An Etched Iron Casket

Renaissance | Last quarter of the 16th Century | Ca. 1580

Steel and red copper | Etched
H. 7,8 cm. W. 13,6 cm. D. 8,2 cm.


With Patrick Reijgersberg v.o.f. | Haarlem | 1999
Private collection | The Hague

33e Kunst- en Antiekbeurs | ‘s-Hertogenbosch | 1999

O’Dell-Franke, I. (1977). Kupferstiche und Radierungen au der Werkstatt des Virgil Solis, Wiesbaden, ills. 29-31, 135-153
E. Berger, E. (1998). Ornamental Caskets. Eight Centuries of European Craftsmanship. Stuttgart, pp. 33-36, nrs. 90-92;
Mills, R. (2011). Images in Steel: The Art and Craft of Etched Decoration. In: The Journal of the Antique Metalware Society, Vol. 19, pp. 82-91

With proof of purchase by Patrick Reijersberg, Haarlem, dd. 19 April 1999


The hinged lid with pierced lock and decorated with elaborate motifs and foliate scroll-work. The body consisting out of four sheets, each framed by a twisted edge, featuring an elaborately decorated etched panel inside. The lid is adorned with a male and female figure facing each other. The front features the male figure, the back the female. The sides are decorated with winged cherubs. The interior hides an impressive and complex still functioning pin lock, which is a small work of South German locksmiths’ art in its own right. Its flexible joints hinge around two hart-shaped ornaments, set on a foliated background. The casket rests on four ball feet. Small caskets like the present example were often given as tokens of affection. The the male and female imagery, combined with the cherups and hart motives fit within this practice.

In South Germany one of the favourite methods of construction of such caskets was to make them of steel and then etch decorative motifs into the surface using acid. This involved covering the surface of the casket with a material such as wax, and then scraping away the wax in all the background areas. These exposed areas of the steel were then bathed in acid, which ‘bit’ into the surface while the areas protected by the wax remained untouched. The wax was then removed, and a form of black ink was rubbed into the etched areas to provide a greater contrast with the reserved areas of the design. The city of Nuremberg became the most important centre of the production of etched steel caskets.

Acid-etched caskets were extremely popular and comparable examples dating to the end of the 16th century can be found in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (e.g. inv. Nrs. 1054-1893; 396-1854 and 1122-1898). The present casket is of an exceptionally high standard, with an elaborate lock and beautifully detailed decoration. The decorative motifs were almost certainly drawn from print sources, which circulated widely in Germany at the time. One of the most influential of these printmakers was Virgil Solis, who was active in Nuremberg from the 1540s. A number of prints emanating from his workshop are relevant comparisons for the designs to be found here (O’Dell, 1977, ills. 29-31, 135-153).