Renaissance Signet Ring of the van den Bergh Family of s’Heerenberg
Rare heavy, gold foiled armorial ring with the shield painted under a chalcedony; provenance from both the Guilhou and Harari Collections is virtually unfindable today.
Heavy gold ring with wide hoop, plain on the interior and flat on the exterior with beveled edging. The hoop widens towards the shoulders, then tapers to form an octagonal bezel set with a chalcedony intaglio and heraldic device. The engraved sides of the bezel show a cabled border, grooved ridge and frieze with indentations. The coat of arms and the initials ‘G F’ are cut in reverse as a seal. The shield shows a crowned rampant lion to the right (when sealed to the left) framed by a border with eleven bezants (roundels). Colored metal foils in emerald green, lapis blue/ indigo, silver with pink tint under the intaglio create and enhance the full color of the coat-of-arms (now partially faded). The ring shows signs of wear through age, is slightly bent on one side of the lower part of the hoop, and in good wearable condition.
Ernest Guilhou (1844-1911) an eminent French collector of watches and snuffboxes, and most famously known for his collection of 1636 finger rings ranging from Ancient Egypt to the nineteenth century; thence Ralph Andrew Harari (1892-1969), a merchant banker and collector from Cairo, who lived in London. He was foremost a collector of Islamic metalwork and rings from Antiquity to the Renaissance; thence European Private Collection.
The Ernest Guilhou collection was catalogued by de Ricci, 1912, no. 1290. His heirs sold the collection at auction in 1937, see: Superb Collection of Rings formed by the Late Monsieur E. Guilhou, Sotheby's, London, 9-12 November 1937, lot 584; John Boardman and Diana Scarisbrick, The Ralph Harari Collection of Finger |Rings, Thames and Hudson, London 1977, no. 135.
Signet rings were worn as a sign of status. In Renaissance portraits the wearer prominently presents his ring, often worn on the forefinger or thumb, as if to impress and remind the viewer of their status. However, signets also had a practical function; the seal personal to the owner, was pressed into hot sealing wax to witness documents, either private or commercial, as a safeguard and guarantee of its origin and content.
The choice of an opulent heavy gold ring in combination with an engraved hardstone, such as crystal, or as seen here, chalcedony with elaborate underlying foils indicating the colors of the heraldry, suggests the owner was of a high rank. In the 1912 catalogue of the Guilhou Collection written by de Ricci the coat of arms remains unidentified. By 1937, when the ring was sold at auction by Sotheby’s the catalogue mentions: “The arms are those of the Sovereign county of Berg s’Heerenberg). The initials may stand for Gulielmus and Fredericus; i.e. William IV, Count of Berg (1538 - 1586) and his brother, Count Frederic, Lord of Hedel, d.1592.” Whilst in the 1977 book on the Harari collection written by Boardman and Scarisbrick (see above, no. 135), it is suggested the ring may have belonged to a member of the old knightly family Feletz from the Périgord region in France due to the initials ‘GF’ and a similar coat of arms. However, the Feletz family have 8 bezants surrounding the rampant lion, the van den Bergh family eleven as on the seal of this ring.
Both the shape of the shield and the ring design suggest a ring of Netherlandish or German provenance and a date of 1500-1550 which confirms the attribution to the family of van den Bergh of s’Heerenberg in the province of Gelderland, Lower Netherlands adjacent to the German border. However, the shield lacks any helm, crest or crown which would be expected on a heraldic device of a Count. For this reason, it is possible the ring belonged to a member of the van den Bergh family with the initials ‘GF’ who did not own a titular title or was given to someone for their loyalty to the family. The former residence of the family Huis Bergh situated in s’Heerenberg, as it is named today, is one of the largest in the Netherlands.
For the attribution and date of the ring design, cf. examples in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (Garside, ed., 1979, no. 477, German, c. 1500); Museum fur Angewandte Kunst, Cologne (Chadour/Joppien 1985, vol. 2, no. 233, German, early 16th century); Nationalmuseen, Copenhagen (Lindahl 2003, no. 390); British Museum, London (Dalton 1912, no. 401); Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. 694-1871, 1500-1550); Alice and Louis Koch Collection in the Swiss National Museum, Zurich (Chadour 1994, vol. 1, no. 635), and for a more elaborate ring with a foiled crystal, cf. Scarisbrick 2004, no. 164).