Margrieta van Varick’s East Indian goods

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts

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.

Given the large volume of silver made for the VOC in the East, specifically in Batavia, it is certainly possible that the couple acquired their pieces there.9 It is even more likely that Margrieta or Rudolphus commissioned items from artisans working in the long-settled Tamil Muslim community on the west bank of the river bisecting Malacca, for each of them lived in Malacca longer than anywhere else in the East.10 It is also documented that Van Varick’s first husband was involved in the important Bengal trade with Malacca and that he wrote to the directors of the VOC factories in Persia and the western India port of Surat, to which goods were funneled from the Middle East and the Levant. Furthermore, her uncle in Malacca was in charge of VOC shipments to and from Japan.11 Both men had access to the private trade in luxury objects, as was customary for high ranking employees in the VOC’s eastern operations, and either could have obtained desirable Eastern goods.

In sum, Van Varick’s silver could have been Malaysian, Indonesian, Mughal Indian, Persian, Turkish, Ceylonese, or Chinese, among other possibilities. Most New Yorkers, and certainly those who took her inventory, would probably have called her silver objects by the then common term “East Indian” because few in this period would have had experience differentiating between places of production. They would have known only that the silver was not made locally or in Europe.

The executors’ confusion would also have been understandable because the fusion of design influences from China, Turkey, Persia, India, and other Islamic lands was largely complete by the late seventeenth century, and the results would have been recognized as simply “Eastern.” By the time the Van Varicks arrived in Southeast Asia, Islam had spread throughout the area, leaving Islamic motifs interlaced throughout the art of native cultures.12 For example, porcelain in China often took the forms of Islamic metalwork, such as ewers (see Fig. 1), while motifs found in Islamic architecture were applied to silver made in Indonesia (see Figs. 6, 10).

This fusion of Eastern design elements began to influence American silver during the colonial era. There are many examples. One of the most pervasive and interesting is the stamped and applied leaf banding often found on New York tankards of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, often referred to as cut-card banding (see Fig. 5). Traditionally thought to have been introduced to New York by Huguenot silversmiths, this type of decoration is more likely to have originated from objects produced in an Islamic land and later brought to New York or the Dutch Republic, or ones made by an artisan who trained with an Islamic craftsman. As evidence, the m otif appears in double-band form around the rim of an early fifteenth-century Chinese porcelain ewer with seventeenth-century Ottoman silver-gilt mounts in the Topkapi Palace Museum (see Fig. 1); as roof ornamentation on sixteenth-century Islamic architecture (see Fig. 10); on seventeenth-century Mughal silver (see Fig. 7); on a salver of about 1730 (see Fig. 4); and on a pre-1730 tobacco box made in Batavia (see Fig. 6). Indeed, many pieces of VOC silver made in Indonesia exhibit motifs characteristic of pieces made by New York gold- and silversmiths: in addition to stamped and applied leaf banding, gadrooning and meander wires are also prevalent on both VOC and New York silver.13

In an article in the May 1937 issue of The Magazine Antiques exploring the work of the colonial master silversmith Peter van Dyck, the silver scholar Mrs. Russel Hastings circled around the idea of foreign design influences on colonial silversmiths:

The subject of silver imports from abroad is still obscure. Some energetic collector would perform an eminent service by assembling pedigreed foreign pieces known to have been used in the colonies from earliest years. What, exactly, did our smiths copy? How much of their output represents their own design, and how much a literal transcript from models at hand?…Whence their cast ornaments? The silent testimony of such a group…would go far to answer these and other questions.14

Hastings’s comments are particularly relevant to our discussion, for in 1715 Van Dyck married Van Varick’s youngest daughter, Cornelia (c. 1692-1734), who was one of her two heirs.15 Thus we can postulate that he was familiar with her collection of East Indian silver pieces, as well as her other exotic goods, and that they may have had an effect on his output, as Hastings suggests.

And indeed some of Van Dyck’s iconic pieces do display characteristics strikingly similar to those found on objects known to have been produced in the East. One of the most beautiful of all colonial American silver works is the exquisitely pierced caster engraved with the Schuyler family arms and stamped with Van Dyck’s hallmark (Fig. 11). It has the same delicate, symmetrical, floral design with splayed blossoms and tendrils seen on the enameled plate and the painted textile in Figures 8 and 9, respectively, both of which were made in Mughal India. The caster’s dome-shaped cover and finial are also ubiquitous forms in Islamic architecture (see Fig. 10). Based on its Mughal design characteristics and exquisite execution, the caster tempts us to wonder if its design could have been influenced specifically by some of Van Varick’s, or another New York resident’s, East Indian goods.

