Ambassador Nicolas M. Salgo was born in 1914 in Budapest, Hungary, and received his LLD and PhD in 1937 from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. He worked for Manfred Weiss Company in Budapest from 1933 to 1938, when he was transferred to the corporation's Geneva office, where he remained until 1939. Later he moved to the United States to represent the interests of the Geneva-based company Salvaj and Cie, of which he was a partner and director.
Salgo became a United States citizen in 1953. By the 1960s, he had developed a successful business conglomerate with subsidiaries in aviation, cottonseed processing, and recreational products. He conceptualized the building of the Watergate Complex in Washington, DC, becoming founder and limited ownership partner of that successful project.
In 1982–83, Salgo was a consultant for Central and Eastern Europe to the United States Information Agency. He was named to the International Private Enterprise Task Force, formed by President Ronald Reagan, as an advisor on foreign assistance programs in 1983. That same year, the President also appointed Salgo U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, a position he held until 1986. After his return to the United States, he continued his diplomatic service with the State Department as a specialist on bilateral property projects involving Eastern European nations. In 1989, President George Bush, Sr. nominated him Special Negotiator for Property Issues, with the permanent rank of Ambassador, with Senate confirmation. In this capacity, Salgo successfully mediated property agreements with Bulgaria, China, East Germany, Israel, and the USSR, as well as with all fourteen newly independent successor states to the USSR. He concluded many years of negotiations with Russia concerning the American Embassy in Moscow and facilitated the opening of several other new U.S. consulates.
In addition to his accomplishments as a businessman and a statesman, Salgo was an avid collector, with interests ranging from Hungarian fine and decorative arts, Chinese and French furniture, and Melanesian art to shagreen and European game boards, boxes, and draftsmen. His vast and beautiful collection of saddle rugs and horse covers is now divided between the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde in Leipzig, Germany.
Salgo began collecting Hungarian art while Ambassador to Hungary, and he soon branched out into Hungarian silver, maps, coins, and folk art. When he left his post as Ambassador, he received special ministerial permission to export pieces that had "védett," or protected status. This permission was given with the understanding of the then Minister of Culture, Dr. Béla Köpeczi, that Salgo would use these works to help foster a greater appreciation of Hungarian art abroad. Ambassador Salgo's efforts and legacy have more than fulfilled this objective. His large and fine collection of modern Hungarian art is internationally renowned. The Salgo Trust for Education, formed in 1991, continues in its mission to promote the collections and collecting philosophies of its founder through research and exhibitions. The Metropolitan acquired Salgo's exceptional collection of Hungarian silver in 2010, and it is on view together for the first time at the Museum in the exhibition Hungarian Treasure: Silver from the Nicolas M. Salgo Collection in Gallery 521 from April 6 to October 25, 2015.
The exhibition Hungarian Treasure: Silver from the Nicolas M. Salgo Collection (April 6–October 25, 2015) and this online feature celebrate the collection of Hungarian goldsmiths' work assembled by Nicolas M. Salgo (1914–2005), the Hungarian-born collector, businessman, and statesman who became an American citizen in 1953 and served as United States Ambassador to Hungary from 1983 to 1986. The Salgo Trust for Education generously donated the major part of this magnificent collection to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010 in memory of its late benefactor. Thanks to this extraordinary gift, the Museum now possesses the most sumptuous array of Hungarian silver outside Hungary. Following extensive conservation work and an elaborate, detailed photography campaign of all the objects, the Metropolitan is exhibiting for the first time the entire ensemble of some 120 objects spanning the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. The accompanying written and visual materials presented in this feature, including a comprehensive bibliography on Hungarian goldsmiths work, make the collection permanently available to the public and are intended to encourage research and further study. Information on each individual object can be found here.
The original settlers of what is today Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania were a Finno-Ugric people whose languages sprang from the far northern Baltic region and the forest steppes east of the Ural Mountains. Struggling to retain independence against powerful neighbors—particularly those in the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe and in the Byzantine Empire to the east—King Stephen I (r. 997–1038, canonized in 1083) converted to Christianity in the ninth century, bringing stability to the country by establishing an organized feudal state and ecclesiastical structure. Flourishing settlements developed into manufacturing centers in the ensuing decades, and a great number of the so-called Free Royal Towns enjoyed trading privileges.
After Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–90) assumed the throne, Hungary emerged as a recognized European force. Supported by an elite standing army of mercenaries, the king suppressed all domestic and foreign opposition. During his reign the country become one of the most sophisticated cultural centers in early Renaissance Europe. Matthias's successors, however, were weak and unable to repel the mighty Ottoman Empire's advances into Hungarian territory. The country's political structure collapsed after the Turkish army won the decisive battle at Mohács in 1526: western Hungary fell under the control of the Austrian Habsburgs; the central region, with the city of Buda (part of present-day Budapest) as its hub, became an intermittently occupied Ottoman territory; and the eastern Principality of Transylvania became a tribute-paying Ottoman province. Visual records testify to the close relations between the Transylvanians and the Ottomans from the second quarter of the sixteenth century until the eighteenth century (fig. 1), as do objects from the region, which bear a distinctive Ottoman flavor. Many of the Free Towns located in the area of Transylvania still known by the German name Siebenbürgen (translated literally as "Seven Towns," present-day Ardeal in Romania) retained their status but were obliged to pay taxes to the Turks.
