case the condition of 50 tree rings is not necessary because the dating analysis needed only to exclude the periode after 1510. A dating of early 16th century is more than sufficient.
The reason for not having a C-14 dating analysis is not known.
What or who does the figurine represent
At a closer look it turns out that the figurine is a nicely dressed heavily pregnant woman who shows her pregnancy. There is no doubt that the woman is pregnant because her bodice immediately protrudes under her breasts while the bodice of non-pregant woman starts lower to come forward, even if the non-pregnant woman has a stockier posture.
The hollow back with a hand supporting her back is a wellknown gesture of heavily pregnant woman when having backpain caused by the baby’s weight.
The course of the tied ribbon around the waist emphasizes her pregnancy. Some authors describe the pose as challenging because of the hand on her “hip”. So far, nobody has seen that this Ritchly dressed lady is pregnant.
The very naturally depicted position of the upper body, the head, he arms, the slightly raised breasts and the bulging belly show that the woodcarver used a heavily pregnant woman, suitably dressed, as a model. Maybe his own wife.
According to Roman Catholic tradition female saints were usually virgins. This is clearly a non-religious statuette and in the Middle Ages non-religious statuettes are very rare.
Comparing style characteristics appears to be a common method for establishing a date. Unfortunately, this is not an objective unequivocal method, because subjective elements also play a role. Subjective in the sense of what one person considers to be a defining feature, another assessor may not. This method requires comparable objects with a fixed date.
In this case there are not even boxwood figurines with which to compare. Not from Jan, not from others. Other methods are therefore necessary, such as a C-14 measurement.
It is risky to identify an artist on style characteristics. Of course, a sculptor can give certain details his own design and maintain that for all his work. However, others can also give the same effect, such as the students in the sculptor’s studio, known as “from the school of”, it can also be a coincidence. In the case of a copied object, the style characteristics correspond to the characteristics of the original and the wrong artist is regarded as the maker. So to identify a certain artist on style characteristics is not a good idea in my opinion.
However, something can be said about other works of art by Jan van Steffeswert.
The works of Jan van Steffeswert that I have seen and the boxwood figurine are diametrically opposed to each other in terms of artistic origanallity and technical elaboration. In general, Van Steffeswert’s statues can be called functional, they convey the message, with a simple effect without excess. This characterization of Jan van Steffeswert’s style is confirmed by Jeremy Warren2 in his depiction of a St Catharina statue by (the studio of) Jan van Steffeswert: “while not a work of the highest level, is a competent and pleasing composition”. Unlike the figurine that exudes pride of a woman wrapped in luxutious clothe and valuables.
Sculptures by medieval carvers are unique. Clothing was depicted by them according to the fashion of the time in their living environment.
Clothing is therefore a good means of dating a statue. For example, at the end of the 15th century, the neck becomes more open.
The figurine’s carver clearly seems to be unaware of the “clothing protocol” and what medieval clothing looked like in the different periods.
This clothing consists of a mixture of different style periods (15th to early 17the century). Like the open neckline and cloak are 15th century as well as the waistline. However, the cloak decoration and undershirt are from the 16th century. The sleeve is from the mid-16th century but the collar is from the early 17th century. The necklace is also early 17the century. The carver added his own inventions, such as the decoration on the headgear. The head covering consists of a combination of a 15the century hood with a Tudor-like decoration from the late 16th century.
As an expert wrote to me: “The cloting can be described as medieval clothing as it is worn at contemporary fairs and the like”10
This mixture of cloting styles is also mentioned in the 1979 Brummer auction catalogue.
In the auction catalogue it is stated at lot 145 that the clothing of the figurine corresponds to clothing at the end of the 15 century. Due to some special details that date from a much later period (which is also called) the statuette was dated as 17th century.
Because of the clothing features, people came to the same conclusion as the undersigned: this is not a late Gothic statuette.
That the carver’s knowledge of medieval clothing leaves much to be desired is also apparent from the following.
