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The collection was started by the consignor’s father, Ernst Genz, and after his death in 1991 his son devoted himself with even more fervour to expanding it.

He bought at auctions, from other collectors and from German and international dealers, who all acquired interesting pieces on his behalf.

Containing some 4000 mortars in all, the collection was named after the south-west German town of Schwarzach, where Genz lived. The Lempertz sale offered only a small cross-section of the collection, 115 lots, but they documented the history of the mortar, illustrated their international distribution and the highly varied decorative elements.

Although a multitude of natural materials, such as stone, wood, alabaster or marble could be employed for their manufacture, the most widespread was metal and in particular bronze. Almost all the mortars sold in Cologne were cast in bronze.

Early use

There is some indication that mortars were used in prehistoric times. The first documentary evidence, however, dates to Ancient Egypt in a papyrus from 1550BC. One can find references to them in the Old Testament as well.

It seems that mortars in their various shapes and materials developed independently all over the world out of the simple necessity to grind and pulverise the most varied ingredients, whether for medicinal, culinary or artistic purposes – the preparation of paints and pigments required the use of a mortar.

In the Middle Ages, not least as a consequence of the Crusades, numerous spices were imported to Europe which needed to be crushed or ground.

Although depictions of mortars, such as in wax seals, can be found from the 13th century, the oldest surviving European mortar was made in 1308 for the infirmary of St Mary’s Abbey in York.

It now belongs to the Yorkshire Museum in the same city, a stone’s throw from the abbey ruins.

The production of bronze mortars was closely connected to that of bells and, in numerous cases, of cannons. Founders travelled around repairing bells and weapons, but also producing mortars.

Only a limited number of buyers were able to afford them. Many of the most famous craftsmen supplied all three to monarchs, noblemen, merchants and apothecaries, often using the same forms for the decorative elements on each product.

Mortars were not only of great practical use - they were also status symbols, as was evident from several pieces in the sale. In the case of the apothecaries they became the symbol of their profession.

Nearly all sold

Before the auction on May 17, it was difficult to gauge the interest of the market. The last time Lempertz had a collection of a similar calibre to offer was 50 years ago. As things turned out there was no cause for concern. The auction was a virtual sell-out, with many pieces going way above the catalogue estimates.

Bidders from all over the world took part, not only from Germany and other parts of Europe, but also from China and the US. Many members of the international trade were present and the two top lots, both from German foundries, were both knocked down for €40,000 (£35,400) to the same unnamed dealer.

Among the other members of the trade active at the sale was a Dutch buyer who secured an early 17th French monastery mortar for €14,000 (£12,390).

The auctioneers were surprised by the number of collectors who also registered as bidders. Many travelled from long distances while others joined in either on the phones or online. Among the successful bidders was a collector from Westphalia, who went over the upper estimate to buy a mortar from 1559, hailing from Münster, a city in the same region.

This particular piece had an interesting English connection: it was attributed to the foundry of Bernd Schmedding in Münster at the behest of a certain Johannes Althena.

It had a biblical inscription from Isaiah 40:8 (The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever) and the choice has been interpreted as an indication that Althena sympathised with the ideals of the Reformation. At a later date, an engraved inscription was added at the base which stated that the mortar was the property of John Barlowe Ingelander.

Barlow(e) worked for the London branch of the Hanseatic League and was married to Elsa Kattenbusch from Münster. When Elizabeth I ordered the closure of the London premises in 1598, following Emperor Rudolf II’s expulsion of English merchants from Germany the previous year, Barlow(e) moved to his wife’s home city where he received the mortar from her family.

In more recent times, it belonged to an English collector and later passed through two German collections before entering the Schwarzach collection. It realised €22,000 (£19,470).

Otherwise there were only two pieces of English origin in the sale, even though the earliest bronze mortars were cast in this country. Both were dateable to the 14th or 15th century, the first with four looped handles, the second with grapevine motifs. They each brought €3300 (£2920) with the latter doubling its lower estimate in the process.

Swiss rarities

Swiss mortars are very rare. Presumably many of them were melted down when they became obsolete. The surviving pieces are renowned for the precision of their execution.

An early 17th century example with caryatid handles, attributed to Jakob Kugler in Fribourg, was knocked down for €2600 (£2300).

The wide distribution of Italian mortars on the other hand has a specific – culinary – reason. For the marriage of Maria de’ Medici to the French King Henri IV in 1600, Italian chefs travelled to Paris to provide the banquets that accompanied the celebrations.

The extensive use of mortars in the preparation of their dishes is said to have inspired their French counterparts and thus reputedly laid the foundations of the international renown that such cuisine enjoys to this day.

It is not always easy to tell whether a particular mortar was made for pharmaceutical or culinary purposes. In parts of Italy the use of mortar and pestle are essential in food preparation to this day – probably the most famous example is Ligurian pesto.

In the case of a late 15th century Florentine example, which was knocked down for €22,000 (£19,470), the presence of caduceus motifs, often associated with medicine and alchemy, was a sure indication that it was used by an apothecary.

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The earliest pieces in the Lempertz auction were not of European origin, but from what was once known as Khorasan, a region which stretched from Persia to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. The opening lot, which was dated to the 8th century, was discovered during an archaeological dig at Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan in the 1970s. This mortar was acquired by the Schwarzach collection via Western art dealers in the same decade. It had traces of red polychromy and was decorated with ornamental bands of calligraphy and meanders and scenes of dogs chasing rabbits. An unusual feature was the six ram’s heads on the outside of the vessel. It sold for €5500 (£4870).

Mortars use declines

During the 19th century the development of mechanised means to grind larger quantities of materials soon put paid to many of the widespread uses of mortars.

In both world wars, numerous bronze mortars were more or less voluntarily donated to the war effort, as were park railings, to be melted down for other, more strategic uses.

This was not, however, a new occurrence. Over the centuries, mortars and other bronze utensils have often been recycled to make new, more advanced implements or weapons.

That is one of the great advantages of bronze: it could be used over again. The simpler pieces were often sacrificed, the more ornate and valuable ones preserved. These are today’s collector’s pieces.

£1 = €1.13