Transylvanian goldsmiths created some of their most spectacular work in the mid-seventeenth century, which is known as Transylvania's Golden Age. Although the region was shaken by the Calvinist Reformation, the subsequent Habsburg Counter-Reformation, and the constant threat posed by the Ottoman Empire, Hungarian culture thrived. The country enjoyed reforms under Empress Maria Theresa (r. 1740–1780) and even more under Joseph II (r. 1765–90), who abolished the feudal system and set up an educational infrastructure. At the close of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution sparked a rise in Hungarian nationalism and ethnic identity, tendencies that were rekindled in the early 1800s.
About one third of Europe's gold production came from Hungary prior to the early sixteenth century, when Spain's "gold fleet" arrived from the American dominions. Hungary's economy rested firmly on the land's rich deposits of salt, copper, silver, and gold—all exploited since antiquity. Hungarians began mining precious metal ores in the eleventh century, and goldsmiths' patrons often supplied artisans with raw materials obtained from local mines, unlike in most other parts of Europe, where such materials had to be imported.
Skilled immigrants, "Saxons" from Luxembourg, Flanders, and Westphalia—territories with longstanding mining traditions—arrived in Hungary in the thirteenth century. The settlements these newcomers helped to establish near mineral deposits later developed into thriving towns with royal privileges. Entrepreneurs in these areas laid the foundations for major mining innovations and inventions: Hungary pioneered the use of gunpowder as a mining tool in 1627 and was a leading European force in the development of sophisticated water-drainage systems.
The thriving mining operations in East-Central Europe and the Balkans attracted merchants from all over Europe. The Thurzó-Fugger company, established in 1495 by two legendary families, held a monopoly of the copper trade and dominated commerce in precious metals in Hungary and the Danube region until the early seventeenth century. These much-coveted resources also generated conflict and were the catalyst for the Ottoman invasion of Hungary that began in the first half of the sixteenth century.
Churches and monasteries were among the main patrons of Hungarian goldsmiths during the Gothic period. The famous silver-gilt reliquary shrine attributed to Jean de Touyl (French, d. 1349/50), on display at The Cloisters, was once part of the convent treasury of the Poor Clares of the Order of St. Francis at Buda, founded by Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in 1334 (fig. 2). Embellished with exquisite translucent enamels, this stylish masterpiece from Paris and similar objects from goldsmithing centers throughout western Europe surely would have influenced local artisans, including the masters who made the two Gothic chalices in the Salgo Collection. Embellished with colorful filigree enamel in the modo transilvano, or Transylvanian style, both of these pieces are exceptional for their technical brilliance and originality of design.
During the period of economic and political instability that took hold in the early sixteenth century, artisans left war-torn Buda and the surrounding region and moved to two areas of relative calm: Royal Hungary in the northwest and Transylvania in the east (fig. 3). A strong guild system developed in these regions, and many organized workshops thrived by adapting Renaissance and Baroque goldsmiths' styles and German vessel types to indigenous taste. The princes of Transylvania controlled the guilds and supported the goldsmiths in the mining towns of Siebenbürgen in particular. Specific marks identifying the makers and the places where silver objects were fabricated served as proof of an object's origins and the conformity of its silver alloy with established standards. If needed, silver items could be exchanged or melted down at a mint for a fair price.
The art of goldsmithing received a major boost from the aristocracy, whose wealthy members commissioned everything from portable silver objects that were easy to hide or transform into coinage, to precious items offered as tokens of friendship, neighborly respect, or that were presented in dowries or as diplomatic gifts. At formal events, aristocrats displayed their social graces against lavish backdrops of wealth and conspicuous consumption. Such ostentation originated in the late medieval period, when stunning collections of gold and silver vessels were presented in banquet halls on tiered parade buffets covered with precious textiles or opulent Oriental carpets (fig. 4). Intended to impress important guests, the exhibited items included stylish beakers, tankards, and cups, as well as chargers and dishes often embellished with dynastic coats of arms or the devices of prominent family members. These types of elaborate display objects, regarded as family treasures, were frequently passed down from one generation to the next and thus spared the fate of being melted down for their monetary value.
Over time new designs were introduced by well-traveled Hungarian artists and by journeymen goldsmiths returning from their obligatory tours of European cultural centers—Vienna and Venice as well as Paris, Augsburg, and Nuremberg. Such excursions were required of craftsmen seeking admission to a guild.
Nourished by a Discerning Eye: The Salgo Collection
As a collector, Nicolas M. Salgo was drawn to a wide range of decorative and fine arts. Among the many ensembles he brought together was a renowned assemblage of modern Hungarian art. He acquired his first piece of silver in Paris in 1967, and from there his diverse collection grew, reflecting its owner's personal preferences, interests, and individual taste. In the foreword to the catalogue Hungarian Silver: The Nicolas M. Salgo Collection, commissioned by Salgo in 1996 and written by Dr. Judit Hajtó-Kolba, an expert on Hungarian goldsmithing and the former Head Curator at the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum (National Museum of Hungary) in Budapest, the ambassador mused:
What motives lie behind building a collection? They are certainly multifarious but might include: aesthetic satisfaction; curiosity; a spirit of inquiry; the possibility of acquiring kindred pieces at some time in the future; a willingness to devote time, effort and involvement to such an endeavor coupled with an ability to cope with the sacrifice and frustration, and the sense of accomplishment at every step along the road toward achieving a particular goal.
