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Art Price Index: Luxury 18th-Century Pocket Boxes, a Reflection of Refined Social Customs

Published on , by Anne Doridou-Heim

Illustrating the habits and customs of a refined and privileged society, exquisite small objects dating to and just after the Age of Enlightenment still arouse envy... and that's no sin!

Sené & Neisser (goldsmiths) and Puyroche (watchmaker), Switzerland, c. 1805, spyglass... Art Price Index: Luxury 18th-Century Pocket Boxes, a Reflection of Refined Social Customs

Sené & Neisser (goldsmiths) and Puyroche (watchmaker), Switzerland, c. 1805, spyglass in chased yellow gold and polychrome enamel decorated with alternating friezes of shells and foliage; the central panels, painted with country scenes and still lifes, slide out to reveal a watch and a window with automata, h. 7.5 cm/2.8 in., gross weight 189.5 g/6.7 g. In a gilded red morocco case. Hôtel Drouot, April 6, 2023. Audap & Associés auction house. Messrs Emeric and Stephen Portier.
Sold for €347,760

The terms snuffbox, patch box, corsetière and wax case all belong to a vocabulary completely unknown to those younger than 200 years old! These objects recall a time when luxury was commonplace—at least for the very small segment of the nobly-born—and goldsmiths vied with each other in inventive ways to attract a clientele. These objects have come down through the centuries often intact, and are now keenly sought-after by collectors , as witnessed by their results at auction. The Musée Cognacq-Jay has now placed them in a striking, contextualized spotlight that provides much information on their individual purposes, making it an ideal time to examine them in detail.   Pocket-Sized Passions While these small, exquisite objects are very much at home in the museum housing Ernest Cognacq's collection, they also have a life of their own. The Age of Enlightenment was truly their era, when they inspired a craze, first in France, then throughout Europe. Very often made of gold and enriched with hardstones , precious gems, mother-of-pearl , porcelain, translucent enamels and sometimes miniatures, they had a variety of forms and uses that reflected the history of both art and fashion . At the time, these little pieces were known as “objects of virtue”—though virtue was hardly their chief attribute! In fact, the origin of this expression is somewhat obscure. According to the Musée Cognacq-Jay collection’s catalogue raisonné (published in 2011), it could be an Anglicism—Vertue being the name of a goldsmith or connoisseur—or harks back to the Protestants who emigrated from France when the Edict of Nantes was revoked. Those who refused to renounce their faith were called “the Virtuous”, and included many fine…
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