Although the island of Malta supported a surprisingly large number of silversmiths in the 17th and 18th centuries (an estimated 600 makers from 1680-1820), relatively little of their products from this period has survived in situ.
The Silver of Malta (1995) by Alaine Apap Bologna, former specialist with Christie’s Geneva, is much the best reference work on the subject.
It records the treasure trove of secular and ecclesiastical gold and silver ransomed or melted down under Napoleon’s brief rule and countless other pieces that left the island before and after as maritime souvenirs.
As a premium is now placed on the relatively few survivors, when they occasionally come for sale on UK or mainland European soil most are destined to return to the Maltese archipelago.
The sale at Chiswick Auctions in west London on October 20 included a previously unrecorded Maltese coffee pot (pictured top): a textbook form, c.1780, with ‘dolphin’ spout, laurel engraved spiral fluting, hoof feet and fruitwood handle.
Worthy of particular note are the feet. To achieve a particularly generous and elegant curve, the silversmith has cast the knees and the junctions in two separate sections.
Maltese silver is categorised according to the name of the reigning Grand Master of the Order of St John (it was the Knights Hospitaller who introduced a hallmarking system in 1636).
This piece, struck with the maker’s mark GA for Giovanni Arrotin of Valletta, dates from the tenure of Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc (1775-97). He was the penultimate Grand Master, his successor abdicating in 1799 following the French invasion. At the time the population on the island was around 100,000.
Every collection of Maltese silver requires a rococo coffee pot: alongside the covered sugar basins they are the island’s most distinctive domestic silver form.
This one, by a talented maker whose output seldom survives, was relatively large at 10½in (26cm) high and a heavy gauge at 30.5oz.
The coffee pot was recently acquired by the vendor on Portobello Road where it was being sold as ‘unknown Continental’ for a price close to its scrap value.
It was in reasonable condition although there were old repairs to the seam of the spout, the hinge and a foot. Although partially obscured, the assay and maker’s mark were both clearly struck. Guided at £5000-8000, it sold at £13,000 (plus 25% buyer’s premium) to a Maltese private collector.
Another good example of Maltese silver appeared for sale at Lawrences in Crewkerne on October 12.
Small late 17th century ‘pilgrim’ flasks such as this with grotesque mask handles and scrollwork, were used for anointing oil or scent. A large collection is on display at the Mdina Cathedral Museum in Malta.
This one, measuring just under 4in (10cm) high, was struck only with the mark MA below a Maltese Cross. Dated to c.1690, it drew keen bidding from Maltese collectors and made £3600 (plus 25% buyers premium), four times its estimate.