The footwear on the lef foot has an open toe, while a trip would be more appropriate with the festive cloak.
The decorations along the edges of the cloak have sleek square shapes. As a result, the cloak is more reminiscent of a cloak for man than for women.
All clothing details indicate that the carver lived much later than in the Middle Ages due his poor knowledge of medieval clothing. As a result, the statue cannot be late Gothic statue either.
Comparison with Saint Balbina from Millen (Germany.)
An important role as a source of inspiration for the carver seems to be reserved for the statue of Saint Balbina from Millen. The image of Balbina from the catalogue of the Jan van Steffeswer exhibition in 200011 put me on the right track.
If we compare the figurine with Balbina, we see the following, among other things.
Balbina’s eyes are typical of the Middle Ages: high raised eyebrows with a fairly slight curve from the eyebrow to the eyelid. The eyes of the figurine have a more natural progression from the eyebrow to the eyelid.
The headgear of the figurine and that of Balbina are almost identical. If one would apply semi-precious stones on Balbina’s headgear, the head covering of the figurine will be created. So far I have not found any other statues with similar headgear.
On an superficial look, the decorations on the statuettes headgear appear to ressemble the jewelled “Tudor”-headdresses of after 1560. Chance?
The figurine’s headgear cannot be linked to a particular period. According to experts, the headgear is the sculptor’s own invention.
The hairstyle is very interesting. The curls in the hair on the back of the figurine are very remarkably similar to Balbina’s curlst at first sight due
to the equal wavelength and the way they are cut. But there are differences. With the figurine, the waves of the different hair strands are opposite to each other (in antiphase). With Balbina, the waves on all strands all go in the same direction (in phase))
It is almost inevitable that the sculptor drew the hair fall and then gave it his own version. The loose haircut is not strange in itself because it was most likely the haircut for civilian woman. A similar hairstyle can also be seen with other carvers like Tilman Riemenschneider.
Another point of simularity is the shoulder cover. Where with Balbina it is still a part attached to the collar, with the figurine it was integrated with the collar of the bodice while retaining the basic shape.
Because of these details, it seems very likely that the woodcarver used Balbina from Millen as one of his sources of inspiration. This could indicate that the carver worked or originated in the region. After all, Balbina in Millen was not worshipped and was only known locally. Nor was Millen a place of pilgrimage.
Other corresponding details
The hexagonal discs on the headgear on the left and right near the ears are common decorations in the 15th and 16th centuries. They also appear on a painted side panel of the passion altarpiece in the St Trudokerk in Opitter (B) from 1540 and on the statue of Mary Magdalene in Maastricht. The bust with a striking pointed collar and lower bodice can be seen at St. Lucia in Leuven.
In view of the various special cloting details and the decoration of the headgear, it is inevitable that the carver was also inspired by paintings. By viewing paintings in museums I assume unless the carver could walk into all the rich in Europe who had their wives portrayed. Since the first public museum in England did not appear until the end of the 17th century (the first Dutch museum is the Teyler Museum, which followed in 1784, and in France, the Louvre, which was founded after the French revolution), the many clothing styles argue for a date after 1800. Here is another clue that the carver did not live in the late Middle Ages.
I summarize the findings regarding the clothing as follows. The style characteristics of the clothing cover several style periods. Some clothing details are not datable. The carver of the figurine did not adhere to the cloting tradition of his late Gothic colleagues. He apparently had insufficient knowlegde about medieval clothing or thought it was not beautiful enough. He was inspired by medieval statues and paintings from later periods. Then he just took what he liked from it.
The style of some important clothing elements dates from well after 1535/1540, which is also stated in the auction catalogue.
According to an expert from the Bonnefantenmuseum, the wood of the figurine has not been identified and it has been assumed that it was boxwood because “this kinds of small figurines were often made of boxwood”10.
This statement led me to the following important question, which cannot be answerd directly: did Jan van Steffeswert know boxwood?
