Review of Garo Kürkman, Ottoman Silver Marks, Istanbul: Mathusalem Publications,
in Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, vol. 12 (2001,2002, pub.
2003), pp. 86-88.
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
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
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
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
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
Book Review by David Allan September/October 1997
Ottoman Silver Marks Author: Garo Kürkman
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
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.