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Objects of Vertu

Three of a Kind: Small Boxes of Royal and Noble Descent

Ahead of the Royal and Noble auction in London on 17 January, we look at three very different decorative boxes offered in the sale, at very different price points.

1. A gilt-bronze mounted Meissen porcelain rectangular snuffbox, circa 1755. Estimate £2,500–3,500.

During the first half of the 18th century, Meissen was the leading porcelain manufacturer in Europe. The German manufactory made a wide range of small, personal objects such as snuffboxes, figurines, and curiosities, often mounted in gilt-bronze in Paris. Sniffing snuff was the original method of taking tobacco and began as an elite pastime during the early 18th century, and porcelain snuffboxes like this one decorated with domestic scenes did not only serve a functional purpose. They were highly-prized and personal items, frequently considered as love tokens or presented as gifts, often to ambassadors or members of the court.

2. A gold and enamel Imperial presentation portrait snuff box, Gabriel-Raoul Morel, Paris, 1812-1815. Estimate £40,000–60,000.

This boîte à portrait belonged to Henri Gratien, Comte Bertrand (1773 –1844), who was one of Napoleon's executors charged with handing over his cherished collection of snuff boxes which he had taken with him to Saint Helena, to his son Napoleon II, later also known as l'Aiglon, after a play by Edmond Rostand. The inheritance was rejected by the boy's grandfather, the Emperor of Austria, and so was never delivered. This portrait snuff box was returned by the General's family to the Bonaparte family in the mid-19th century and is representative of the official state portrait for presentation purposes, rather than intimate private portraits which were kept by family members, examples of which are also coming up for sale in this year’s Royal and Noble sale.

3. A jewelled gold and nephrite cigarette case, Friedrich Luttenberger, Vienna, circa 1920. Estimate £2,500–3,500.

"We do declare that when tempted to do yourself too well, if you will ‘Reach for a Lucky’ instead, you will thus avoid over-indulgence in things that cause excess weight and, by avoiding over-indulgence, maintain a modern, graceful form", stated the American cigarette company Lucky Strike in a marketing campaign in the same year that the present nephrite cigarette case was made.

Although this hope has been proven wrong today, it is symbolic for a whole generation in the first third of the 20th century, when smoking cigarettes had become incredibly popular. Gold-lined and with a ruby cabochon thumbpiece, made in Vienna in the style of Fabergé, this case is merely an object of official political representation, which was the case for earlier snuff and gold boxes, but rather a precious private piece to contain a lady’s cigarettes during soirees and parties. It is widely believed that the first encounter of the English-speaking world with the use of tobacco in cigarette form took place during the Crimean War (1853 -1856), when British soldiers observed that their Ottoman Turkish comrades began rolling tobacco in strips of old newspaper.

Due to the extensive wars between the Ottoman and the Habsburg (and later Austrian) Empire between the 16th and the 18th centuries, it is even possible that cigarettes were in fashion a little earlier in Austria. All of these developments in the tobacco industry in the late 19th century had led to the creation of cigarette cases in addition to classic snuff boxes, pill boxes, bonbonnières or boîtes à mouche. Famous jewelers such as Cartier, van Cleef & Arpels, Lacloche and Fabergé turned the cigarette case into a desirable precious accessoire for anyone at the height of fashion.

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