Lot 81
  • 81


1,500,000 - 2,500,000 USD
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  • Gold and enamel
  • length 83 mm
• the rectangular box finely chased on the cover in vari-color gold with a bouquet of flowers in octagonal reserve surrounded by scrolling foliage, all on sablé ground, the sides and base with engine-turned reserves bordered by chased formal foliage • the cover opening to reveal a chased four-color gold automaton scene, depicting the Magician wearing a tall conical hat, with moving wand, in his right hand and a book of spells which he consults in his left, his wand points towards a window hidden by a moving branch in a gnarled tree, on the right a seated youth plays a lyre, the ground scattered with a book and skull and cross bones, while a coiled serpent sits on an inscribed scroll on a rock, the background finely enameled with a waterfall beside a classical arcaded building • the right hand side of the box with two drawers, the lower containing six double-sided gold and enamel tablets of questions which are selected to include in the smaller drawer above • gilt brass movement with backplate bearing signature Chas. Oudin, 52 Palais Royal, Paris



Music and Automaton

A single barrel drives the music and automaton, pushing a slide on the left side this sets in motion the automaton and music
the music: pin barrel and comb with two tunes selected via a slide to the case back;
the automaton: composed of four wheels with cams engaging five articulated arms to produce the motion to the figures, with three arms engaging a separate wheel to convey the movement to the magician in sync, the branch attached through the plate to a toothed wheel engaged by a ratcheted arm, all sandwiched between two thin brass plates;
the answer wheel: activated by the tablets carrying the questions, the tablets are pierced with holes at the ends, with differing but precise lengths, five of the six tablets carry on both sides a question to which corresponds a hole which opens at the base and left of the drawer, a plunger enters the hole, the plunger is attached to a 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

 see diagrams on pages 84-85

A drawer containing tablets is pulled out from the right, each tablet bearing a question which is then inserted in the drawer above. The upper drawer is spring-activated, released by a pin-sized pusher at the upper right corner.  Once the question is inserted, the magician points to a small window concealed by a leafy branch, and reveals the answer to the question asked. 

The hinged base opening to reveal a  snuff compartment and then stamped with maker’s mark CI (Chenevard Jouvet & Cie) in oval, Geneva mark used after 1815, 18k, also with French eagle head control mark on body, covers and drawers.

The questions and answers are as follows:

1.Le confident de jeune femme?- un miroir

2.Qui nous console?- le temps

3.Qu ’aime t’on chez autrui?- la génerosité

4.Qui  t’a créé?- CH Oudin

5.Ce qui dure trop peut?- l’amour –

6.L’ami commun?-l’argent

7.La chose incompréhensible?- la vie

8.Quelle est la plus belle vertu?- la charité

9..La chose rare?- un ami

10.Que désire fille de 16 ans? – un mari

In Le Monde Des Automates, Vol. II, pp. 167-168 a full description of the automaton is given, along with drawings of its mechanisms, translated loosely as,

"When one pushes the small drawer the reply to the question it poses moves into position in the window hidden by the branch of the tree.  To read the answer one pushes a slide on the left side which also releases the music.  At the back of the case one pushes a lever to select one of the two tunes."

The mechanism of the music, starts the motion of the automata, the young man plays his lyre, letting his agile fingers move from one chord to the other within varying movements like a skillful musician.  The Magician waves his wand, brings the book of destiny to his eyes and consults it by inclining his head. After having lowered his arm he raises his eyes towards the tree to invoke the spirits and to nod his pensive head several times,  Then after receiving the inspiration he once again consults his book and starts again his incantations, then straightening himself he points his wand to the window where the branch of the magic tree lowers itself to reveal the reply of the oracle.

Once this has been read the leafy branches return slowly into place. The scene is ended and the musician ceases his play."


