'All the collections of Europe, compared to ours, are mere childish amusements'
Catherine II on her gem collection, private correspondence, 1795 (O. Neverov, Antichnye Kamei v sovranii Ermitazha, Leningrad, 1988, p. 56)
The Hermitage housed the private collection of Catherine the Great, and included 40,000 paintings and 10,000 gems. In 1764 she had acquired the collection of L. Natter and in the 1780s and 90s continued to acquire entire collections including Lord Beverley, Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the Duke of Saint Morys and J.-B. Casanova. 'Catherine herself more than once declared that she understood nothing in the fields of either painting or music. Despite her hunt for paintings, she was in truth only interested in engraved gems, which were her true passion and which she would arrange and admire for hours on end… She humorously characterized her passionate collecting of engraved gems as sometimes ‘a mania’, sometimes ‘a disease of stones’, or as ‘gluttony’' (J. Kagan & O. Neverov, Splendeurs des collections de Catherine de Russie: le cabinet de pierres gravées du duc d’Orléans, Paris, 2000, p. 15, citing V. F. Levinson-Lessing, Istoriya kartinnoy galerei Ermitazha (1764-1917), Leningrad, 1988).
The un-mounted gems that entered the Hermitage would be fitted with the exact same mounts as the gem above - collectors mounts, not be be worn but to be displayed, picked up, easily handled and admired. For examples of these specific mounts see J. Kagan and O. Neverov (eds.), Le Destin d'une Collection, 500 pierres Gravees du Cabinet du Duc d'Orleans (exhibition cat.), St. Petersburg, 2001. For similar mask cameos in the Hermitage see Neverov, ibid., 1988, nos. 222-238; for a similar cameo formerly in the Marlborough collection, see M. H. Story-Maskelyne, The Marlborough Gems, London, 1870, no. 519.
It was known that Catherine made gifts of gems to her favourites and allies before or after they had been published in the official 'Description of the Cabinet of Engraved Gems'. There are cases whereby gems given as gifts made their way back into the Hermitage collection, though it is presumed that a fair number were scattered to other collections throughout Europe. The present lot is the first such gem from Catherine's collection to come to market.
The mask is probably that of the comic cook, a stock character of New Comedy. The mask of this character was sometimes referred to as a Maison mask, by tradition the name of a Sicilian actor who had first worn the type. The cook character was probably a slave, granted some autonomy by his master, or a freedman (see D. Wiles, The Mask of Menander: Sign and Meaning in Greek and Roman Performance, Cambridge, 1991, p. 168).