Boxwood had to be imported from southern Europe. Jan van Steffeswert mainly used local wood for his sculptures. This may indicate that Jan van Steffeswert had little or no contact with the international timber trade. That makes it unlikely that Jan knew about the existence of boxwood. The use of boxwood for sculptures in the Middle Ages in the Rhine-Meuse area and in Brabant is unknown to me. The figurine would therefore be the only medieval boxwood figurine that was produced in the wider area of Maastricht (Belgium and the Netherlands) around 1500.
From the first quarter of the 19th century, boxwood became a popular type of wood for small figurines and other small luxury carvings.
This resulted in a large supply of, among other things, figurines in medieval and renaissance style by the trade art. Illegal practices12 were not shunned to encourage a potential buyer to buy.
This makes the 19th century a very plausible date for the figurine. Anselm von Rothschild bought the figurine between 1848 and 185313. The period 1845-1853 could therefore be an acceptable estimate for the dating of the figurine.
Anselm von Rothschild must have known that the figurine could be counterfeit medieval because of the ridiculously low purchase price13, which would be now € 830. Anselm liked the figurine; dating was apparently less important to him. Franz Schestag helped obscure the real age of the Costumefigürchen with an elaborate description of the postament with counterfeit 16th century Limogestyle plaques.4
The IAN signature
The lower edge of the cloak is decorated. At the back of the figurine into the lower edge of the cloak is carved the inscription IAN. That is worth a closer look.
On the photo I have marked the places where traces of the partly cut-away original decoration are present near the name inscription. Below that on the left I have drawn the original signature of Jan van Steffeswert and on the right what the forged inscription looks like.
The fact that there was originally a decoration on the cloak shows that the carver of the figurine did not intend to place his signature there.
After all, no skilled carver carves a beautiful decoration only to later carelessly cut it away and replace it with his signaure, knowing that there is plenty of space for that inscription on the still empty pedestral. Traditionally, the carving of his signatue is the last work done on the figurine by the woodcarver. The inscription itself is not a correct representation of Jan van Steffeswert’s signature.
The signature and the area around it lack the precision of the carving that is present on the rest of the figurine. Clearly the work of a different and less skilled person and applied afterwards.
Place of the inscription IAN
With a just completed figurine, the pedestral is still completely empty, so there is enough space to carve a signature there as a final act. With his other signed works Jan shows that he is proud of his work and therefore he puts his signature in a clearly visible place, usually on the pedestral.
The figurine is in all respects an object to be proud of and nevertheless the signature is in a barely perceptible place: in a fold in the cloak at the back of the figurine. The location of the signature does not suit Jan van Steffeswert.
The choise of the place of the signature shows that the forger was less familiar with Jan van Steffeswert’s habit of placing his signature in a clearly visible place or perhaps he knew but that the other signs (Dürer-monogram, 1510, P and R) on the pedestral forced him to choose a different place for the signature.
If I take all the facts together, my conclusion is that there is a poorly counterfeit signature IAN by Jan van Steffeswert, which is also applied in a way that a real carver would not do.
When can the IAN-signature be applied
I am convinced that the figurine was examind very carefully in 1938. There is nothing about a IAN-inscription on the ZDK-card. In 1979 there is no mention of it either. That could imply that the forged signature was carved between 1979 and 2020, but that is by no means certain.
It is possible that the signature was there before, but was less visible due to accumulated dust and other debris. Natural or deliberate pollution? It remains a guess as to the carving date of the signature.
After the exhibitions in Hasselt (1961), Stevensweert (1966 and 1988) and Maastricht (2000) the name recognition of Jan van Steffeswert has become much greater. Before that, Jan van Steffeswert was a little-known sculptor of whom people did not know how large his production could have been. This may have been reasons for the forger to use Jan’s signature. The signature could then be of a fairly recent date.
Other inscriptions found on the pedestral
On the pedestral are carved the Dürer-monogram, the year 1510 and the capital letters P K. These inscription were mentioned in the Ausstellingskatalog in 1860, but were already present at the time of the purchasse by Anselm von Rothschild13.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is best known for his woodcuts and engravings, the prints of which were also published in book form. He signed his work with this monogram. However, Dürer did not make any statues.
