This essay discusses genuine medieval Jewish marriage rings, mostly dated to the fourteenth century, and then examines the rise in the collecting of Jewish marriage rings in the nineteenth century. As a result of the paucity of genuine medieval examples, forgers created rings that drew on characteristics of the early examples and on the decorative forms and techniques of other types of jewelry. Unscrupulous dealers then sold the forged marriage rings to collectors eager to complete their collections by including a Jewish example. The essay concludes with a consideration of possible motives for acquiring Jewish marriage rings.
In 2013, I presented a paper with evidence that the so-called sixteenth–seventeenth century “Italian” Jewish wedding rings are fakes.1,2 This article expands upon my earlier research by enlarging the medieval corpus to include a newly published example. A second focus of this article is the collectors, who were primarily British, and their possible motives for the acquisition of the rings in the nineteenth century. I am interested here in proposing a link between the demands of collectors and the production of fake “medieval” Jewish marriage rings.
Before turning to the collectors, we must understand something about the objects they sought to own and then acquired. Many of the later rings were thought to be of Italian origin although they do not resemble sixteenth-seventeenth century marriage rings from Italy. The great majority have bosses or spherical elements on the outside that are separated by granulation—small gold spheres attached to the surface—and knotted gilt silver wire along the outer edges. This basic composition is doubled or trebled on other rings (fig. 1). Another common type of this group incorporates blue, green, yellow, black, and white enamel to form flowers, vines, and even Hebrew letters. Some have bezels (crowning ornaments) in the form of a small building inscribed with the congratulatory phrase “mazal tov.” In the most elaborate examples, the roof of the “house” opens to reveal these words or an abbreviation for them (fig. 2).3 None of these rings have a provenance earlier than the nineteenth century, despite having been dated centuries earlier by dealers or collectors wanting to increase their value.
There are only seven Jewish marriage rings extant that can be securely dated prior to the nineteenth century and which can be considered genuine. One was found in Germany at Weissenfels, near Speyer, in 1826 and bears a house-shaped bezel (fig. 3); another discovered at Colmar, Alsace, in 1863 incorporates a hexagonal building in red enamel (fig. 4).4 The house-shaped bezel has been linked in Jewish lore to the home of a married couple as a miqdash me’at, a small sanctuary (Ezek. 11.16), in comparison to the Beit ha-Miqdash, the Temple which once stood in Jerusalem, and to the mishnaic reference to a wife as a man’s home (Mishnah, Yoma 1:1). The extant medieval rings, and another known from two nineteenth-century catalogues, have faceted bezels, which suggests they represent the Dome of the Rock, built between 687–691, which was equated by the Crusaders with the Temple (the templum domini) and also in later works of Jewish art.5
The coins found in hoards dated prior to the Black Death indicate a similar date for the metalwork found with them, largely jewelry and drinking vessels. For example, both the Weissenfels ring and that from Colmar can be dated to the first half of the fourteenth century stylistically, and numismatically—the hoard of coins found with the Weissenfels ring, and the few coins found in Colmar, indicate that both rings were buried by their owners at the time of the plague in 1348.6 Of similar date is the Jewish marriage ring found in 1998 at Erfurt, which was part of the largest medieval coin and object hoard yet discovered (fig. 5).7 It is also the most elaborate.
Additional rings were discovered in other contexts. A ring with an architectural bezel in Gothic style and a “mazal tov” inscription was in the collection of the Duke of Bavaria by 1598, the date of the inventory in which this ring is cited and described as antique.8 A fifth ring was found in 1861 during the excavation of the foundation of a building in downtown Pest that dates to the period of the Ottoman rule of Hungary (1529–1699) (fig. 6).9 The decoration on the exterior of the ring consists of a series of larger bosses separated by pairs of smaller ones; its edges are banded by two borders of twisted wire, and the bezel is in the form of a house inscribed mazal tov. All the basic compositional elements of the so-called Italian rings are present on the example found in Pest, although these elements may have been used earlier.10 A sixth ring with a hexagonal bezel and enameling, now in a private collection, was recently published (fig. 7).11 Its form and techniques are comparable to the other, excavated fourteenth-century rings and should be similarly dated and ascribed to the German lands. In addition, a seventh medieval ring with a prismatic shape is listed in two mid-nineteenth-century catalogues, those of the Debruge-Dumenil and Londesborough collections, but its present whereabouts is unknown (fig. 8).12 The bezel is described as having a circular base and was covered by a prismatic roof (“Le chaton à la forme d’un cercueil à couvercle prismatique”).13 The ring bears an unusual inscription: betav tre (“good luck to two” or “may you be blessed”), which was executed in niello, a type of enamel. Two winged dragons support the bezel.14 This ring in the Debruge-Dumenil and Londesborough catalogues appears to have been another example of the medieval type found in Colmar in 1863, in Erfurt in 1998, and that recently published from a private collection. All have faceted bezels with enameled inscriptions and dragon-headed bands. The same supports appear on the Munich Ring.15 In sum, both the excavated rings and those found in other contexts present secure evidence for the Jewish use of rings with architectural bezels and dragon-headed terminals from the fourteenth through the sixteenth century in German lands.
