It is well known that this chest was offered by King Louis XV to an Ottoman sultan. Produced around 1760, Sultan Mustafa III would thus likely to have been the beneficiary.
The alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire was formed largely due to ventures by Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent, after 1526. Ongoing until the reign of Louis XV and beyond, these diplomatic agreements allowed regular, notably commercial trade. In 1721, the Marshal of Villeroy, Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, gave several gifts to Mehmed Efendi, representative for Sultan Ahmet III, including mirrors, books, Savonnerie rugs, and a "commode for coffee" for 30,000 livres, supporting the hypothesis that our piece of furniture, of smaller size, could be a production of the same type, delivered approximately forty years later. However, a current review from the archives does not give further information. In 1742, a new Ambassador, this time for Sultan Mahmud I, represented by the previous ambassador’s son, Mehmed Saïd Efendi, was welcomed in France. Back in Istanbul, the Ottoman ambassador distributed these presents to their receiving parties amongst others, namely Sultan Mahmud I in person, but also to members of the Palace such as the Grand Vizier, the Grand Vizier’s Kyaya, his own son, the Grand Marshal, the Grand Treasurer, the Doctor, all for the colossal sum of 237,960 livres for the decorative arts including Savonnerie carpets, mirrors, an organ case, silverware services, candelabra and a silver table by Claude II Ballin and Thomas Germain, as well as a pair of braziers by Jean-Claude Duplessis, a copy of which is still in the Collection at the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul.
The purpose of these diplomatic gifts was to show French ingenuity, but also to attract a new clientele. We also know that several members of the Ottoman aristocracy would have commissioned via their ambassadors in France, or even directly to the French metalsmiths, decorative art dealers and cabinetmakers, or at times through the intermediary of the French legations, including the Comte de Vergennes, French Ambassador in Istanbul from 1755 to 1768.
This travel chest, unusual due to its size and commode-shape, is a work by cabinetmaker Jean-François Oeben, as specified in the inscription painted in Arabic "Amale Oeben Fi Baris" ("Oeben work in Paris") and the marquetry panels are typical of his production. Born in Heinsberg near Aix-la-Chapelle in 1721, his apprenticeship probably took place in Germany, then in France with one of André-Charles Boulle’s sons, Charles. In 1749, he married the sister of cabinetmaker Roger Vandercruse and thus became part of a well-established family in Paris. His workshop was located at the Louvre Galleries, at the very heart of Charles-Joseph Boulle's workshop, from whom he rented a section of the workshop. He then moved to the Gobelins Factory, where he received the title of Ebéniste du Roi (Cabinetmaker to the King) and finally at Arsenal. Oeben was soon recognized for his pictoral marquetry, as well as for his mechanical furniture. The marquetry on the present chest is archetypal of the years 1755-1763, with the kidney-shaped cartouche decoration, outlined by lintels sometimes perforated to similar tables in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the Residenze, Munich, as well as the secretaire desk with fall-front belonging to the Duc des Deux-Ponts, also kept Munich. Rarer still, however, are his creations of chests (auction Drouot, 6 June 1952 and now part of the collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond Virginia). Our chest belongs to the body of furniture produced by the cabinet maker during the last ten years of his life. Jean-François Oeben died in early 1763.
The rarity of our piece of furniture, aside from its smaller size (which was most probably requested by its sponsor, or to meet the recipient’s desired purpose when recalling the small "commode for coffee" offered in 1721 to Ahmet III), also lies in the use of solid silver for its ornamentation. The side pull handles decorated with vegetation centred around a pistil emerging from foliage, appears to begin with this type of furniture and bears the Paris export hallmark for the time period of 1768-1774. However, the pull handles presented on the front, of a very exuberant and Rococo design, would probably have been added a few years after the piece was produced. They are stylistically different from those on the sides and their excess on the lower and upper drawers accentuates the richness of the ensemble. The latter were melted by the metalsmith Louis-Joseph Moillet and bear, in addition to the goldsmith’s mark with his initials LJM accompanied by grindstone, the export stamp affixed for goods destined for the foreign market for 1768-1774. These elements thus corroborate with the hypothesis that this was most probably a diplomatic gift. Moillet received Master status in 1747, but unfortunately very few works by him are known.
The use of silver applied onto furniture is exceptional. There are some examples of silvered bronzes including the commode and the corner cabinet by Mathieu Criaerd delivered by Thomas-Joachim Hébert in 1742 to Madame de Mailly at the Château de Choisy (Musée du Louvre, inv. OA 11292 and 9533). A pair of Louis XV silver-gilt wall lights were also listed at Christie's Paris, 19 December 2007, lot 707.
The initiative of such an object inevitably implies the initial intervention of a marchand-mercier. The members of this important guild were dominant throughout the 18th century with regard to supplying and trading in luxury goods by subcontracting the production of furniture and objects to cabinetmakers, metalsmiths, bronze artists and gilders, which they then delivered to members of the Royal Family, the aristocracy and the European upper middle class. Two of the most important marchands-merciers during the reign of Louis XV, Lazare Duvaux and Simon Philippe Poirier, worked with Oeben and either one of them would most likely have been involved in the commissioning of the present piece.