Book Review by David Allan September / October 1997

If at first this seems an exotic addition to most people’s libraries, take a simple glance through this book and you will find it hard to resist. The standard of the photography, both of the pieces and of the marks themselves, is superlative. With a wealth of information, this is a fascinating and comprehensive book, showing us both the variety of Ottoman silver, and its influence on the silver of Europe and indeed America. it is the only such reference available on the subject.

For centuries, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, it was obligatory for gold and silver wares to be assayed and stamped at the Imperial Mint. These marks are catalogued here for the first time. The book contains not only a complete list of the Tugra marks, or imperial ciphers, and other silver marks, but also individual town marks and maker’s marks. Tugra marks are shown from as early as the fifteenth century, up until the reign of Mustafa VI (1918-1922). This last of the Turkish Sultans was deposed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

There are interesting sections, among others, on the positioning of marks, on foreign marks on Ottoman silver, and on Ottoman marks on foreign silver. There is also a short, illustrated section on counterfeit Tugra marks. The severity of Ottoman law is hard for us to contemplate. While silversmiths caught selling below standard silver were to be imprisoned, the lot of the dishonest assay-master was not an enviable one. “In the event of a mark being struck on silver of low quality then the Damgacibasi, (Chief Assay-master) and three inspectors shall be beheaded, and a true man appointed in his place.” In spite of this type of punishment, there were fakes!

Little Ottoman silver has survived, for a variety of reasons. Silver was relatively scarce in the Ottoman period, partly from its use for coinage and partly from widespread smuggling of the metal out of the Empire. And, recurring economic crises caused the periodic widespread melting-down of silver vessels, flatware and ornaments. Despite the thousands of working silversmiths, there are no extant pieces from the reigns of certain Sultans.

Happily, the author has chosen to illustrate not just the expected ewers and basins, but also examples of many other forms, such as spoons, bowls, mosque lamps, incense burners, charms and the unusual divit and inkwell. This last, is a longish tubular container for quill pens, with a small lidded inkwell attached at one end. At first glance it looks like a pipe or musical instrument. Of the illustrated pieces, many date from the nineteenth century, which, realistically, is the period of greatest general interest. While many of the more important pieces of Ottoman silver are many centuries old, it is worth mentioning that even nineteenth century pieces, if they are fine enough, can be valuable. At a recent auction in Paris, such pieces were fetching between $5,000 and $20,000 each. In the same sale, a post-finial made from tombak (an alloy of copper and zinc, frequently gilded), and dating from the reign of Mahmud II, (1808-1839), made $45,000 (dollar prices are approximate). See page 45 for an illustration of the Tugra mark.

Understandably, most of the collections of Ottoman silver are to be found in Istanbul, but there are examples at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Ashmolean in Oxford. An illustration on page 122 depicts a beautiful, small decorated silver bowl, from the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512), which is in the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

This big, heavy and beautiful book is appealing in every way. Not an inexpensive book, it is, however, value for money.

David Allan