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A6070 Nef (ship-shaped table centrepiece), copper / silver / gilt / enamels / blister pearls, Karl Bender, Vienna, Austria, c 1874-1892. Click to enlarge.

Nef, ship-shaped table ornament

Made c 1880

Nefs or elaborate table centrepieces made from precious materials in the form of a ship were made in Europe from at least the 13th century. Traditionally they were placed in front of the most important person at the table. The earliest designs were simpler and could have served as salts or possibly to drink from. By the 14th century, nefs had become more complex and in the 16th century some evolved into elaborate automata with moving figures and music. It is those spectacular renaissance showpie...


Object No.


Object Statement

Nef (ship-shaped table centrepiece), copper / silver / gilt / enamels / blister pearls, Karl Bender, Vienna, Austria, c 1874-1892

Physical Description

Nef (table centrepiece) in the form of a copper sailing ship (galleon) part-gilt and painted in enamels with various scenes from classical mythology and incorporating small silver figures. The boat-shaped sweetmeats container has detachable cover in the form of a square-rigged, three-masted deck with high poop deck and sailors. It is supported by an enamelled cast-silver figure of two-tailed Nereid (mermaid), her body set with blister pearls, kneeling on top of a spreading ovoid foot. The foot extends into a low, octofoil base painted with enamels and gilt, and decorated with eight cast-silver winged hippocampi (seahorses). A cast-silver and enamelled winged mermaid torso extending into an acanthus-shaped shell in place of her fish tail, is attached to one end of the container (forepeak) to form figurehead of the ship.

Various mythological scenes decorate both the exterior and interior of the container, all sails and the foot. These include the elaborate scene on the foremast sail 'The marriage of Neptune and Amphitrite', who ride in a cockle-shell chariot drawn by hippocampi over the waves of the sea amid a retinue of Tritons, Nereids and Amoretti. The five scenes on the deck are painted in square reserves set against embossed scrolling bands of gilt background. The five oval scenes on the foot are reserved against enamelled ground with grotesque ornament. A similar grotesque frieze with mermen and Tritons blowing conch-shell trumpets, decorates the container's interior along the rim and above the large central scene 'Neptune rescuing Amymone from the satyr'. The three mast pennants and the openwork gallery around the deck, all silver figures and the openwork side frieze of the octofoil base are champlevé enamelled in red, blue, green, yellow, black and white. The interior of the hollow foot is painted with a continuous landscape with gothic and classical ruins which also feature on the backs of the smaller sails.


Stamped in various places:
'A' in square (Austrian control mark)
maker's mark:'KB' in rectangle



685 mm


450 mm


210 mm



The nef was made in the workshop of Karl Bender, located from 1875 until 1880 at Wienstrasse 63 and continuing from 1881 until 1892 at Grüngasse 25 (ref. Waltraud Neuwirth, Wiener Gold and Silberschmiede und ihre Punzen, 1867-1922, Vienna, 1976, p102).

Between 1836-42, Bender trained under the Vienna goldsmith Germann Leuchter (also known as Hermann Leichter). He specialised in revivalist gold and silver objects and those in enamel and hardstone.

The metal bases for painted enamel scenes were prepared with a grounding under coats of white enamel.


c 1880



The word nef meaning "ship," is taken from the old French and refers to a particular type of essentially ceremonial object that evolved in France during the Middle Ages. According to R W Lightbown, one of the earliest references to a nef is in a document of 1239. During the succeeding centuries it fulfilled a number of functions, the chief of these being analogous to the role of the great salt in England, to mark the place of the most important person at table. Some documents suggest that nefs were used to drink from, to contain eating utensils while the early sixteenth century Burghley Nef, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, was used as a saltcellar.

Although fine nefs of later periods are known, such as a seventeenth-century gold nef no longer extant, belonging to Louis xiv, and Napoleon's nef of 1804 by Henri Auguste, now in the Musée Malmaison, the greatest period of production seems to have come to an end quite early in the sixteenth century. Examples such as the Burghley Nef and the Schlüsselfelder Nef of 1503 in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, represent the last renaissance flowering of the form as a goldsmith's showpiece. They continued to be popular in Germany during the late 16th and early 17th centuries and inspired 19th century metalsmiths and enamellers influenced by historicism and in particular the neo-renaissance or renaissance revival style.



Credit Line

Bequest of C R Thornett, 1972

Acquisition Date

14 March 1972

Cite this Object


Nef, ship-shaped table ornament 2019, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 19 October 2019, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Nef, ship-shaped table ornament |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=19 October 2019 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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