Salgo, a private collector, was in a privileged position to acquire objects that he considered important additions to his ensemble. Unfettered by institutional guidelines, his collecting was governed by opportunity, the availability of desirable items on the art market, and finances, which were restricted in times of economic uncertainty.
The Salgo Collection is strikingly heterogeneous. It includes works by thirty-seven named masters and additional unidentified goldsmiths, and it encompasses a wide variety of remarkably refined objects representing the sophistication of Hungarian silver. Mentioned above, the earliest works in the collection are two rare medieval chalices ornamented with colorful filigree enamel, while the majority of the objects were produced between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.
During that three-hundred-year period, the development of inventive new forms and designs was fueled by the demands of affluent patrons. One of the most popular motifs in European goldsmithing of the seventeenth century was floral decoration composed of large blooms entwined with foliage (fig. 5). Leading artists published single prints or whole pattern books of their designs, which aided in disseminating fashionable styles throughout Europe during the Baroque period (figs. 6 and 7).
Drinking vessels in an astonishing variety of shapes and sizes reflect the wide array of influences that artisans translated into a characteristic Hungarian/Transylvanian style. One of the decorations most frequently used on drinking vessels was the so-called snakeskin ornament, achieved by punching and matting the silver to create a pattern that, from a distance, visually coheres in a lustrous, velvety surface. This sumptuous motif has practical origins: the rough surface provided traction, preventing beakers from slipping through greasy fingers in an era when forks and knives were designed and employed mostly for carving meat, and food was usually consumed with the hands (fig. 8). About 1690, the French King Louis XIV criticized the young Duke of Burgundy's governess for teaching the boy to eat with a fork instead of properly, with his fingers.
Tankards, created in German-speaking regions from the Gothic period to the early Renaissance, were used for serving warm or lukewarm beer. The hinged lid preserved the temperature of the beverage and kept out contaminants such as dust, wig powder, and insects. After flourishing for hundreds of years, tankard production gradually fell off during the eighteenth century because of the increasing demand—stemming from newly acquired tastes especially popular among women—for coffee, tea, and hot chocolate services. Standing cups and beakers of all forms were preferred for spiced wine. Hungarian beakers were typically made with a hollow, spreading foot and a flared cylindrical body, a type avidly collected by Salgo (fig. 9). Shallow bowls with small handles were used for serving brandy and other spirits as well as, some say, sweets and fruits.
The tradition of honoring guests by offering a "welcome cup" filled with wine began in the Middle Ages and spread throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This custom led to the creation of ostentatious drinking vessels with fanciful shapes of all sorts, including those of creatures such as bears, stags, owls, and unicorns. During the eighteenth century, welcome cups of this type were appreciated mainly for their ornamental value, although they retained their functionality. The three whimsical "Peacock Cups" in the Salgo Collection are superb examples of this tendency (fig. 10). Designed to satisfy Hungarian taste and to serve primarily as attention-getting table ornaments, the pieces have detachable heads; removing them allows the decorative birds to be used as drinking vessels.
The intriguing shapes, inventive decoration, and historical importance of the objects in the Salgo Collection attest to the exceptional quality of this brilliant assemblage. Many of the works, such as those from the Andrássy treasury, are rare survivors of Hungarian dynastic collections. In the manner of the European aristocrats for whom the majority of these objects were created centuries ago, Salgo amassed his own personal treasury (fig. 11).
Hungarian silver had little exposure in the United States before 1986, when the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, presented the loan exhibition Treasures of Hungary: Gold & Silver from the 9th to the 19th Century, featuring sumptuous objects from the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum in Budapest. The accompanying catalogue, one of the first major English-language surveys of the subject, documented the exhibition's broad range of objects and shed valuable light on their distinctive Hungarian flavor. For that great exhibition's section showcasing the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, the Salgo Collection could have made, in both scope and variety, a worthy substitute.
Hungarian Treasure: Silver from the Nicolas M. Salgo Collection continues the mission of its namesake. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is privileged to share this princely gift with the public and to facilitate the further study of these magnificent works of art.
The conservation of the objects in the Metropolitan Museum's Nicolas M. Salgo Collection and this online feature were made possible by The Salgo Trust for Education, New York.
The Museum is greatly indebted to Dr. Miklos P. Salgo and the Salgo family, Professor Oliver A. I. Botar, School of Art, University of Manitoba, and The Salgo Trust for Education, New York, for the donation of The Nicolas M. Salgo collection and for their generous support of the exhibition.
Melissa Chumsky, research assistant, and Tamara Schechter, former research associate, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, skillfully coordinated and contributed to the preparation of the exhibition and this online feature.