Margrieta van Varick's East Indian goods

September 2009 | At the time of her death in 1695 in the bucolic village of Flatbush, New York, the textile merchant Margrieta van Varick (nee Visboom, 1649-1695), the widow of the minister Rudolphus van Varick (1645-1694), owned an astonishing array of exotic goods from around the world: Chinese porcelain, Turkish carpets, Japanese lacquerwork, ebony chairs, Dutch paintings, Indonesian cabinets, chintz wall hangings, Arabian currency, and, not least, "East Indian" silver. We know so much about her possessions because of the survival of the nineteen-page probate inventory of her household and textile shop, a copy of which I found in the library of the New-York Historical Society in the fall of 2004.1 Intrigued by the list of ob­jects termed East Indian, I analyzed aspects of the document in my 2006 master's thesis for the Bard Graduate Center for the Study of Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture.2 In 2007 the Bard Graduate Center approached the New-York Historical Society with a proposal for a cocurated exhibition and catalogue; the two institutions quickly agreed that an exploration of Van Varick's inventory and her life would b e an ideal inaugural exhibition in a continuing partnership. The fruits of the collaboration are on view in the exhibition Dutch New York between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick at the Bard Graduate Center from September 18 to January 3, 2010.

Among the more than two thousand objects in Van Varick's house, the works of East Indian silver number only eleven, but their descriptions stir the imagination: "an East India Silver wrought box," "one Silver wrought East India trunk," and "three silver wrought East India cupps," among other things. The list raises several questions: What exactly did "East India" mean in Van Varick's era? How did she acquire the silver? What did it look like? Where is it now? And what effect, if any, did it have on early colonial American silversmiths? While my thesis, and the exhibition and catalogue, touch on these queries, this article is intended to launch a broader conversation about this little-known genre of silver.

To date, none of Van Varick's East Indian silver has been located, and positive identification of specific pieces would be a complex process. For one thing, most seventeenth-century silver made in the East did not carry hallmarks. In addition, such silver has at one time or another passed through the hands of a dealer, frequently obscuring an object's provenance. Another complicating factor is that in the days before the formation of banks in the United States, colonists often carried their money around, quite literally, in the form of silver objects. If Van Varick's executors required cash to support her four orphaned children (which is almost certain), they likely needed to sell some of her silver.3 In this process, a piece of family silver was brought to a local silversmith for sale. If the smith found it up to the sterling standard, he would stamp it with his hallmark, effectively pledging that the object was of the proper alloy. In doing so, he further masked its true provenance. Obviously in such cases, the hallmark does not, as many generally believed, indicate that the silver was made by the smith who marked it.4

Most known East Indian silver objects were made for employees of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) in the Ambachts­kwartier (artisan quarters) of Batavia (now Jakarta), Indonesia, where the VOC had its headquarters in the East. In these workshops silversmiths of European, Indian, and Ceylonese descent worked side by side, creating objects that, in the seventeenth century, were more likely to feature Chinese and Islamic motifs than Dutch ones (see Figs. 2, 3).5 This Batavian output is referred to as "VOC silver" or "Company silver."

Although there were hallmarking regulations for VOC silver beginning in 1667, they were largely ignored until 1730, when new and more widely enforced laws were implemented.6 This may explain the greater number of identified VOC silver objects after that date. Thus, most silver made in Batavia and other Eastern settlements before 1730 can be identified only through design characteristics. There were also silver objects made in Batavia by free Indonesian, Chinese, Muslim, and Mestizo (mixed European and Asian parentage) silversmiths, and these artisans were not obligated to hallmark their work, before or after 1730, unless, interestingly, they had converted to Christianity.7

Van Varick's biography offers several clues to how she may have acquired her East Indian silver. Orphaned in Amsterdam in 1667 at the age of eighteen, Grietje (Margrieta) Visboom later moved to Malacca, Malaysia, where her guardian uncle, the merchant Abraham Burgers (d. after 1679), and her future husbands, the merchant Egbert van Duins (d. c. 1677) and the minister Rudolphus van Varick, worked for the VOC. The first record of her in Malacca is as Mrs. van Duins in 1673.8 By 1677 Van Duins had died, and Margrieta returned to the Dutch Republic about the same time that Rudolphus did. By 1679 Margrieta and Rudolphus had married and settled at the Reformed parish in Hem, West Frisia; in July 1686 they and their children moved to Flatbush, where Rudolphus became the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All