Lot 48
  • 48

A George III ormolu, Geneva enamel and paste-set musical automaton quarter striking tower clock for the Chinese market, London, circa 1790

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 GBP
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  • Teak, bronze, brass, enamel, glass, steel, pastes
  • 116cm. high
composed of five tiers, the surmount with a multi-faceted automaton star above rotating paste-set pillars enclosing English enamel plaques which transform into a paste-set rotating drum, the subsequent tiers each supported by eight pillars to the canted corners and comprising; a rotating enamel-mounted cube set on each side with contra-rotating whorls; an enamel-mounted cube with 2½-inch enamel clock dial and containing a two train chain fusee movement with anchor escapement and silk suspension, quarter striking on two bells, signed on the backplate Thompson, London; a water feature formed by spinning glass rods and with two swans swimming on a simulated pond; an enamel-mounted cube with a large metamorphic whorl and containing a substantial tandem-wound combination spring barrel and chain fusee movement with a 3½-inch pinned cylinder playing two airs on eight bells with fourteen hammers and driving all of the automaton features; the whole set with extremely fine guilloche Geneva enamel panels, finely pierced graduated galleries and mounted with crisply cast and chased floral swags, on foliate claw feet: together with a teak travelling case


Chinese Imperial Palace, Jehol
The collection of Gustav Loup
The collection of Jaques-David LeCoultre
Roger LeCoultre
Private Swiss collection.


In generally very fine and original condition throughout. Enamel clock dial in perfect condition. Clock movement is complete and would just run at cataloguing but would benefit from a clean and service. Automaton/musical movement running at cataloguing but would benefit from clean and service, some adjustment required to stopwork setup. All automaton features fully operational. Case has top paste missing from star but otherwise all pastes present. All enamel panels are in perfect original condition. Ormolu in very good original condition, silvering to water feature is rather tarnished and would benefit from cleaning, one small glass spike missing; gallery to second tier has a minor break to the rear balustrade, one small piece of floral swag missing from right side of third tier; two small later bubble levels added to base to assist with levelling the clock. Hardwood travelling case is rather faded, minor damage to top rear edge, most brass fastening hooks damaged, otherwise generally good. With two silvered swans, pendulum, clock winder and automaton.music winder.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. All dimensions in catalogue descriptions are approximate. Condition reports may not specify mechanical replacements or imperfections to the movement, case, dial, pendulum, separate base(s) or dome. Watches in water-resistant cases have been opened to examine movements but no warranties are made that the watches are currently water-resistant. Please note that we do not guarantee the authenticity of any individual component parts, such as wheels, hands, crowns, crystals, screws, bracelets and leather bands, since subsequent repairs and restoration work may have resulted in the replacement of original parts. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue. In particular, please note it is the purchaser's responsibility to comply with any applicable import and export matters, particularly in relation to lots incorporating materials from endangered species.NOTWITHSTANDING THIS REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF BUSINESS PRINTED IN THE SALE CATALOGUE."

**Please be advised that bands made of materials derived from endangered or otherwise protected species (i.e. alligator and crocodile) are not sold with the watches and are for display purposes only. We reserve the right to remove these bands prior to shipping.

Important Notice regarding importation into the United States of Rolex watches
Sotheby's cannot arrange for the delivery of Rolex watches to the United States because U.S. laws restricts the import of Rolex watches. The buyer or a designated agent may collect the property in the country of sale."

Catalogue Note

The 17th and 18th Centuries saw an explosion of European interest in all things Chinese. The import of goods such as tea, silks and porcelain from China grew rapidly but it was a one-way trade with the Chinese showing little interest in English commodities. The East India Company found that trading conditions were never easy and it was often essential to present lavish gifts in order to facilitate deals. High quality novelty clocks and watches made in London proved popular gifts and, as they filtered into the upper echelons of Chinese society, demand for these 'sing-songs' increased. Ian White in his book English Clocks for the Eastern Markets explains in detail about the growth in this trade and collecting in China. In England there was a drive to make more accurate time keepers, often housed in fine quality though plain cases. In China there was little interest in time keeping but a fascination with musical and automaton functions.  The English merchants and some clockmakers capitalised on this desire by making evermore elaborate and fanciful clocks and many of the finest examples were acquired by the Qing Emperors.

This magnificent clock, originally one of a pair, is first mentioned by the Swiss horological author, Alfred Chapuis, in his book le Monde des Automates, published in 1928, [1]. He attributed the clocks to the collection of Gustave Loup, and commenced his description of the clock shown as follows:
"In this piece we see the spirit of Cox's Museum; a large pair of clocks of the Louis XVI period.  These two splendid pieces were originally owned by the Chinese emperors. They subsequently became the property of one of the sisters of the ‘Son of Heaven’ on the occasion of her wedding, who, according to custom, would take away with her some family objects. They were transported, about 40 years ago, from Pekin to Lao Ting; the journey was completed in 12 days by 16 coolies, and such care was taken that they arrived in perfect condition (according to the information provided in 1913 by the Palace officials)."