Collection of Edouard Gélis, Paris
Farouk I, King of Egypt (1936-1965) until 1952
Sotheby & Co., The Palace Collections of Egypt, Koubbeh Palace, Cairo, March 10, 1954, lot 547
Prominent American Collection until present


Alfred Chapuis, Edouard Gélis, Le Monde des Automates, pp. 166-169, figs. 436, color planche VII
Sotheby & Co., The Palace Collections of Egypt, Koubbeh Palace, Cairo, March 10, 1954, lot 547, pl. 28


The list of superlatives to describe this box is long, but suffice to say that a finer example of a question and answer Magician's box has not been offered at auction since the Farouk sale in 1954, when the current box was last sold. There have been very few question and answer Magician boxes offered at auction in the last 20 years, this piece allows the collector a rare opportunity to acquire the best of the best. Exterior case; the engine-turning and chasing is virtually unworn with no loss of detail or definition on the chasing and the engine-turning. One small dent to the left side, the overall finish has matured with a rich patina. Interior of box Enamel behind the automaton scene has no visible flaws, damage or restoration. The gold automaton figures and the chased scene are in unworn condition with the exception of very small scuffs to the Magician's robe, the lyre players right knee and the automaton branch Mechanically; although the automaton and are slightly sluggish, due to dry oil. The Music is clear and well defined. The Magician executes his moves correctly as are the other automaton features. Due to dry oil on the mainspring the automaton sporadically stalls at the beginning and requires a slight winding to begin its sequence. Once started the automaton functions correctly. It is understood that the last service occurred in 2008, afterwards we believe it remained in the safe where it has stayed until consigned to sale. Thus the oil has dried from lack of use and a cleaning and oiling are in order. It is the best of the best, and the ultimate automaton. Questions are in good order, the drawers function properly
"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."

Catalogue Note

Piguet & Meylan

Isaac-Daniel Piguet (1775-1841) entered into a partnership with Philippe-Samuel Meylan (1772-1845) in 1811. The two worked together as ‘Marchands & Fournisseurs d’horlogerie & Bijouterie’ with a workshop at Chevelu, Maison Bellot, until they dissolved the partnership in February 1828. Many advances in the creation of very small and very thin movements for watches, musical boxes and automata of the most refined sort are credited to them as well as the invention of the sur-plateau musical movement. Alfred Chapuis writes in Technique and History of the Swiss Watch that it was Meylan who invented “the most extraordinary automata, particularly, the “magicians” which he used in snuff boxes and jewelry of all kinds."

Magician boxes, as they are known, are probably the most complex of the miniature automata produced Switzerland in the early 19th century. They are justly prized for their ‘magic’ qualities, their beauty and their extreme rarity. Whereas singing bird boxes deliver a surprise, an improvement on nature, the magician boxes venture into the secret world of soothsayers and necromancy. Just as an ouija board can be seen as a parlour game or something darker, so the magician boxes can be viewed as supremely clever trifles, or for the superstitious, as a means of prophecy.

According to Alfred Chapuis who devotes considerable attention to these objects in his various books (1), it was, as usual, the firm of Jaquet-Droz who first produced magician clocks for the Chinese market, a logical reduction from life-size fortune-telling androids. A pair of clocks were in production in October 1787 and were probably those purchased by the Dutch ambassador for presentation to the Emperor in 1795. The Maillardet family and Philippe-Samuel Meylan are also recorded subsequently as designing or producing clocks with question and answer fortune tellers. Inevitably, as in the modern computer world, further miniaturisation was strived for, in the form of magician snuff boxes and even magician vinaigrettes.

There were three main types of magician box, of which so few survive, and, as with singing bird boxes, there appear to have been several different mécaniciens involved at different dates.  Firstly, the most complicated, as in the present example, were the question and answer magicians; secondly, magicians who revealed hidden singing birds(2) ; and thirdly, ‘temple’ boxes, where a magician changed the colours of a colonnade (3).

