AN EXCEPTIONAL THREE TUNE MUSICAL AUTOMATON BIRD CAGE CLOCK WITH DOUBLE SINGING BIRDS AND A BUTTERFLY, GENEVA 1825-1830. ESTIMATE CHF 400,000–800,000 ($411,000–825,000).
The stunning object (Lot 176) features two singing birds and a butterfly which, thanks to three automaton mechanisms, combine to form a scene filled with movement and music.
Take a look at the clock in more detail:
The ornate cage, of chiselled golden bronze, sits on four lion paw-shaped feet atop a pedestal. The whole structure is finished in shiny piqué-mat. Inside the rectangular cage are two singing birds, which jump from one perch to another, opening and closing their beaks alongside an animated fountain. Birdcage clocks were primarily made between 1780 and 1840. In the late 18th century, singing birds were produced in extremely small quantities, and they were considered the ultimate in luxury. The number of privately held pieces has diminished greatly, and their appearance at auction generates tremendous interest.
The fountain is topped by a beautiful butterfly, whose hand-painted wings flap as it turns around itself. The mechanism articulating these delicate movements, built in brass and steel, is ingeniously concealed inside the lower section of the cage. The birdsong, mimicking canaries and nightingales, is reproduced by a combination of bellows, whistles and cams, enabled by an intricate fusee-and-chain mechanism. This feat of horological complexity can be attributed to a highly accomplished craftsman, Jean-David Maillardet (1748–1834) from La Chaux-de-Fonds.
The music box, which is concealed inside the base of this striking piece, plays three melodies which are triggered on the passing of each hour or on demand. The mechanism triggers brass cylinders, which in turn vibrate the 93 blades of the clavier, or the ‘comb’. The clavier is signed C. F. Nardin for Charles-Frédéric Nardin from La Chaux-de-Fonds. The three charming melodies which can be selected include Der Jägerchor (The Huntsmen’s Chorus) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), written in 1820.
This masterpiece combines the exceptional skills of Swiss craftsmen, including horologists from Neuchatel, la Vallée de Joux and Geneva, who specialised in singing birds. Among the best known makers were Jaquet-Droz, Frédéric Leschot, Jacob Frisard, Jean-David Maillardet, the Rochat family and the Bruguiers. Their popularity can be seen to rise in parallel with the expanding commercial relationship with the Chinese, Ottoman and Russian markets, which blossomed towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Speaking ahead of the sale, Pedro Reiser, Department Manager of Sotheby’s Watch Division in Geneva, commented: “It is truly an honour to have been entrusted with such an extraordinary timepiece for our upcoming auction of Important Watches. This wonderful automaton is a rare find - all the more exceptional because it features an automated butterfly. Records suggest that only one other double-bird cage clock with an automaton butterfly is currently known. We are delighted to be able to present this exquisite creation, which would be equally at home in the collection of a connoisseur or in a museum.”
Important Watches is in Geneva on 14 May.