The Faker’s Art

For every Sunday museum visit by every well-regulated New York family; for all museum tours by New York high school art classes; and especially for all students of late Renaissance gold work, whether New Yorkers or visitors, the Metropolitan Museum’s “Cellini Cup” used to be a recognized, even required, goal of pilgrimage.

The pilgrims had much to admire, too. The cup is of splendidly buttery gold, delicately enriched with enamel. A beautifully wrought and finely enameled scallop shell forms the cup’s body; the handle is a superb gold and enamel winged sphinx with a large baroque pearl trembling between her breasts; and the whole is supported by a winged dragon, standing, in turn, upon the back of a sturdy tortoise, both again of gold picked out with enamel. In sum, the cup has something for all tastes—richness and surprise for fresh-faced inexperience, and boldness of design and elegance of facture for the unfresh but expert.

In 1909, it was acquired from a London dealer by the department store magnate Benjamin Altman; and it was famous as the “Cellini Cup” even before it came to the Metropolitan with the Altman bequest in 1913. In 1969 one of the Metropolitan’s curators, Dr. Yvonne Hackenbroch, published an article pointing out that the cup was too late stylistically to be the work of Benvenuto Cellini. She therefore attributed it to Jacopo Bilivert or Biliverti, an unusually talented goldsmith from Delft employed by the Medici in Florence in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. After this, it was renamed the “Rospigliosi Cup,” because of its provenance from the treasures of the Roman princely family of Rospigliosi.

Now, however, Dr. Hackenbroch has changed everything once more by her monograph, “Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith,” in the recently published Metropolitan Museum Journal for 1984–1985. If you care for learned, intricate detective stories centering on works of art, you will find one in Dr. Hackenbroch’s sober one-hundred-plus copiously illustrated pages. But the real point is that the ex-Cellini cup has now turned out to be a fake. And as the cup’s probable maker, Biliverti has now been abruptly replaced by Reinhold Vasters, who worked in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth.

Furthermore, this tentative transfer of the cup to Vasters is no more than a single incident of a general upheaval among the art historians who specialize in the luxury objects of the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries: vessels of carved rock crystal, jasper, agate, or other hard stones, mounted in gold, silver gilt, or enameled gold; plaques, pendants, clasps, chains, and other jewelry of gold, enamel, and precious stones; extravagantly splendid house shrines of the sort you find in the Munich Schatzkammer; and so on and on. The curious fact is, furthermore, that Reinhold Vasters apparently wished to cause just the kind of art historical upheaval that has now occurred—at any rate after he was safely out of the way himself.

It has too rarely been noted that in the end, really talented art fakers are…

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