Review of Garo Kürkman, Ottoman Silver Marks, Istanbul: Mathusalem Publications
The government of the Ottoman sultans controlled the distribution of precious metals by testing the purity of the gold and silver used to fashion precious objects and strike coins. An official stamp (sah) guaranteeing the purity, usually 90% for silver, accompanied by the monogram signature (tughra) of the reigning sultan was stamped on all precious metalwork. The marking was done by a special assay office in the Ottoman mint. This practice is virtually unknown in other Islamic dynasties, thus, in one more respect, the Ottomans followed procedures established centuries earlier by the Byzantine imperial court. The system of silver marks begins with the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror just after the capture of Constantinople in 1453. In this remarkable book, Garo Kürkman presents readers with a luxurious volume and a dynamic manual for the study of Ottoman silverware as well as its coinage. The result is an accumulation of research begun decades ago by Kürkman whose interest and expertise in numismatics goes back to his youth. For the first time we have a systematic study of Ottoman assay marks and silver stamps, abundantly illustrated with beautiful photography of luxury metal objects, both religious and secular. Through these one can followed the history and development of Ottoman orfèverie. The works were additionally stamped with the craftsman’s hallmark and Garo Kürkman also catalogues these. They date from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century.
Taken together the study combines a history of Ottoman and Middle Eastern coin production, the history and development of the tughra from its primitive tribal form to its imperial perfection, a catalogue of assay marks (sah), a catalogue of craftsmen’s marks and town marks also at times found on objects, a sample of forged tughra marks, and a number of appendices with reproduction of important chancellery documents: list of Ottoman sultans and their reigns and lists of silversmiths, goldsmiths, and related crafts. There is also a bibliography and an index.
The study of Byzantine silver marks and their arrangement by emperors has allowed art historians to develop clear ideas of dating, especially in the pre-iconoclastic period. The ability to compare stylistic and iconographic changes in motifs on metalwork dated within the narrow confines of the ruler’s reign has served to help date art in other media, miniature painting, ivory, mosaic, textiles. So too the stylized tughra-stamps of the Ottoman sultans as well as the hallmarks of the silversmiths and the monograms of the Anatolian cities allows us to date rather precisely the enormous quantities of precious metal objects which have survived from the Ottoman period. The great mass of this metal work is from the later centuries, seventeenth and after. A dramatic silver crisis in the Islamic east, dominated by the Ottoman Empire, resulted in the seizure and the melting down of tens of thousands of objects by the Sublime Porte to provide silver bullion for the striking of coins during this period of shortage, thus explain the scarcity of silver work prior to the eighteenth century.
With its many close up photos of the marks, Kürkman’s Ottoman Silver Stamps will serve as the indispensable guide to collectors, museum curators, and scholars. Surely it is the first group for whom the layout and organization is intended. Thus, far, however, its use by experts in the world of auction sales has been limited. Few recent sale catalogues from Paris or London bother looking up the silver marks and noting them in the description of Ottoman silver, even though the bidding for Ottoman metalwork is very brisk, with a avid and a aggressive group of Turkish collectors buying up everything that comes on the market. In time this will certainly change because most specialists are quite familiar with Kürkman’s volume.
Like any good manual there are a number of step by step charts and drawings, for instance those devoted to the development of the tughra and the identification of each sultan’s unique official signature. Kürkman has pioneered the gathering of town marks, usually supplementary marks to those of the makers. He points out that most of the silversmiths were from ethnic minorities, in the first place Armenians followed by Greeks and Levantine. Thus far he has identified Aleppo, Bitlis, Damascus, Diyarbakir, Egypt, Erzincan, Harput, Istanbul, Izmir, Izmit, Kula, Malatya, Sahili, Sivas, Trabizon, Van and Yozgat. Of these the ones for Izmir (Smyrna), Kula and Salihli are written in Greek letters, while Van is written in Armenian, Ottoman-Arabic, Russian, and Latin characters. The rest are all written in Arabic letters. By far the largest number of craftsmen’s marks are from Van and these, whether written with Arabic or Armenian alphabets, are virtually all Armenian craftsmen. Some sixty different names are identified from Van, whereas the next highest in number are from Izmir, (25 names, of which seven are Armenian and thirteen Greek and the rest Italian or European) and Istanbul (15, 13 Armenian and two probably Turkish). A further sign of the dominance of Armenians among the silversmith is the list of 103 gold and silversmiths who submitted works to the authorities for assay in 1790 (p. 287, Documents 12/1-10 in the appendix), 66 are clearly identifiable Armenian names. It is no coincidence that there are so many Kouyoumdjians (Kuyumcu=goldsmith, silversmith) among the Armenians.
On the other hand, in the special category of makers of penholders with attached inkpot, the divit, all the craftsmen bear Muslim names, at least for the silver divits. Yet in the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries one finds many divits made of yellow brass stamped with Armenian makers marks, these, however, being of base metal are not discussed in the book.
The juxtaposition in the catalogue of religious and domestic objects (page 122-255, some 150 items) from the Islamic, Greek, and Armenian traditions underlines how difficult it is to determine the stylistic and even the iconographic origins of motifs in Ottoman Art. Is there any different between the gold plated silver mosque lamps (pp. 165 and 175 both in the Turk ve Islam Eserleri Muzesi, Istanbul) or the incense burner (p. 188, private collection) and virtually identical pieces in the liturgical museums of Etchmiadzin and Antelias?
This vast compendium far transcends the pioneering study by Armenak Sakisian, “K. Polsoy hay oskerch’ut’iwne (Armenian Goldsmiths of Constantinople),” Anahit, vol I, no. 5 (1930) and his “L’orfèvrerie arménienne à influence occidentale de Constantinople aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles,” Pages d’Arts Arménien, Paris, 1940, pp. 87-95. It should serve as an inspiration for younger scholars to delve deeper into the various rich domains exposed by Kürkman.
A final note, in this age of deregulation, the Turkish government no longer makes it binding on gold and silversmiths to submit their works to the assay office to guarantee the purity of the metal used. Nevertheless, the bureau still functions and may be used on a voluntary basis by all precious metal craftsmen.
California State University, Fresno