Set Sail! The Grandeur of the Nef

The nef was at one time an indispensable fine dining fixture. Though the days of its greatest popularity may have sailed by, these magnificent works are finding renewed appreciation amongst connoisseurs of fine dining and decorative art.

Spanish silverplate nef honoring the Knights of Malta. This stunning nef has a full crew on deck, masts and full sails. Circa 1890. Spanish silverplate nef honoring the Knights of Malta. This stunning nef has a full crew on deck, masts and full sails. Circa 1890.

Crafted in the form of a sailing ship, this ornate table ornament dates to the Middle Ages, with the earliest known mention occurring in 13th-century France. Its name derived from the French nickname for the carrack, a popular ocean sailing ship, and it is believed that in its most rudimentary form, the vessel was initially hull-shaped and used as a sort of goblet for drinking.

It wasn’t long before the nef became an elaborate and essential dining accessory for the elite. By the 14th century, the most complex specimens were crafted with the utmost intricacy with masts, full sail riggings and even crew. Made of the most precious materials, including silver, gold and jewels, the nef took on the important role of holding salt and spices, both of which were tremendously rare and valuable commodities. In fact, at different points in history salt and spices were as valuable as the silver and gold itself.

The Saint Louis Crystal and Doré Bronze Nef, believed to have been exhibited at the 1889 Exhibition Universelle in Paris. French, circa 1887. The Saint Louis Crystal and Doré Bronze Nef, believed to have been exhibited at the 1889 Exhibition Universelle in Paris. French, circa 1887.

Soon, there was no limit to the various purposes of the nef. Utensils, napkins, condiments, and even serving dishes could be housed in the grandest examples. The majority of nefs rested upon wheels that allowed it to be easily passed from guest to guest at a large banquet table.

Silver and Jeweled Automaton Nef, bejeweled with carnelian cabochons, rubies, lapis, nephrite jade, turquoise, quartz and amethyst. Silver and Jeweled Automaton Nef, bejeweled with carnelian cabochons, rubies, lapis, nephrite jade, turquoise, quartz and amethyst.

The most impressive nefs can be found today in the collections of prestigious museums around the world. The Victoria and Albert Museum is home to the Burghley Nef. Created in the 1520s, the vessel features a nautilus shell adorned with masterfully worked silver gilt and pearls. The famed 16th-century German “Mechanical Galleon” housed in the British Museum includes both a clock and automation with music and moving figures.

Close up view of the Jeweled Silver Nef. Crafted to resemble a sheikh's barge, nearly every member of the crew moves in a brilliant display of mechanical artistry. Close up view of the Jeweled Silver Nef. Crafted to resemble a sheikh's barge, nearly every member of the crew moves in a brilliant display of mechanical artistry.

Eventually the nef fell out of favor, and it is believed that its successor was the epergne. Modern collectors find these relics of dining history both fascinating and exquisite, quickly acquiring those rare specimens that seldom come on the market, and giving the nef a chance to set sail on a well-appointed dining table once again.

View M.S Rau Antiques current selection of important nefs.

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