Gustave Loup (1876–1961), who was from a Swiss family of watch and clock dealers, was born in Tientsin (Tianjin), became a fluent mandarin speaker, and expert in several aspects of Chinese art and history. With his brother Bernard, they developed their watch importing business, and in 1915 took over the firm of Vrard and Co. Gustave lived in Tianjin until 1930, when he left to live in Geneva. A short history of the Loup family has been published by Nickles van Osselt in Arts of Asia (July/August 2013).

Loup’s Acquisition of the clocks: Although the early history of the clocks in China is not clear from the Chapuis quotation, there is no doubt that Loup acquired both clocks in China, probably in the period 1911–23, and that they came from the palace at Jehol. In a letter to Chapuis of 23 April 1942, he wrote:[2]

"I have the catalogue of the Museum in Peking on the clocks and gold objects; have you read it? For your information, I must say, that the most beautiful parts of the collection of the Palace at Jehol are in my possession, as I managed to get these, through intermediaries, before the establishment of the Museum of Peking. The best evidence is that when I was in Peking in the years 1923 to 1925, the Directorate of the Museum intended to buy back from me the Swan clocks, the Craft clock and the clock by Henry Borrell, London, decorated with peacock feathers, the emblem of the Prince of Wales."

This statement confirms that the Swan clocks, and the others mentioned were in the palace at Jehol, and that Loup acquired them, presumably after 1913, in the light of the comment about the Chinese officials giving him details of the clocks’ journey to “Lao Ting”, and surely before 1923, when the Museum managers sought to buy them back from him.

In the same letter Loup asks that Chapuis note that:

"In 1923, a group of antique specialists in Peking asked me if I would accept the position as curator of the National Museum in Peking (The Palace Museum). The Chinese would have preferred a European for this important position because the Chinese management was not very competent, and there was a problem with objects disappearing, or antique objects being exchanged for modern copies.

The offer of the Chinese antiquaries in Peking, for the post of curator at the museum in Beijing in 1923, acknowledged my skills in ancient Chinese arts, and though a European, I was considered 'Chinese being born in Tientsin'. Chinese laws do admit that a foreigner born in China [can hold the post of] a Chinese academic, or can even get a post as a public servant. I am entitled to apply for state positions. I think I was wrong to refuse; on my second trip to Beijing, from 1928 to 1930, these same antiquaries again reiterated the offer, but I refused a second time" [3 June 1942, Geneva].

In view of the turbulent state of the country in 1914, the Republican leaders in Peking realising that the Imperial collections needed special measures for their conservation, ordered that all the contents of the Palaces at Mukden (Shenyang), Jehol (Rehe) and the former Empress’s New Summer Palace on the outskirts of Peking be brought into the Forbidden City in Peking for their safe protection. In consequence of this directive, some 70,000 objects were collected, and public displays of the treasures were organised in 1914, 1916, but the management, security and even the ownership of the Palace treasures was inadequate over the period 1914–1924, with the Emperor Pu Yi, his brother Pu Jie, and other officials taking items from the Forbidden city.

In 1924 the government appointed Li Yuying, a faculty member of Peking University, Chairman of the committee responsible for the Imperial Household’s buildings and antiquities. The committee greatly improved palace security, and ordered a full inventory of all antiquities begun in 1924, and ultimately listing some 9000 paintings, 10,000 porcelains, 5000 bronze mirrors and much more.[3]

Loup probably obtained the two Swan clocks (and others) from personnel in the Palace Museum in this weak period from 1913–1924. Following the establishment of the Committee such acquisitions after this date would have been extremely difficult.

In 1938/39 Gustave Loup sold this clock to Jaques-David LeCoultre (1875-1948), Director General of LeCoultre & Cie. Following Jaques-David's death the clock passed to his son, Roger LeCoultre, who sold it to the father of the present owner in 1953.

The pair to this clock was sold Christies, London, 11th/12th June 2003, Lot 45.

Sotheby's would like to thank Dr Ian White for his help in cataloguing the present clock.

1 Alfred Chapuis, and Edourd Gelis, Le Monde des Automates (Paris: Neuchâtel, Switzerland, 1928); Translation of the above quotation is by Nellie White.
2 The letters from Loup to Chapuis are quoted by permission of Fonds Alfred Chapuis, Musée d’horlogerie du Locle, Switzerland.
3 Jeanette Shambaugh Elliot and David Shambough, The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).