A later, more angular caster, marked by Van Dyck and once owned by the Rutgers family (Fig. 12) is similarly elegant, but its comma-shaped piercings do not carry the same association with Islamic motifs, and they appear more irregularly formed and less well defined when viewed side by side with the precisely shaped piercings of the Schuyler caster.

What accounts for the difference? It is known that Van Dyck, like many other silversmiths, ran a large workshop that stamped day laborers’ work with the master’s mark, or even jobbed work out to other established smiths.16 Could it simply be that the two casters were made by different hands? Another possibility is that the Schuyler caster may be an unidentified “East Indian” work such as those listed in Margrieta’s inventory; one not made by Van Dyck, but resold by him.17 This could probably only be proven through technical analysis of the composition of the caster’s alloy, or through the discovery of an identical Eastern silver object. Supporting the supposition, however, are two documented Van Dyck works that carry another silversmith’s mark in addition to Van Dyck’s, indicating that either two artisans worked on them or one of the smiths at some point resold or repaired them.18

Another Van Dyck object showing possible Mughal influence is a covered porringer (Fig. 16). Its handle is an example of what is typically called a New York handle, a form for which many examples exist but no precedent has yet been found. Considerably more elaborate and organic than the more prevalent Boston style handle, Van Dyck’s handle is strikingly similar to the triangular area of arabesque-infused openwork connecting the thumb ring and the body of the mid-seventeenth-century Mughal astrolabe in Figure 15. The Van Dyck handle has a heart-shaped finial above a cross, and less defined and mostly petal-shaped voids rather than the fluid arabesque tracery of the Islamic design, but the overall conception of the American work seems quite similar to that of the astrolabe, an iconic Mughal object. Astronomical discoveries were plentiful in this period, and the Mughals were at the forefront of scientific advances. It is possible that the seafarers of New York possessed astrolabes of similar design that could have inspired local silversmiths, including Van Dyck. The Peabody Essex Museum has a Mughal astrolabe of about 1640-1650 that was given to the museum by a descendant of a China trade merchant.19

Perhaps the most apparently Eastern inspired work by Van Dyck is the mustard pot in Figure 14, which has no colonial precedents and clearly evokes the exotic silver-mounted ostrich eggs and coconut cups that were frequently found in European Wunder­kammern and used as elaborate vessels (see Fig. 13). The “silver wrought East India cupps” listed in Van Varick’s inventory can possibly be interpreted as silver-mounted exotica like these ostrich eggs and coconut cups.

While we do not know for certain what Van Varick’s silver objects looked like, examples of extant contemporary East Indian, VOC, and New York works enable us to identify motifs that may have originated in the East: stamped and applied leaf banding, New York style porringer handles, Mughal-inspired caster piercings, and the form of Van Dyck’s unusual mustard pot. In the United States, these motifs rarely appear on objects found outside of New York State. We might conclude that the motifs originally came to New York through immigrants who had been in the Dutch East Indies, of whom Van Varick was but one. There were certainly other Dutch New Yorkers, as well as English and other nationals, who had lived in, traded with, or had connections to the East, and who could have imported exotic items such as East Indian silver to the colony.20 While Van Varick’s cache of imported goods and her relationship to a silversmith may not be common in the history of colonial New York, it is probably not unique: other New Yorkers had connections to the East, and this likely created routes of stylistic transmission from East to West in colonial American decorative arts that we are just beginning to understand.

I am grateful to Titus Eliëns, Walter B. Denny, and Kevin Stayton for their advice on this article and support of my research, and Stefano Carboni for his support of my research. I also am indebted to Patricia E. Kane and John Stuart Gordon for making the Yale University Art Gallery’s Van Dyck silver available to me for study, and to the exhibition for display; and to Kiki Smit and Cassidy Luitjen for their translations of key Dutch literature on this topic.

