Lot 3
  • 3

A German rococo gilt-brass mounted japanned travelling writing box attributed to the workshop of Martin Schnell, Dresden, circa 1730

7,000 - 10,000 GBP
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  • Gilt-brass, oak
  • the box: 31cm. high, 53cm. wide, 31cm. deep; the stand: 51cm. high, 54cm. wide, 30cm. deep; 1ft., 1ft. 9in., 1ft.; 1ft. 8in., 1ft. 9¼in., 1ft.
the moulded top opening to a single red-lacquered and painted compartment, the main compartment decorated in aventurine lacquer, above a single drawer subdivided in irregular compartments; on a later ebonised stand


Possibly King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia (1770-1840), by whom probably gifted to his second wife Auguste von Harrach, Princess von Liegnitz (1800-1873); Her brother Karl Philipp, Reichsgraf von Harrach (1800-1878);

By family descent to the present owners.


Related Literature: M. Kopplin and G. Haase, exh. cat.,"Sächssisch Lacquirte Sachen", Lackhurst in Dresden unter August dem Starken, Münster 1999;

H. Kreisel, Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels, II, Munich, 1970, p. 43, ill. 43.


This rare box in original condition and in need of professional attention. The gilt-brass mounts have never been re-gilt and are tarnished as expected. The lacquered surface in overall distressed condition with marks and scratches consistent with age and use, as well as age-related shrinkage cracks. The top is slightly warped, and opens to reveal an interior retaining its original decoration. Complete with two keys, the smaller key used for the upper and lower lock mechanisms. The lower mechanism is slightly loose and would benefit from attention, possibly as a consequence to this the key can difficult to remove. The stand in good condition with minor marks and scratches overall, and scuffing to feet; with one illegible label underneath.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. 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.

Catalogue Note

This unusual travelling box, distinguished by its subtle lacquering and inventive gilt-bronze mounts, appears to have been produced in Dresden under the reign of August II the Strong (1670-1733), at a time of unparalleled promotion of the city’s arts and crafts, whose flourishing made of the Saxon capital one of the greatest cultural centres in Europe. Martin Schnell (c. 1675-1740) is considered the most important lacquerer active at the Court of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. It is thought that Schnell became an apprentice at the Berlin workshop of Gérard Dagly in 1703, before opening his own atelier in Dresden in 1710. His repertoire soon came to include interiors as well as tables, cabinets, chairs, vases and musical instruments. Active for the king, but also for the affluent aristocracy, he had a key role in the decoration of the Japanese Palace and in 1723-29 was employed for the rooms of the Grünes Gewölbe.

The flat painted and lacquered surface of the present box, betraying a European take on ‘East Asian art’, calls to mind other works by Martin Schnell, often characterised by a red-lacquered ground, see for example the pair of gilt-bronze mounted vases, c. 1727, illustrated in Kopplin, op. cit., cat. 8, pp. 40-41, and a games table attributed to Schnell in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, inv. no. 37 323, ill. in idem, cat. 12, p. 45.

The singular mounts, already embracing the rococo spirit, may be compared with those on a lacquered bureau cabinet ill. in Kopplin, op. cit., cat. 26, pp. 66-67 and now in the Victoria & Albert museum (inv. no. W.62:1-1979), as further proof of the great creative gift of Dresdener bronziers.

Intriguingly, a similar singular gilt-bronze key escutcheon appears on a contemporary lacca povera cabinet on stand formerly at Schloss Moritzburg, near Dresden, which was being remodelled by Augustus between 1723 and 1733 (cf. Kreisel, op. cit., p. 43).

Although only a conjecture, it is tempting to regard this box as having been acquired – or possibly gifted – to the Prussian kings at some point in history, and to have thus entered the collection of the comital Harrach family, one of the most prominent of the Habsburg Empire, through the morganatic marriage of Auguste von Harrach (1800-1873) to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia (1770-1840), who had already gifted her the recently rediscovered cabinet on stand by Gérard Dagly sold these Rooms, Treasures, 5 July 2017, lot 20.