Snuff Said

snuffbox

It is reported that this tiny Meissen gold-and-porcelain snuffbox is attracting much attention and an unusually high estimate at Christie’s sale next week. Why you might ask with some legitimate disbelief?

After all, it’s certainly pretty, but easy to overlook. Decorated with a painted Harlequin figure entertaining two ladies by a river, it measures no more than three inches (7.6cm) across. It hardly looks any different from the hundreds of other porcelain boxes that were made at the Meissen factory near the German town of Dresden, established soon after Ehrenfried Walther von Tschimhaus and Johann Friedrich Boettger became the first Europeans to succeed in copying the Chinese and developing hard-paste porcelain in 1708.

True, the scrolling salami-red foliage around the base is unusually well-painted and the mount is gold rather than gilt. But it is only when you unfasten the little gold clasp and peak inside that you really begin to understand why this particular snuffbox (pictured) differs from the five other Meissen porcelain boxes being offered in the same Christie’s auction next week–and why the estimate of what it might fetch has been set at more than ten times higher.

It’s a fascinating tale involving a British politician with a high patrician forehead and an excellent eye who it was said “could be tempted by nothing that was inferior.”

Snuff-taking had begun to be fashionable in Europe at the start of the 18th century, and the boxes in which it was presented quickly became grand tokens, exchanged by courting families as well as diplomatic envoys. Poised to dip finger and thumb into the dark powdery mound, the snuff user always had a moment or two to admire the inside of the box in which it was stored. This is the main reason why the most delicate decoration of any snuffbox is invariably found on the inside of the lid.

Inspired by a painting named “The Adventuress” by one of France’s greatest artists of the Romantic period, Jean-Antoine Watteau, the picture on the interior of this particular box is of two elegant figures, a musician carrying a fiddle together with his companion. Dressed in velvet and lace and feathered hats, the two men appear to be taking a rest from their playing; they have stopped to admire a fountain and one of them has turned to look round as if called to pose for a holiday snap.

At the bottom of the little box there is another treasure: not snuff, but a small piece of card. Carefully cut by hand to fit the base, it bears the words, written in an elegant slanted hand, “from the Bernal collection”.

The handwriting gives the first clue. No one has written like that for more than a century. The last time this box changed hands was at an auction of the estate of one Ralph Bernal, Esq, which took place in 1855. In the current market, when only rare objects of excellent quality are selling well, such a provenance can only enhance value.

Ralph Bernal was a British politician with a high patrician forehead and an excellent eye. In 1888 the Times described him as “the most accomplished collector of his time”, and he had such a reputation that “whenever he was observed to admire anything it was quite enough to enhance its value in the eyes of the dealers”. Even given the hyperbole of the time, the introduction to the sale catalogue, by James Robinson Planché, a leading dramatist, was effusive. “Nothing I can say would enhance the value of such a collection… Mr Bernal could be tempted by nothing that was inferior.”

The sale proved him right. Held at Bernal’s residence, 93 Eaton Square, then as now one of the most fashionable squares in London, the auction included over 4,300 lots and lasted 32 days. The entry for the little Meissen box took up only four lines, but the box fetched a princely sum: 16 pounds 11 shillings, and was bought by the English nobleman whose descendent is now consigning it for sale.
The world record for a Meissen snuffbox was set in 1991 when a royal presentation box fetched £220,000. After 18 years, it may time for a change.

The Meissen gold-mounted circular snuffbox is part of Christie’s sale of silver, European ceramics, portrait miniatures and gold boxes in London on June 2nd. The estimate is £25,000-40,000.

The Economist

Advertisements

~ by eaesthete on 05/30/09.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s