In contrast, the attribution of the later rings to Italy and their dating were not based on secure evidence, but only on the opinions of collectors and art historians. The first notice that “Italian” Jewish marriage rings might not be genuine is found in the writings of the renowned nineteenth-century collector Octavius Morgan (1803–1888), who stated that all the “Italian” Jewish marriage rings appeared to be fakes.16 Over a century later, Hugh Tait discussed the most elaborate example in his catalogue of Ferdinand Rothschild’s 1898 bequest to the British Museum (fig. 2).17 Its house-shaped bezel opens to reveal a crudely written abbreviation for “mazal tov.” Tait wrote that both the early dating and Italian provenance of the rings were dubious, and that stylistically the ring was related to Hungarian and Balkan jewelry made in the seventeenth century and later, which is characterized by a combination of granulation, filigree bosses, and enamels in strong colors (figs. 1 and 2). In addition to these convincing stylistic parallels, it must be noted that three of the medieval Jewish marriage rings were discovered in the nineteenth century—the Weissenfels rings in 1826, the Colmar ring in 1863, and that from Budapest in 1861—and may have served as models for the numerous Jewish marriage rings of the type discussed by Tait that appeared on the market and were acquired by English and continental collectors in the years after the discovery of the genuine examples.
The dubious rings were included in various nineteenth-century collections. Many writers on Jewish art cite the marriage rings owned by Isaac Strauss (1806–1888), composer and conductor of music during the reign of Napoleon III, whose collection of Judaica was the first to be exhibited in public. Strauss exhibited eighty-two works, including fifteen nineteenth-century marriage rings, at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, accompanied by a catalogue by George Stenne (a pseudonym for David Schornstein).18 Another European with a large, comprehensive art collection including Jewish marriage rings was Dubruge-Dumenil of Paris who began collecting, paintings, drawings, objets d’art, furniture, and costumes in the 1830s. He died in 1838; two years later the collection was exhibited. In 1847, Dubruge-Dumenil’s son-in-law, Jules Labarte, produced a catalogue of the collection that includes entries on three Jewish rings, whose inscriptions were printed in Hebrew type followed by translations into French.19 Two rings with filigree and enamels were inscribed with the phrase “mazal tov” as on many examples based on Balkan and Hungarian jewelry.20 Since these have a terminus ante quem of 1838, the year their collector died, the patterning of marriage rings on Balkan and Hungarian models must be dated earlier in the nineteenth century than was previously thought.21
At the 1850 auction of the Dubruge-Dumenil holdings, the uniquely inscribed prismatic ring was acquired by Lady Londesborough, whose collection was privately published in 1853.22 Her holdings also included six late Jewish rings with Hebrew inscriptions,23 but the unusual Dubruge-Dumenil medieval ring is the only one illustrated by a sketch (fig. 7).24 A provenance is provided for only one other Jewish marriage ring in her collection, described as “presented by Mr. Croften Croker.”25 Crofton Croker served as Secretary of the British Antiquarian Society during the presidency of his good friend Lord Londesborough. Croker’s gift to Lady Londesborough must have predated the publication of her catalogue in 1853, establishing a date terminus ante quem for the ring in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Another early English collector was Ralph Bernal (1783–1854) who descended from a converso family. Although Bernal was raised as a Christian, the English Jewish community claimed this eminent Member of Parliament; his portrait was included in the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition of 1887, along with those of prominent English Jews.26 Like Lady Londesborough’s rings, Bernal’s acquisition of Jewish marriage rings must predate 1853 when they were auctioned by Christie & Manson and purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Bernal rings form the nucleus of the V&A’s collection, which came to total fifteen rings after the museum’s purchase of eight rings from another collector, T. M. Whitehead, in 1870–1871.27 Whitehead acquired his rings from Edmund Waterton (1830–1887) who was considered an expert on jewelry. Henry Robert Soden Smith, librarian at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a collector of jewelry, was another non-Jew who owned Jewish marriage rings. Waterton and Soden Smith showed Jewish marriage rings at an exhibition organized by Soden Smith in 1872 at the South Kensington Museum.28 Its catalogue lists other owners: Mrs. Alfred Morrison and Mr. John Brogden.29 The elaborate example bequeathed by Ferdinand Rothschild (d. 1898) to the British Museum, discussed earlier, became one of the museum’s ten Jewish marriage rings acquired through gifts and purchases.30 The London Jewish Museum owns ten rings; many were shown in the landmark exhibition of 1887, whose catalogue also included rings owned by John Evans, Joseph Sassoon, Samuel Montague, and E. Joseph among other collectors.31 Although the aim of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition was, according to its organizers, a demonstration of Jewry’s historical roots in England, the organizers decided to expand their mandate to include works from the Strauss collection, whose aesthetic value surpassed that of most of the items already designated for display.32 That all fifteen of Strauss’ rings, in addition to those from other collections, were included in the London exhibition indicates the significance accorded to Jewish marriage rings in the nineteenth century.
