This exceptional gold and enamel musical box and its set of solid gold dominos is almost certainly unique, no other examples are known publically in either private collections or museums worldwide. In addition it has the most illustrious and fascinating provenance.
When consigned for sale at Christie’s in 1974 by a direct descendant of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the present set of gold dominos and musical box had, by family tradition, once been the property of the Queen herself and had subsequently been given by her to her youngest son Prince Leopold from whom they had since descended in the family from the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Leopold’s son and Queen Victoria’s grandson.
What is known for certain is that Queen Victoria loved to play dominos. The daily journals that she kept throughout her life contain many references to playing the game, in one taken at random for Sunday 18th December 1842 at Windsor Castle, she writes “Albert read to me, and we played at dominos, such a good game…”. There are 38 such entries between 1839 and 1861.
The definition of exceptional is something rare, unusual, extraordinary. This set of sumptuously decorated gold dominos in their matching musical box is all of those things and more. Originally intended for the Chinese market, the exquisite enamelling and pearl setting is archetypal Geneva work of the opening years of the 19th century, in this instance made by the celebrated firm of Moulinie, Bautte & Cie who were famed for their fantasy musical and mechanical objects made in gold, enamel, jewels and pearls known at the time as “toys”. The company only traded under the name of Moulinie, Bautte & Cie for four years from 1st October 1804. It was formed by the former child prodigy goldsmith Jean-François Bautte with business partners Jacques-Dauphin Moulinie and Jean-Gabriel Moynier. The firm supplied their costly treasures to clients in China, India, Spain, Italy, France, England and Austria, in addition to the store in Geneva, they had branches in Paris and Florence. In 1808, the company was re-named Moulinie, Bautte & Moynier and therefore the present box can be dated quite accurately to within the four-year period 1804-1808. Interestingly, the mainspring of the musical movement is scratch-signed Carrisol 10/8, indicating that the piece was made in October 1808, in the last year of the Moulinie, Bautte & Cie company.
It is quite remarkable that this musical box and dominos have documented early provenance back to 1834, less than thirty years after they were made. At such an early date, documented provenance for an object such as this is almost unheard of. However, the domino box had travelled to England and found itself displayed amongst some now legendary exhibits as an attraction in one of Regency London’s most extraordinary collections of curiosities - Weeks’ Museum.
These mechanical wonders had originally been made with the intention of being exported for sale to the Chinese market but when trade with the Orient faltered in the last part of the 18th century their makers set up public exhibitions instead. The exhibitions became huge attractions with Jaquet-Droz’s London representative, Henri Maillardet in his “Automatical Theatre” in Spring Gardens and James Cox’s “Cox’s Museum” nearby displayed their extraordinary objects to the paying public. Many of Cox’s pieces were made in collaboration with the legendary mechanician John Merlin. By the time Thomas Weeks opened his Museum in 1802/3 both Cox and Merlin had recently died and upon the dispersal of their collections Weeks acquired many of the 18th century pieces made by them including the famous silver swan with articulated neck (now in the Bowes Museum, County Durham), a caterpillar, a nimble mouse made of oriental pearls, birds of paradise, a spider made of steel which darted from a box (now in a private collection) and the figure of an old woman which emerged from a cottage and walked about on crutches (now in the Patek Philippe Museum, Geneva). The price of admission to view the temples was half-a-crown; “the Tarantula and the Bird are shown at one shilling each”.
Little is known of Thomas Weeks himself other than that he was described as a “jeweller, perfumer and machinest”. He was evidently a genius as a maker, fascinated by automata and the most exotic precious toys that had become such a popular spectacle in late 18th and early 19th century London. In 1797 he leased a property that included a “large Exhibition or Shew Room” from Sir Henry Tichborne at £210 per annum, opening in 1802 (the not quite finished) “Weeks’ Museum” in Tichborne Street near the Haymarket.