In Le Monde des Automates, Chapuis’s prime example of the first type is the present box which he describes lavishly, extolling the craftsmanship, describing the action and giving detailed diagrams of the movement. He considers the box ‘un splendide bijou, de qualité et de conservation parfaites, dans lequel se sont mesurées avec le même bonheur l’habileté du bijoutier, de l’orfèvre et du mécanicien, et de la délicatesse de sens artistique de l’émailleur et du graveur’[a splendid jewel, of perfect quality and condition, in which are apportioned with equal felicity the skills of the jeweller, goldsmith and technician, and the delicate artistic sensibility of the enameller and engraver].(4) 

Two magician boxes of the first type are actually dated. The first, in a silver case, has drawers for questions and answers and a skeleton watch, the movement signed: Dutrambley 1810, (Christie’s Geneva, 15 November 1983, lot 625). The other is in the form of a tortoiseshell book with gold and enamel mounts into which the automaton and its drawers have been cleverly inseted; it is signed by the retailer: Meüsel et fils bijoutier à Genève and dated for March 1823 on the spine (illustrated Chapuis & Gélis, pp. 170-172). The present box must date from the latter period since it is struck with the Geneva town mark in use after 1815 and also with the makers’ mark attributed to Chénevard, Jouvet & Cie. registered in June 1820.

Salomon Chénevard (1773-1837) married Jeanne Christine Cambérouse on 13 October 1794. In the census of 1798, he describes himself as bijoutier and his wife as émailleuse, living in the rue de Temple, Geneva. Both Chénevard and the bijoutier Jean-Louis Joly (1757-1825) had been partners in the firm of Roux, Ponçon & Cie., manufacturers of bijouterie, from September 1801 until 1803. They are recorded as entering their first marks in the name of Joly & Chénevard in 1807/8. By 2 November 1815, entering a mark ICI in a lozenge, they had taken on a younger partner, Pierre Jouvet. In 1820, Joly became a sleeping partner and the firm styled Chénevard, Jouvet & Cie. On Joly’s full retirement in 1824, his place was taken by Jouvet’s wife, Jacqueline Etienette Guidon, daughter of Joseph Guidon, former associate of the celebrated gold box maker Jean-George Rémond. For a four-colour gold and enamel singing bird box chased in similar style to the present magician box and struck with the same makers’ mark, see Sotheby’s Zurich, 14 November 1979, lot 224.­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­


Mainly Chapuis & E. Gélis, Le Monde des Automates, Paris, 1928; A. Chapuis & E. Droz, Les Automates, Neuchâtel, 1949. For example, a box where the magician produces in succession a vase, flowers and a singing bird, exhibition catalogue, Antique automatons, A La Vieille Russie, New York, 1950, no. 156. For example, an elaborate gold and enamel box, makers‘ mark of Sene & Detalla, the movement signed by John Rich, with the magician controlling carillon music, opening doors, changing colours and springing fountains, Antique Automatons, 152. Chapuis & Gélis, pp. 166-169

 Edouard Gélis (1876-1955), restorer, erudite writer on the history of horology, and above all, collector, was born in Toulouse and showed an early aptitude for all things mechanical. He was apprenticed to a local watchmaker at the age of 13 before gaining further experience in London and Paris. He worked for many years for the firm of Leroy before setting up in business on his own as a restorer and dealer in antique clocks and watches. His enthusiasm and passion for the subject as well as his technical ability soon drew attention and he was a frequent contributor to journals, conferences and exhibition catalogues. His own collection which included every aspect of horology, including automata, was also displayed and a large part donated to his natal city of Toulouse. Describing an encounter with Gélis near his country retreat in 1922, Alfred Chapuis paints a vivid picture of arriving in formal attire to find his old friend with fishing rod in hand, sockless in sandals, wearing light floating garments and on his head a vast Mexican straw sunhat (A travers les collections d’horlogerie, Neuchâtel, 1942). Whatever the situation though, he was always passionate about his beloved watches and keen to show off his latest acquisition.