Despite Strauss’ extensive holdings, the number of nineteenth-century continental collectors pales in comparison with the numbers of individual English collectors and museums who acquired extraordinary numbers of Jewish marriage rings. Where did these English collectors acquire their rings? Some can be traced from one collector to another, as in the case of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s acquisition of the Bernal and Whitehead rings. Whitehead acquired his from Edmund Waterton who was considered an expert on rings. The catalogue of Lady Londesborough’s collection, however, demonstrates a direct link to a Jewish dealer. She purchased most of her rings from George Isaacs who passed through London on his way to Australia.33 Under pressure to sell, Isaacs reduced the price of the rings, so that they would remain together as a collection.
Why were collectors interested in Jewish marriage rings? All the “Italian” rings known in the nineteenth century date after the 1830s when Debruge-Dumenil collected, and their number grew exponentially from the mid-century onward. For all collectors, the Jewish marriage ring represented a type that had to be owned in order to form a complete collection of Judaica or of rings. It was a type that was attractive for its scarcity. In Europe, banishments, pogroms, the deterioration due to natural causes, and the fact that most areas occupied by Jews were in the center of cities whose successive rebuilding made excavations nearly impossible, resulted in the paucity of early Judaica. Into this breach stepped inventive forgers whose products were bought by collectors of rings and those forming collections of Judaica in the nineteenth century.34 The forgers of Jewish marriage rings expanded on the few genuine medieval finds, and on the sixteenth-seventeenth century example from Pest, to create new variants.
They were not the only forgers active in the nineteenth century leading some collectors to be dubious of new finds. Ferdinand Rothschild, a collector of Renaissance gold and silver, felt confident only of those works bought by his father in the 1830s and 1840s, when fakes were relatively uncommon.35 Although he often bought from Jewish dealers in London and Paris later in the century, Rothschild refused to buy from the Parisian dealer Fredéric Spitzer, saying:
It will, perhaps, be best to observe a discreet silence as to the operation which first brought grist to his mill . . . out of one fine old work of art he manufactures two or three.36
Non-Jewish critics were not as polite as Rothschild was in his remarks about Spitzer. Some Jewish dealers were suspected of inflating prices. The pioneering photographer Nadar (1820–1910), for example, wrote about the availability of quality art in the 1830s:
One could find for nothing . . . first impressions of Durers and Rembrandts, armor inlaid with gold . . . and once in a blue moon, one of the four little ceramic candlesticks from . . . Henry II, bought for a few centimes, for which [a] Strauss would later pay at auction 14,000 francs.37
In a painting dated 1828, “L’Antiquaire,” the artist C. C. Renoux depicted Alexandre du Sommerand (1779–1842), whose medieval collection became the basis of the Musée de Cluny in Paris, as he discusses a work with a Jewish dealer—a tall, well-groomed and neatly dressed man with uncut beard and head covering (fig. 9)38 But Jewish dealers were also maligned for their appearance as in a book of caricatures, Les Français peints par eux-mêmes published in several parts between 1839–1842. A dealer to M. de Menussard is described as:
a little old man . . . wrapped in a sort of brown overcoat . . . [wearing] his black cap, his greasy hat, his spiky and lusterless hair, his carelessly cut beard, his hands ingrained with dirt, his unpolished shoes . . . with an enormous hat. . . . greasy on the brim, greasy on the crown, greasy on the ribbon . . . greasy everywhere.39
The roles of Jewish dealers in the English art trade of the nineteenth century—men such as George Isaacs, J & S Goldschmidt who sold a ring to the V & A, Samuel Wertheimer and his sons Charles and Asher, all active in England—and Charles Mannheim, and Fredéric Spitzer in Paris, need to be examined in depth. Only a few Jewish dealers, for example John Coleman Isaac (ca. 1803–1887), have been the subjects of serious articles based on an examination of their records.40
The other, obvious, question is why so many English collectors and museums were motivated to acquire Jewish marriage rings. We cannot attribute their collecting to an interest in history or nostalgia for a more observant religious life, as was the case with many nineteenth-century Jewish collectors of ceremonial art, since many of the English collectors were non-Jews, and their marriage rings were not part of collections of Judaica as was the case with Isaac Strauss.41 Rather, their rings were included in collections that could date from the classical period through the late eighteenth century.
