Despite its modest size and various eras of occupation, Malta and the wealthy Knights of St John sustained a vibrant silver and gold working tradition across several centuries. The prevalent influences were Spanish, Italian, French and English, yet Maltese silver manages a distinctive look of its own.
Alaine Apap Bologna – former head of silver and horology at Christie’s Geneva and author of the catalogue for the 1995 exhibition The Silver of Malta – is currently researching the marks of the 600 silversmiths who worked there from 1680-1820. It is a remarkable number for a population that stood at around 100,000 by the 1790s.
But not much survives on the island for reasons that are two-fold.
A treasure trove of Maltese gold and silver was melted down on the orders of Napoleon and few vessels of a significant silver content were spared. Equally, as an important naval station, Maltese decorative arts frequently left their homeland as mementos of a tour of duty.
All this explains the multi-estimate response to two Maltese coffee jugs offered by Lawrences in Crewkerne on October 10.
A Dorset vendor consigned the 25oz vessel carrying the marks of Gioacchino Lebrun.
Maltese silver is typically catalogued according to the name of the presiding Grand Master of the Order of St John, with this vessel from the time of Emmanuel De Rohan-Polduc (1775-97).
Its distinctive features include three feet, a domed cover with a flower finial and a spout decorated with a garland of leaves and flowers. Estimated at £1000-1200, it took £6200.
An earlier baluster coffee jug from a different vendor carried only an assay mark but was thought to date from the tenure of Grand Master Ramon Perellos (1697-1720). It was decorated with part-fluting, two chased friezes and a scallop shell hinged flap to the spout. Estimated at £600-800, it made over 10 times the estimate for its Gloucestershire owner, selling via thesaleroom.com at £11,100.
“When rarity, quality, good condition and collectability combine, we often see remarkable results like these,” says Lawrences’ specialist Alex Butcher.
There are, however, limits to pricing. Sotheby’s From Earth to Fire sale in November included a handful of Maltese silver objects from the Fournier family that first settled on the island in the 1670s. A pair of Maltese silver candlesticks by Vincenzo Menville from the Perellos period failed to match the low estimate of £20,000.