Freeman’s May 17 sale of English & Continental Furniture & Decorative Arts is set to be a whimsical tour around the globe. Amongst a unique and fascinating variety of early European works of art, British Grand Tour mania, and French Empire elegance, this sale will feature a delightful assortment of miniature objects designed for a multiplicity of domestic uses. From England to Austria, for the library or the boudoir, collectors have long prized tiny reproductions of furniture as jewel-like repositories for their greatest treasures.
Chief among these is an important George III ormolu and gold mounted agate-veneered nécessaire, circa 1765, which traveled the world in the late 18th century before finding its way back to Britain. In the form of a cabinet on stand, its grand proportions and magnificent detail belie its tiny stature—only seven inches high. Nevertheless, it hides behind its minute doors two drawers fitted with three scent bottles, a toothbrush, a straight razor, smelling salts, and an entire manicure set comprising over a dozen pieces.
This nécessaire, to be sold as Lot 70, has an unusual and profound history beginning in Canton, China with the Chinese Imperial family. How it arrived in China remains unclear, though James Cox, the most notable of such makers, was documented to have regularly sought clients for his nécessaires and clocks in the Far East through 1775—undoubtedly its presence in China was noteworthy, but probably not exceptional. After narrowly avoiding certain loss following the looting of the Imperial Palace by South China Sea pirates in the first quarter of the 19th century, the nécessaire was acquired by the Scottish sea merchant Angus Jacob “Jake” Rintoul (1783-1840), who had aided the Imperial family against the pirates. It returned with him to Scotland, where it remained in the family and later came to the United States with his descendants.
Mounted with a clock signed Thomas Best, London, this nécessaire is composed of an ormolu structure further mounted with cast and chased gold foil. It contains seven panels of finely cut and polished agate and fittings mounted with gold. A jewel in and of itself, the superior craftsmanship and exquisite detail of its form make it a precious complement to any lady’s dressing table.
For the English gentleman, a miniature George III style walnut slant-front desk, to be offered as Lot 80, provides a collection of spaces to cache personal treasures or hide little indiscretions. With a total of seven drawers, four pigeonholes, and a secret compartment under the writing surface, this charming replica would be equally at home on an office desk or in a children’s playroom.
In France, the trend for miniature objects was especially popular in the 19th century, particularly among items intended for export. Buyers in the United States and elsewhere, attracted to the tradition of French excellence in the decorative arts as well as the exotic mystique of Orientalism, sought to capture this essence in petite souvenirs reminiscent of the real thing.
Such items are represented in the sale by Lot 255, a late 19th century French gilt and patinated bronze clock in the form of a sedan chair, replete with movable carrying rails, retailed by Bailey, Banks, and Biddle of Philadelphia; and Lot 256, a Grand Tour perfume casque in the form of an elephant cart. In the style of the great Palais Royal parfumers, this gilt-bronze cart is centered by a mother-of-pearl egg raised on wheels pulled by five elephants mounted with jadeite beads. The cart further bears two green opaline glass scent bottles and is backed by a reverse-painted glass medallion depicting the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris. A bizarre masterpiece of 19th century eclecticism, this perfume cart was almost certainly created as a souvenir for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1878, for which the Trocadéro was built as the marquee exhibition space.
Collectors in 19th century France also regularly looked back to the golden age of French design: the 18th century. Throughout the 19th century, furniture and decorative arts continued to be produced in earlier Louis XV and XVI forms, and this extended to miniature objects as well. Lot 200 is a highly unusual Louis XV style gilt-bronze mounted and painted porcelain miniature commode by Sceaux, a porcelain manufactory established in the 18th century to compete against the royal manufactories at Sèvres. This commode, glazed a rich cobalt blue and centered by reserves painted with idyllic 18th century scenes, is emblematic of the nostalgia many urban Parisians of the modern, frenzied 19th century felt for the simpler times before the Revolution.
Similarly, Lots 218 and 219 combine modern functionality with ancien régime luxury. Lot 218 is a Louis XVI style gilt brass miniature cabinet on stand dating to the late 19th century. Intended as a jewelry casket, the cabinet is mounted with an 18th century style miniature portrait of a lady on ivory signed “Bruy”, raised on a marble base above a garlanded stand. Though just over a foot tall, this cabinet retains all the details and structural elements of its full-sized counterparts, complete with functional locks on both the cabinet and frieze drawer to guard its precious contents. Lot 219, a Louis XVI style gilt bronze and champlevé miniature bureau à cylindre, was likely intended to grace a lady’s toilette as a meuble à maquillage. The hinged cylindrical front houses two miniscule soft-paste porcelain pots, painted pink and probably used to mix eaux de toilette.
Elsewhere on the continent, Austria has long been associated with miniature objects due to its well established tradition of Viennese enamel. Reaching the height of its popularity in the late 19th century, Viennese enamel objects were wildly collectible and produced in the forms of animals, ships, carriages, clocks, musical instruments, and, most commonly, furniture. Such examples include Lot 302, a Viennese enamel miniature salon suite comprising a settee, center table, fauteuil, and side chair. The complexity of Viennese enamel is further exhibited in Lot 301, a musical jewelry casket in the form of a miniature cabinet organ. The cabinet is fronted by two doors mounted with appliqués made to resemble organ pipes, opening to an interior with two enameled drawers to store jewelry and other small valuables. A third drawer below hides the workings of the music box in the base which, when wound, plays a repertoire of two songs.
Though these lots hail from different times and places—and take many different shapes—their charm remains the same. They represent our human nature to both covet the beautiful and cherish the precious, and demonstrate the virtuosity of craftsmen across Europe. Reducing the form and function of large furniture to tiny treasures enables both maker and owner to take greater pleasure in the little things in life.
Images: Lot 70: Important George III ormolu and gold mounted agate necessaire in the form of a cabinet on stand; Lot 301: Viennese enamel and gilt bronze mounted musical jewel casket in the form of an organ, circa 1870; Lot 200: Louis XV style gilt bronze mounted painted porcelain miniature commode, Sceaux, 19th century; Lot 255: Fine French parcel-gilt bronze mantle clock retailed by Bailey, Banks and Biddle; Lot 219: Louis XVI style gilt bronze and champlevé miniature meuble à maquillage