Before the French Revolution (1789–99), each gold or silver object was stamped with a] a maker’s mark, b] a charge mark, to say the piece had been declared to the tax authorities and c] a discharge mark, to say that the tax had been paid. The amount of tax charged was of course a function of the weight of the piece. A fourth mark, the warranty, certified the silver content in the object. The warranty took the form of a letter that changed each year, enabling the buyer to determine the precise year of manufacture.
Vachette, gold box, 1789, 8 x 5 cm, Bonhams
The goldsmith guilds, makers of luxury goods, had been suppressed during the French Revolution. So after peace and normality returned to French life, gold and silver makers had to regain consumer confidence. The new warranty mark was an administrative mark replacing the charge and discharge marks used in pre-Revolutionary times. The Gorgon head mark in a circular reserve was a warranty mark, used to assure buyers that the maker had paid tax on the object and to guarantee that there had been no collusion between the assayer and the tax collector. The Michelangelo head facing right on one side of an object was the silver standard or assay mark for Paris, used until 1838 for 950 silver.
Let me examine one of the last of the pre-revolutionary pieces (dated Paris 1789), marked before the First French Republic was declared in 1792. A gold and moss agate snuff box from Bonhams was made in rectangular form with canted corners. The cover was mounted with a central circular forest agate panel within a fluted and guilloche frame, flanked by panels of engine-turning within a border. The sides had similar engine-turned panels separated by pilasters, and the base was decorated with bright-chased and matted acanthus and feather scrolls. This exquisite object was tiny.
The 1789 snuff box was made by Adrien-Jean-Maximilien Vachette (1753-1839) with Vachette's pre-revolutionary maker's mark, the charge and discharge marks of the Paris warden, and a Paris mark. Fortunately we know quite a lot about Monsieur Vachette from Sotheby’s. He was born in 1746, the 15th child of his tax collector father. The young man completed 8 years apprenticeship and was registered as a master in Paris in 1779. His pre-revolutionary style emphasised classical clean lines and pilasters/flat columns.
Vachette, tortoise-shell box, post 1819, 8 x 6 cm. Photo credit V & A.
Vachette was one of the lucky artists. He disappeared during the years of The Terror and successfully resumed his profession in 1805, entering into various lucrative partnerships until his death in Paris in 1839. The V & A has an exquisite tortoise-shell box, mounted in gold and set with a miniature portrait of Monsieur de Pontchartreux. The maker's mark for AJM Vachette was signed on the rim as you would expect, but this time there were post-revolutionary Paris marks for 1819-38. Vachette’s tortoise-shell box was also small.
It is clear from the auction houses and museums that Vachette was a prolific artist, concentrating on what he knew best – small gold boxes. So that begs an important question. Did Vachette do his own decorative art works on the lids of his boxes? Assuming he did not, which other artists were responsible for the circular agate panel on the snuff box? and the painted portrait miniature of Monsieur de Pontchartreux?
Vachette, gold snuff box, 1805-9. Photo credit V & A
The Victoria and Albert does have a snuff box where the details of the painting are known. The chased and engraved gold work has glazed miniatures top and bottom, and lapis lazuli on the side panels. But note that the minatures had been painted in 1752 and 1753 by Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy (1724-1811), a French painter and engraver. The miniature on the cover depicts the Bay of Naples while the view on the base shows Tivoli, near Rome.
Where had these two miniature landscape paintings been, between 1752 and 1809?
One painter decorator was very well known. Jean-Baptiste Isabey 1767–1855 went to Paris as a young man, to became a pupil of the incomparible Jacques-Louis David. Later patronised by Josephine and Napoleon, Isabey arranged their royal coronation ceremonies and prepared drawings for the publication intended as the official record of the day's events.
gold by Moulinié, Bautte et Moynier and painted by Jean-Baptiste Isabey
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Examine a 1812 gold snuff box that had Napoleon Bonaparte stamped all over it. I love the portrait done by Jean-Baptiste Isabey. Here Isabey painted Napoleon in the coronation regalia he wore when he crowned himself Emperor Napoleon I. Surrounded with a border of alternating Napoleonic stars and bees, the emperor was sporting a gold diadem and royal cross. The snuff box itself, lushly composed of three different tones of gold, was not crafted by a French firm. Instead the job was sent to the Swiss firm: Moulinié, Bautte et Moynier.
Jacques-Félix Viennot also made French snuff boxes out of gold in the Empire era. A rectangular box with canted corners was particularly interesting because the cover and base had panels of an engine-turned cube pattern. For extra contrast, the borders were engraved with foliage on a matted ground. In the central oval is a fine portrait of Napoleon in coronation robes, painted by Isabey. The snuff box (made from 1804 on) is normally in Fondation Napoleon in Paris. Just for winter 2012 this small gold box will be located at the National Gallery of Victoria for the Napoleon: Revolution to Empire exhibition.