A Plaything for the Chinese Emperor
History of the Magician Box. Pierre Jaquet-Droz produced the first magician’s automaton clock that appeared in the Chinese market. A pair of these unique pieces were produced in October 1787 and presented to the Qianlong Emperor in 1795.
Other horologists who subsequently designed or made clocks with question-and-answer fortune tellers include Henri Maillardet and Philippe-Samuel Meylan. The design was then adapted into watches. The magician box designs were the most complex to come out of Switzerland in the early 19th century. They are valued for their sophisticated mechanics as well as their beauty and rarity. Magician boxes can be grouped under three main periods, which include several different mécaniciens.
The first period, from around 1795 to 1805, saw boxes with magicians pointing a magic wand that conjured up hidden singing birds. They were followed by ‘temple’ boxes, in which a figure changes the colours of the columns along a colonnade. These boxes marked the second period, starting around 1805. Miniaturization was a trend with the advent of magician snuff boxes and even magician vinaigrettes (perfume boxes). The most complicated group, the question-and-answer magicians, appeared in both box and vinaigrette formats after 1810.
The Magic of the McCullough Musical Automaton
Question and Answer Magician Boxes
One of the pieces from the last period is the Magnificent McCullough Magician Question and Answer Music Automaton Box.
The gold, enamel and pearl-set musical automaton snuff box was made around 1815. Measuring 90mm in length and 55mm in width, it comes with two tunes in a fitted Garrard presentation box.
The lid is decorated with a polychrome enamel picture of a young Turkish couple consulting a sorcerer and is set within a frame of pearl-set foliage on a blue enamel ground. The lid opens to reveal an enamelled riverside scene depicting a magician seated on a rock under two trees, all of which is executed in coloured gold.
The subject of the portrait is based on the Necromancer, painted by Jean Baptiste Le Prince in around 1775. He painted three versions of the subject, one now in the National Gallery in London, one in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and another in private hands. Interestingly, the original shows the figures of the fortune teller as an old grey-haired man, seated and wearing a figured robe, not the handsome young turbaned Turk to be seen on the Geneva enamels.
The enamel scene is possibly by Jean-Abraham Lissignol (1749-1819), known as Pére Lissignol. As well as painting plaques for snuff boxes, he also supplied workshops with portrait miniatures for watch cases and boxes. He appears to have specialized in allegorical subjects particularly those including plump cherubs. A box in the Patek Philippe Museum shows such a scene identified as the allegory of The Arts and Nature.
A barrel drives the music in automaton. Pushing a slide on the left hand side sets in motion the automaton and the music. The music is driven by a pin barrel and the comb has two tunes selected by a slide to the back of the box.
The automaton is composed of five wheels with cams producing the motion to the magician with arms engaging a separate wheel to the movement. The answer wheel is activated by the question tablets which are made in gold, engraved and pierced with holes at the end. These holes opens at the base and left of the drawer. A plunger enters the hole and is attached to chain pulley turning a gear to rotate the plate to the intended position, held in place with a spring to a toothed wheel to the underside of the answer wheel.
A drawer containing tablets is pull out from the right, each tablet bearing a question, which is then inserted into the drawer above. The upper drawer is spring-activated, release by a pin size pusher at the upper right corner. Once the question is inserted, the magician will eventually point to the aperture above the tree and reveals the answer to the question asked.
The hinged base opening to reveal a snuff compartment and stamped with the maker’s mark.
A drawer on one of the sides, which are decorated with enamel, contains six double-sided gold and enamel tablets that have English riddles written on them. These tablets are placed into a second drawer and the mechanism is activated by a slide, the magician inclines his head towards his book whilst accompanied by music. He then raises his right arm to point the user towards the answer to the riddle, revealed by an aperture in the foliage.
One of only five question and answer magician boxes known to have been made, the box is the last one in private hands. It is said to be superior to the other four in execution, decoration, complexity and overall condition.
The Maurice Sandoz collection houses two of the remaining four boxes, one made of tortoiseshell and gold which does not have questions, and the other made of varicoloured gold. A third is housed at the Landesmuseem Fur Musikautomaten in Seewen, Switzerland, while the fourth box was sold by Sotheby’s in June 2016.
The Magnificent McCullough Magician Question itself was last sold at Sotheby’s Important Watches and Clocks, Gold Snuff Boxes, Fabergé and Objects of Vertu auction that took place in London on 1 June 1964. It has since remained in private hands.
'Work Boxes' for Noble Ladies
Alongside the magician box, Sotheby’s will also be offering a large gold, enamel and pearl-set etui de voyage. Also known as nécessaires or work boxes, etui de voyage were ladies’ scent and cosmetics boxes widely used in the 18th century. As the quality of a well-off lady’s etui de voyage was a subtle reflection of her position, taste and wealth, they were well made with expensive materials including gold and pearls.
The necessaire in the upcoming auction was formerly in the collection of John Asprey, is one of only two examples known of this size and it is fresh to the market. Made in Switzerland around 1800 for the Chinese market, the etui de voyage comes with a watch, music and automaton in a fitted presentation box. Other components include a pair of gold mounted scissors, a gold and enamel knife, a gold and enamel perfume vial, a gold and enamel key, a gold and enamel cuticle stick as well as a gold and enamel awl.
Its calibre consists of a cylinder escapement with three trains for time, music and automaton respectively. Both sides of the gold case are decorated with polychrome and champlevé enamel and set with pearls. The top opens to reveal instruments made of gold and enamel, as well as its key. The case’s base hinges to reveal the watch with cylinder escapement on one while and an automated music scene of a lutenist playing to a performing dog on the other.
The boxes were also well designed and had hidden compartments for automata work. Some also had watches and played music. A velvet-lined compartment was used to keep tools such as scissors, scent bottle, and a winding key for the music component.
A total of 266 pieces make up the next Important Watches live auction, including pieces from FP Journe, Laurent Ferrier and Richard Mille, as well as vintage timepieces from Patek Philippe and Rolex. Wristwatches from the personal collections of such collectors as Eric Clapton and Hiroshi Fujiwara will also be on offer.