1 For a transcription and history of the inventory, see Deborah Krohn, Peter Miller, and Marybeth De Filippis, Dutch New York between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick (Yale University Press, New Haven, for Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, 2009), Appendix 1. The original is in the Probate Court Records, Inventories and Accounts, 1666-1822, New York State Archives, Albany. Although authors as diverse as Esther Singleton, Roderic Blackburn, Ruth Piwonka, and Mary Black have referred to Van Varick’s inventory in their work, their treatment has been limited to simply listing her goods. See Esther Singleton, Dutch and Flemish Furniture (McClure, Phillips, New York, 1907), pp. 176, 260, 241-246; Roderic H. Blackburn and Ruth Piwonka, Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776 (Publishing Center for Cultural Resources for the Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, N.Y., 1988), p. 39; and Mary Black, “Early Colonial Painting of the New York Province,” in Blackburn and Piwonka, Remembrance of Patria, p. 214.  2 Marybeth De Filippis, “Margarita van Varick’s East Indian Goods: Design Influence for 17th- and Early 18th-Century Goods,” master’s thesis, Bard Graduate Center for the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York, 2006. In addition to the eleven East Indian silver articles, the inventory lists three baskets, three cabinets, two wooden gilt-lacquered trays, fourteen pictures, eight flowerpots, and one basket quilt all described as East Indian.  3 The inventory lists four living children: Johanna (1682-after 1706), Marinus (c. 1686-before c. 1707), Rudolphus (1690-c. 1711), and Cornelia (c. 1692-1734). See Marybeth De Filippis and Margriet de Roever, “Chronology,” in Krohn, Miller, and De Filippis, Dutch New York, pp. xx-xxi.  4 See Ian M. G. Quimby, “The Question of Authorship,” in American Silver at Winterthur (Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del., 1995), pp. 13-18.  5 See S. M. Voskuil-Groenewegen, J. H. J. Leeuwrik, and Titus M. Eliëns, Zilver uit de tijd van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Zwolle, The Hague, 1999), pp. 12-13, 15, and 64-65.  6 Ibid., pp. 16-19.  7 Ibid., pp. 15-18. 8 Van Varick’s guardian uncle is recorded in Malacca as early as 1671, and it is likely she was there with him at that time. See Balthasar Bort, Report of Governor Balthasar Bort on Malacca, 1678, trans. M. J. Bremmer (Royal Asiatic Society, Singapore, 1927), p. 101. We do not know when she married Van Duins, although he is recorded as still married to his first wife in December 1666. See Marybeth De Filippis, “Traces of a Life: Margrieta van Varick in the East,” in Krohn, Miller, and De Filippis, Dutch New York, pp. 42, 46-47.  9 While documentation recording Margrieta coming or going from Batavia has not yet been uncovered, the settlement was the seat of government for the VOC and a major stop for all Dutch ships traveling to and from the East, thus it is likely that she also stopped there. See entry for No. 9, ibid.  10 For more on the Muslim goldsmiths and other artisans in the Tamil quarter of Malacca, see Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Indians in Malaysia and Singapore (Oxford University Press, Bombay and London, 1970), p. 7.  11 De Filippis, “Traces of a Life,” pp. 45-47.  12 For the fusion of Chinese, Mediterranean, Persian, and Indian design influences beginning as early as the Tan dynasty (618-907), see Voskuil-Groenewegen, Leeuwrik, and Eliëns, Zilver uit de tijd van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, pp. 12-13; for the characteristics of East Indian silver, see p. 65.  13 I have not finished my analysis of these latter two characteristics, and thus cannot at this point conclude that they also originated in the East.  14 Mrs. Russel Hastings, “Peter Van Dyck of New York, Goldsmith, 1684-1750, Part I,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 31, no. 5 (May 1937), p. 238.  15 It was the second marriage for both: in 1711 Van Dyck married Rachel le Roux and Van Varick married Barent de Kleyn. Each union resulted in one child: Rachel van Dyck and Leonard de Kleyn, respectively.  Margrieta van Varick’s daughter Johanna was her other heir. Sons Rudolphus and Marinus died before reaching the age of maturity.  16 See Kristen H. McKinsey, “The Le Roux and Van Dyck Families: Life as a Silversmith in New York City before 1750,” in Elegant Plate: Three Centuries of Precious Metals in New York City, ed. Deborah Dependahl Waters (Museum of the City of New York, New York, 2000), vol. 1, pp. 20-22.  17 A caster in this period would have been called a box. Thus a piece like the Schuyler caster might fit the description of an “East India Silver wrought box,” such as we find in Van Varick’s inventory.  18 A New York style tankard in the Charleston Museum in South Carolina carries both Peter van Dyck’s and Simeon Soumaine’s hallmarks. See Eleanor H. Gustafson, “Museum accessions,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 114, no. 1 (July 1978), p. 68. There is also “an almost obliterated mark which appears to be close to that attributed to Everardus Bogardus” on the handle of the porringer in Fig. 16. See Kathryn C. Buhler and Graham Hood, American Silver: Garvan and Other Collections in the Yale University Art Gallery (Yale University Press for the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 1970), vol. 2, p. 45, No. 590.  19 I am grateful to Anne Hoy, an independent scholar, for suggesting I search for an astrolabe in American collections that might have served as inspiration for these handles, and I thank Karina Corrigan, H. A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, for finding this item.  20 Jacob de Lange (d. c. 1685) is one such New York resident whose inventory full of “East Indian” goods also indicates a connection to the East. See Kenneth Scott and James A. Owre, Genealogical Data from Inventories of New York Estates, 1666-1825 (New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York, 1970), p. 39.

MARYBETH DE FILIPPIS is assistant curator of American art at the New-York Historical Society.