In The Picture of London for 1802, 'Weeks’ Museum' is described as follows: “This Museum, on the plan of the celebrated Mr. Cox's, when complete, will form an interesting object to the curious. The grand room, which is 107 feet long, and 30 feet high, is covered entirely with blue satin, and contains a variety of figures, which exhibit the effects of mechanism in an astonishing manner. The architecture is by Wyatt; the painting on the ceiling is by Rebecca and Singleton. Two temples are exhibited, nearly seven feet high, supported by sixteen elephants, embellished with seventeen hundred pieces of jewellery, in the first style of workmanship”. The temples were in fact “two magnificent clocks, engaged for the Emperor of China, at nine thousand pounds”.
The popularity of Weeks’ Museum eventually waned but nevertheless it continued until his death at the age of ninety in 1834. In July of that year, the majority of the contents of the Museum were auctioned by Messrs. E. Foster & Son of Pall Mall in a sale lasting several days. The sale included the life size silver swan, singing birds, temple of fountains, tarantula spider, noble clocks, musical seals and boxes. Among them, Lot 288 on the third day of sale, Wednesday 16th July 1834 is described as follows: “A superb gold enamelled musical box, set with fine pearls, and embellished with paintings of the four seasons, containing a set of dominos of most superior make, the pips being formed of fine pearls”. Quite unmistakably the present box and dominos.
Descent from Queen Victoria to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg Gotha
It can only be speculation quite how the gold box and dominos made their journey from the Weeks’ Museum auction in 1834 and ultimately into the Queen’s possession, however, a clue is perhaps to be found in the name of the buyer at the Weeks’ Museum auction “Russell”. This name is significant in that Queen Victoria’s closest lifelong friend was Anna Maria Russell, later Duchess of Bedford. Anna Maria was much older than Victoria and whilst the Queen was only a fifteen year old Princess at the time of the Weeks’ auction, Anna Maria was already in her fifties and had both the taste and the means to buy the dominos at the considerable price of £31.10s. Anna Maria served as Victoria’s Lady of the Bedchamber from her accession in 1837 until 1841 and was therefore the person, except for Prince Albert, who was in closest contact with the Queen during the first years of her reign. If Anna Maria Russell was indeed the original owner of the dominos they would have been a most suitable and appropriate gift to the Queen, particularly given her love of the game.
After the death of the Prince Consort in December 1861, Queen Victoria’s journals do not refer to playing dominos again. Perhaps it was a game that she only enjoyed playing with her husband and without him she did not wish to play again. This would explain, if the dominos did belong to the Queen, why she eventually gave them to her youngest son.
Prince Leopold was born in 1853, the eighth child and fourth and youngest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Leopold was styled Duke of Albany from 1881. He had inherited haemophilia from Queen Victoria which led to his death aged 30 in 1884. Before his untimely end he had married Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont and had two children, Princess Alice, later Countess of Athlone born in 1883 and Prince Charles Edward, born posthumously in 1884.
After the death of Queen Victoria’s second son, Prince Alfred, the reigning Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1900, it was decided, after a period of consultation between the Queen and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany that Prince Leopold’s son, the sixteen year old Prince Charles Edward should succeed as Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in precedence to the two more senior heirs to the Dukedom. As a grandson of Queen Victoria, the Duke was a first cousin of King George V, Emperor of India, and of the following European Royals: Queen Maud of Norway, Empress Alexandra of Russia, Queen Marie of Romania, Crown Princess Margaret of Sweden, Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain, Queen Sophia of the Hellenes, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Such was the interest Wilhelm showed in his young cousin's upbringing that Charles Edward was dubbed "the Emperor's seventh son".
Wilhelm II picked out Princess Victoria Adelaide of Schleswig-Holstein, the niece of his wife, Empress Augusta Victoria, as Charles Edward's bride. They married on 11 October 1905, at Glücksburg Castle, Schleswig-Holstein, and had five children including Sibylla, the mother of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
Through this Royal line the musical box and set of dominos descended directly in the family until sold at Christie’s in 1974.