Albrecht Dürer’s monogram was often imitated to convince people that the (much younger) art object was made by Dürer and would therefore date from around 1500. The object would therefore be worth a lot. Finding the Dürer-monogram on the “Richly dressed lady” is in itself proof that the figurine is of a later date.
Evidence that the forgery was more common with Dürer’s monogram is a statue of the Virgin and child, also from Anselm von Rothschild’s collection and now in the Metropolitan Museum. This boxwood statue also has the Dürer-monogram on the pedestral4.
The year 1510 was probably cut at the same time as the Dürer-monogram. The 5 does not correspond to the 5 as Jan van Steffeswert usually cut.
The capital letters P and R could be the sculptor’s monogram. Or maybe not.
Pierre Raymond was a well-known 16th-century draughtsman and enamelist from Limoges. Raymond signed his work with the monogram P R. Raymond’s monogram is known to have widely imitated, particularly in the 19th century.
Is there a connection between Pierre Raymond’s monogram and the figurine? It may be that Pierre Raymond’s figurative mark was put on it as being the figurative mark of the statue carver. But it doesn’t really matter because all that matters is that there are 2 figurative marks, at least one of which is counterfeit, on it and that fact is sufficient reason te believe that the dating “late medieval” is incorrect.
It is worth noting that Baron Anselm von Rothschild also had in his collection an enameled bowl signed by Pierre Raymond. He lent the bowl for the Ausstellung of 1860 (Katalog nr 220 on page 48). Franz Schestag described the bowl in his “Katalog”4 under Limogen No. 7.
Since limoges enamel was also widely imitated at that time, there is a chance that this bowl is also counterfeit.
In 1869 the Monatschrift für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe in Vienna published an article on counterfeit12. The author reported that because of the high demand for original art objects and their high price in Europe, an entire counterfeiting industry of art objects in late Gothic and Renaissance style had developed. To make the dating appear credible, monograms and other tricks were also used to give these new objects a matching older appearance. The author advised to pay close attention when making any purchase.
A possibly similar case
A situation that to some extent raises similar questions is the statue of Mary with Child on the crescent moon of St Mary’s College Oscott in Birmingham. On the pedestral is the inscription Ian van Steffesweerd, That figurine was purchased by Augustus Pugin (the founder of Oscott) in Belgium in 1839. Upon my inquiry, the curator at Oscott reported that they have no other information about the figurine. According to the curator, Pugin was often looking for examples for the College’s woodcarving department. It is certain, however, that Pugin also visited Liège.
The sculpture carved with very fine details is of boxwood. In contrast, the pedestral with the inscription Ian van Steffesweerd is of walnut. No sculptor makes a sculpture from different types of wood. Possibly it is a mariage of a new sculpture and an old pedestral with a signature on it of which it is not clear whether it is an original or counterfeit signature.
I have used the points of interest mentioned in my article “Dating Late Gothic Statues” to try to ascertain the truth about the dating of the figurine “Richly dressed lady” and I made it to the best of my ability. My conclusions include the following.
The conglomeration of existing and nonexistent clothing styles, some of those clothing details came in fashion only after the death of Jan van Steffeswert, clearly shows that the figurine is not a late Gothic figurine.
It is clear that the sculptor drew much inspiration from statues and viewing portraits in public museums. Since the first public museum came into existence in the 17th century, this also confirms that the figurine was carved several centuries after the Middle Ages.
The use of boxwood indicates that the figurine dates from the 19th century. After all, no other (late Gothic) statues made of boxwood have been found in a very wide area around Maastricht. This makes the 19th century as dating for the figurine very plausible. Taking into account the purchase between 1848 and 1853 by Anselm von Rothschild, the period 1845-1853 could be an acceptable estimate for the dating. Dendrochronological research or a C14 measurement will have to give a definitive answer about the “exact” age of the figurine.
