Silver Partly-Gilt German Nef (Ship) of the Seventeenth Century, Augsburg

Objektnummer: #243

Augsburg, ca. 1620

Tobias Schaumann I

City’s hallmark: a “pyr” for Augsburg, c. 1620 (Seling 1980, Nr. 41)

Maker’s mark: the monogram “TS” for Tobias Schaumann I (Seling 1980, Nr. 1213)  

Height: 39 cm  (15,35 in.)

Provenance: Since 1925 in the Romiralta family and their descendants, Spain; 2007 private collection, Madrid; 2017 Helga Matzke, Germany.

Detailed Information

Silver Partly-Gilt German Nef (Ship) of the Seventeenth Century

The present drinking vessel in the form of a sailing ship (nef) is raised on a high, embossed foot, decorated with stylised sea-motives and an oval base with a gadroons fries. The shaft is formed by a central tube, where the screws are hidden, which is decorated from the outside with ear-shaped cast parts and stylised flower-bunches. The actual body of the ship – the central bowl – is embossed with waves and a stylised sea monster (or rather a dolphin). It is furthermore engraved on the one, lengthy side with the letters “SHBGVN”. On the actual ship, one central mast with a single, large, main-sail is dominating the object. The main-sail, cast, is left in white silver and is designed in a very well-proportioned way with regards to the rest of the boat. On board, there are a total of eleven silver, cast figures, all of them apparently, crew members. Six of them are attached with the original screws on the deck of the ship, forming the central crew, four being attached on the Jacob’s ladder on both sides and one as a look-out in the crow’s nest, watching in the distance for possible dangers. In the crow’s nest, a mast is raised with a cast, silver-gilt ball-finial and a waving, cast, silver-gilt two-pronged flag.

The sailing sails are all still attached on the ship. The ship is in a very good overall condition and the silver-coloured and gold-coloured parts of it, are combined in an elegant way.

Historical Context

The French name “nef” derives from the Latin “navem” and the Greek „ναῦς“ (ship) and „νέω“ (swim). In France of the middle ages, a nef was used in private life as a vessel, which had containers that could have spices, wine, drinking cups and cutlery and was placed on the table next to the lord. As harming of persons with poisons poured in the drink was very often, the use of these ships was a kind of security that what was offered to the person was safe to drink.

In a religious context, ships were also very early used (e.g. as thuribles), especially as a remembrance of the fact that the church is a salvation boat. Besides, there are accounts on the manufacture of ships made of silver and other precious materials, making them votive objects for persons having been saved during a dangerous sea-journey. This was for instance the case of Margaret of Provence (1221-1295), offering a nef to the church of Saint Nicolas in Saint-Nicolas-de-Port in Lorraine, in gratitude of having been rescued during her family’s return trip from Palestine in 1254.

In the German speaking regions and in Central and Western Europe, ships were used since the early sixteenth century as drinking vessels or table decoration. In 1568, during the feast for the wedding of William V, Duke of Bavaria and Renata of Lorraine, there were 20 silver or silver-gilt salt cellars in the form of ships on the table (Lehne 1985: 84). According to the newest research, ships were used as salt-cellars as well throughout the seventeenth century. Through this use, they were mostly used to accent the status quo of a specific person at the dinner table and thus emphasize the importance of this host, but also, they had the function of the table decoration. Ships that have no spout or a tube serving as spout were used as salt vessels, representing thus the way salt had been transported, as newly discovered archival material from Danzig shows. Dr. Kriegseisen has made research in the extensive archival holdings of the town hall of Danzig, of which parts have been lost due to the turmoil of wars, and came to the conclusion that our ship is an ideal example of a salt vessel (s. Kriegseisen 2018, p. 132 and fig. 2).

Moreover, ships count as a symbol for a happy lifetime and a long lifespan. Augsburg and Nuremberg were the great centres of silver in South Germany, specialised in the production of ships. Ships are to be considered together with the variety of sculptural wine fountains in the sixteenth and seventeenth century (s. Wiewelhove, 2002, p. 91-2). The phantasy, creativity and skills of the makers of Augsburg and Nuremberg unfolded superbly through the production of such disentangling and amusement objects made during this time.

Many ships were made as the goldsmith’s stock, while others were made after an order of a specific customer. In general, it is rather seldom that the produced objects had the form of an existing ship. They were most usually, an interpretation and a token of imagination of the maker, who often used existing – even older – drawings of ships. This kind of drinking vessels were in any case popular until the late nineteenth century and were sometimes offered as a magnificent gift. A beautiful, historical example from the musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris shows exactly the power of a silver ship as a symbolical gift.

Following the Schlüsselfelder Ship (ca. 1503) (in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg), which must have been a kind of reference for the makers of similar objects in South Germany, the maker of the present ship has also chosen to depict a moment of the ship’s life, when an alarm has been given. The standing crew is alerted and looking in the distance, four men are climbing up the Jacob’s ladder, while another one is looking out from the crow’s nest. A kind of danger might be seen in the horizon.

In any case, the ship is depicted in an important moment of its life in the sea. This should offer the guests of the dinner, the occasion to start a discussion on various subjects connected to the ship and sea-life, the ship’s construction, the silversmith or other topics.

Compare this ship to another one made by the same maker: s. Seling 1980, vol. 2, no. 163.


Tobias Schaumann I was born in the town of Ulm around 1577 and became around 1607 maker. He got married the same year and died in 1647. For another ship of the maker, s. Bachtler, M., Syndram, D. and Weinhold, U. (eds.), Die Faszination des Sammelns: Meisterwerke der Goldschmiedekunst aus der Sammlung Rudolf-August Oetker, Firmer Verlag, 2011, p./fig. 4.


Kriegseisen, J., Podarki w kulturze dyplomatycznej nowożytnego Gdańska, S. 128-145 In:Ed. Kizika (Hrsg.), „Król jedzie! Wizyty władców polskich w Gdańsku XV-XVIII w.”, Muzeum Gdańska: Gdańsk 2018.

Lehne, Barbara, Süddeutsche Tafelaufsätze vom Ende des 15. bis Anfang des 17. Jahrhunderts, tuduv-Verlagsgesellschaft: München, 1985.

Oman, Charles, Medieval Silver Nefs, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office/Victoria & Albert Museum, 1963.

Seling, Helmut, Die Augsburger Gold- und Silberschmiede 1529-1868: Meister, Marken, Werke, C.H. Beck, München, 2007.

Scherner, Antje, ‘Scherzgefäße: Zur Wechselwirkung von Gestaltung, Handhabung und Trinkregeln in der Frühen Neuzeit’ in Pöpper, Thomas (Hrsg.), Dinge im Kontext: Artefakt, Handhabung und Handlungsästhetik zwischen Mittelalter und Gegenwart, De Gruyter: 2015, S. 145-162.

Scherner, Antje, “Gestern bin ich voll gewest”: Alkohol und Trinkspiele in der Frühen Neuzeit, In: Bachtler, Monika Syndram, Dirk and Weinhold, Ulrike (eds.), Die Faszination des Sammelns: Meisterwerke der Goldschmiedekunst aus der Sammlung Rudolf-August Oetker, Hirmer Verlag: München, 2011, S. 91-99.

Wiewelhove, Hildegard, Tischbrunnen: Forschungen zu europäischen Tafelkultur, Berlin: Deutscher Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft, 2002.