There are really no words to express the exquisite beauty and incredibly intricate craftsmanship of the Sandoz collection on exhibit at the A La Vieille Russie gallery in NYC. Once seen, it is easy to understand how Maurice Sandoz became intrigued with these treasures. The merging of the science of watchmaking with the art of jewelry design lend these objects a fascinating niche in the history of art and collectibles.
Although rudimentary examples existed as early as the third century BC, automatons didn’t come into their own until the second half of the 16th century with the invention of the mainspring in Germany. And then from the end of the eighteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth, the time period of most of the pieces in the collection, the history of automatons is inexorably linked to watches and snuff boxes. The collection also includes animated human figures, such as the gilt copper version of Mother Shipton above, and animals and of course the impressive Fabergé pieces of which Sandoz was once Europe’s leading collector.
The exhibit comprises 50 pieces and while it is certainly not possible to show you all, I have selected several which I found particularly fascinating and/or beautiful. This exceptional Swiss hand mirror from 1800-1825 features a painted scene of the Bosphorous, indicating the mirror was most likely made to be sold in the Ottoman Empire. While beautiful in and of itself, the magic is in the rose at the top of the mirror that opens to reveal a mechanized bird which flaps its wings, turns and sings a whistled bird song!!
This snuffbox box, in the form of a book, is one of the most intriguing pieces. Made in Geneva at the beginning of the 19th century, the spine conceals three compartments: a tiny watch at the top, a spot for the key and a box for perhaps smelling salts.
A painting of a tiger adorns the front yet when opened, a Roman temple is revealed. The columns, made of twisted glass, turn and change color and the doors open, revealing five figures appearing sequentially to two separate tunes. The back of the box is intended for tobacco.
Another piece that features a singing bird is this cane handle. When the lid is opened, the bird twirls, opens its beak, flaps its wings and flutters its tail, all while singing. I don’t think I could do that!
Some of the most astounding and well know pieces are the jeweled pistols. When the trigger is pulled on this one, a bird emerges, pivots, turns its head, opens its beak, flaps its wings and tail, and of course sings!!
Another of the pistols is a “weapon of seduction.” Clearly made for a lady, its bullet is a lotus flower pomander which gives off a delightful scent. It’s a love gun!
Animals were also included in the mechanical depictions of our world. This beautifully bejeweled automaton frog leaps forward and croaks before returning to his original position.
Even more amazing is this Ethiopian caterpillar. Constructed with eleven sections, its undulated movements propel it forward.
Of course the stars of the exhibit are the Fabergé eggs, the most impressive being the Imperial Peacock Egg. Presented to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna by her son, Nicholas II at Easter in 1908, it is indescribably magnificent. The new Robert Massie book on Catherine the Great was already on my list but now I realize I really need to know more about this culture and era!
By pressing the concealed button on the stomach of the peacock, it then struts, turns it head and pauses before exposing its magnificent plumage. The crystal shell is engraved with the princess’ monogram.
Take a look at some of these amazing pieces in action. At the exhibit there are additional video installations that you can enjoy.
I’m thrilled to report that the exhibit has been extended to December 10th. If you live anywhere near NYC, this is certainly a show not to be missed. Tomorrow we’ll look at the watches and their inspiring influence on co-sponsor Parmigiani Fleurier’s collection.