The fact that the figurine is not a late Gothic figurine rules out the possibility that Jan van Steffeswert could have been its carver.
The execution of the carving shows that an experienced carver was at work. The style of the figurine does not match the style of Jan van Steffeswert’s sculptures. The figurine is not by the hand of Jan van Steffeswert.
With regard to the signature found, I was able to establish the following.
With a just-completed figurine, the pedestral is completely empty and offers enough space to carve a signature there as Jan van Steffeswert was accustomed to doing. In the case of this figurine, the inscription IAN is carved in a difficult to perceive place on the back in a fold of the cloak at the lower edge of the cloak. Moreover, this required cutting away the original decoration in that place. A sculptor need never do this. Moreover, the cutting away was done very carelessly so that, among other things, remnants of the decoration are visible. The inscription itself is also carved sloppily. Not befitting the careful finish of the statue. My conclusion is that this is a poorly copied signature IAN of Jan van Steffeswert. The counterfeit signature IAN was possibly applied after 1979.
The presence of the Dürer-monogram indicates that even before 1845/1853 an attempt was made to pass the figurine off as a late Gothic figurine. This implies that the figurine is of a later date than the Middle Ages.
The woodcarver clearly also seems to have been inspired by the statue of Saint Balbina from Millen (D) and in particular by the head and shoulder covering and hairstyle. Balbina was not and is not worshipped and enjoys only local fame. Therefore, the sculptor may have come from or worked in this region. Perhaps he worked as a woodcarver in the vicinity of Liège.
My final conclusions are these. This fine figurine is a mid-19th century figurine of a heavily pregnant young woman dressed in medieval-looking clothing. The figurine is the work of an unknown carver who most likely worked in the Liège area. The figurine was at some point provided with a counterfeit signature of Jan van Steffeswert.
My thanks go to everyone who inspired me in any way in the research..
1. P. te Poel: Een voltreffer in Maastricht, Bulletin van Vereniging Rembrandt, 2020
2. Jeremy Warren, Sculpture in the Waddesdon Bequest; in: Pippa Shirley en Dora Thornton, A Rothschild Renaissance:
A New 8 Look at the Waddeston Bequest in the British Museum, Research Publication 212, 2017
3. Wiener Alterthums-Vereine: Ausstellungskatalog für die Ausstellung von Kunstgegenständen, 1860
4. Franz Schestag: Katalog der Kunstsammlung von Freiherr Anselm von Rothschild in Wien, vol 1, 1866
5. ZentralDepotKarteien Wenen; Registration card number A.R.2458, AR-XIII-85-059 en AR-XIII-85-070
6. Auction catalogue “the Ernest Brummer Collection”, 1979 Zürich, publisher Gallerij Koller, Zurich, 1979
7. Website Blumka Art Gallery, New York; www.blumkagallery.com
8. E. Rosenberg en B. Haan, Was de “Rijk geklede dame” gestolen door de Nazi’s? in het NRC van 01-10-2022
9. W.J. van Dort, Dating late Gothic statues; in Blog ornamental woodcarver Patrick Damiaens, january 2022
10. Correspondence with experts from various museums and other experts
11. Exhibition cataloque “Op de drempel van een nieuwe tijd”, publisher Bonnefantenmuseum 2000
12. Über Fälschung alter Kunstgegenstände, in Mitteilungen des k.k. Museum für Kunst und Industrie no 50, 15 nov 1869, 17-24
13. Bric-a-Brac, A Rothschilds memoir of collecting; in: Michael Hall, Apollo Magazin jul & aug 2007
14. Westgarth M.W. A biographical dictionary 19th c antique and curiosity dealers, 2009
Portrait Agnes von Hayn 1543 by Lucas Cranach jr, photo Staatsgalerie Stuttgart
Richly dressed lady on a postament 1938, Photo ZDK
Hlg. Balbina, photo Dr. U. Schäfer
Heavely pregnant woman, photo orthopaedicsurgeon
Inset markings, Willem van Dort
All other photo’s are from the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht
Willem van Dort