An essay by John Elsner and Roger Cardinal published in 1994 offers some insight into the motivation of English collectors.42 They note that the drive to collect is often driven by the need for completeness, the need to have a collection that encompasses every known example of a type. In forming such a collection, the owner creates a microcosm over which he rules that is symbolic of the macrocosm, the universe.
To collect up to a final limit is not simply to own or to control the items one finds; it is to exercise control over existence itself through possessing every sample, every specimen, every instance of an unrepeatable and nowhere duplicated series.
The symbolic relationship between a collection and the universe, between dominion expressed by owning a complete series, was considered similar to the relationship of God to the world.
Another dimension of collecting, in general, is its representation of the past. As John Forrester has written about Sigmund Freud’s collection of antiquities,
Freud’s objects. . . . served both the functions of evoking the past, of entering into the nostalgic dimension of the souvenir, and of effacing the past, of building a new timeless world of the collection . . . that is both aesthetic of origin and presence. . . . 43
The collecting of rings, like the collecting of other forms of art, represents an appreciation of the past. For Jewish collectors, the attribution of Jewish marriage rings to sixteenth and seventeenth century Italy may reflect emancipated Jewry’s nostalgia for a particular past, that of Renaissance Jewry who were perceived to have synthesized secular and Jewish cultures. In the words of Cecil Roth, “It is probably true to say that, with . . . one partial exception . . . there has never been any other period in history when the Jews achieved so successful a synthesis between their ancestral Hebraic culture and that of the environment.”44 The Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition aimed to express the similarly dual nature of English Jewry: loyal citizens of a great empire with a distinctive heritage.45 At the same time, the presentation of beautiful rings symbolized Jewish interests in aesthetics and collecting, activities that bound them to British national culture and tied them to the upper classes.
This article has examined the participation of Jews as collectors and dealers in the cosmopolitan art world of the nineteenth century, through the lens of one category of objets d’art, Jewish marriage rings. The nature of collecting, which involves the spending of money on non-essential goods, implies that all the collectors—and many of the dealers—belonged to the wealthy classes of England and France. As purveyors of art and consumers, both Jews and non- Jews moved constantly between the continent and London, functioning in different cultures among individuals of varying religions. The art world of the nineteenth century was a multicultural society requiring constant negotiation with the Other. Contemporaneous writings and even catalogues of collections suggest the cosmopolitan character of those interactions. One result of this zeitgeist is that Jewish marriage rings were considered to be desiderata to be acquired by both public museums and private collectors, which added to the perceptions that they were of value due to scarcity and to the necessity of including them to form complete collections of either rings or Judaica.
Professor Vivian B. Mann is Director Emerita of the MA Program in Jewish Art at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Curator Emerita of Judaica at The Jewish Museum. She is the author of numerous articles and books on medieval and Jewish art, focusing on early modern subjects, and on the art and culture of Jewish communities. She has been the recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, several NEH Fellowships, a National Defense Education Act Fellowship, an American Philosophical Society Grant-in-Aid, and others. In 1996, she was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University, and in 1999 received the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Jewish Thought from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. In 2009, she was elected to the American Academy of Jewish Research. Mann is a founding editor of Images: A Journal of Jewish Art & Visual Culture.