This rare coffer on stand inset with Wedgwood jasperware plaques and mounted with polished steel mounts is a superb example of Martin-Guillaume Biennais’s oeuvre in ébénisterie.
Martin-Guillaume Biennais (d. 1843) settled in Paris in 1789 as a tabletier and furniture maker before becoming goldsmith by appointment to Napoleon I and to the principal monarchs of Europe. In 1790, he acquired the boutique Au singe violet, where he specialised in the production of richly fitted nécessaires, games-tables and compact and refined pieces of furniture avidly sought by the after the Revolution by new bourgeoisie.
Signed 'Biennais Orfevre du Prem. Consul r. st. Honore No. 119 au Singe Violet a Paris', this multipurpose coffer on stand was designed and made circa 1800 using Wedgwood plaques in the tradition of furniture mounted with porcelain plaques pioneered by the marchand-mercier Simon-Philippe Poirier and continued by Dominique Daguerre, who acquired a monopoly in the import and retail of Wedgwood ceramic in 1787. The sober lines and use of flamed mahogany are characteristic of the Consulat period, with the innovative use of polished steel and faceted mounts. These unusual steel mounts can be attributed to the Manufacture d’acier poli created by Reynard Schey in 1800 in the Faubourg Saint-Denis which was specialised in the manufacturing of steel objects such as jewels, candlesticks and weapons, reminiscent to those conceived in the Russian town of Tula. His signature appears on the lock of a nécessaire de toilette mounted with steel made by the cabinet maker Félix Rémond for the Empress Joséphine in 1806 and now at the château de Malmaison.
The engraving to the letter slot reading ‘La gratitude y lealtad defienden este secreto’ (gratitude and loyalty defend this secret) indicates that the present coffer on stand was probably a political gift to a Spanish official. It was by repute given by the Consul Napoléon Bonaparte to Manuel Godoy y Álvarez de Faria, Prince of the Peace, 1st Duke of Alcudia, 1st Duke of Sueca, 1st Baron of Mascalbó (1767-1851). First Secretary of King Charles IV of Spain from 1792 to 1797 and from 1801 to 1808, Manuel Godoy was remembered for his role in bringing peace between the French Convention and the Kingdom of Spain. He was also an avid collector of French decorative art and commissioned in 1806 to Pierre-Etienne Levasseur a secrétaire and commode en suite, now part of the Fondation Napoléon.
Two other similar recorded chests-on-stand by Martin-Guillaume Biennais were both made as jewellery coffers for Joséphine Bonaparte (1763-1814), before becoming Empress:
-a chest-on-stand now at the château de Malmaison (inv. MM 93.5.1) delivered circa 1802-04 to Joséphine, of identical shape with similar mounts, without Wedgewood plaques, discussed in B. Chevallier, ‘A propos d'un meuble au chiffre de Joséphine Bonaparte: la manufacture d'acier poli de Schey’, in: Bulletin de la Société de l’Art Français, 1994, pp. 193-201.
- the other, almost identical and also with Wedgewood plaques, was bequeathed by the Empress to her intendant M. Pierlot and sold at Osenat, Fontainebleau, 9 June 2013, lot 146.