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AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPRESSIVE IMPERIAL SILVER RHINOCEROS AUTOMATON
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPRESSIVE IMPERIAL SILVER RHINOCEROS AUTOMATON
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPRESSIVE IMPERIAL SILVER RHINOCEROS AUTOMATON
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AN IMPORTANT COLLECTION OF FABERGÉ MASTERPIECES AND IMPERIAL TREASURES
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPRESSIVE IMPERIAL SILVER RHINOCEROS AUTOMATON

BY FABERGÉ, ST PETERSBURG, CIRCA 1909

Details
AN EXTREMELY RARE AND IMPRESSIVE IMPERIAL SILVER RHINOCEROS AUTOMATON
BY FABERGÉ, ST PETERSBURG, CIRCA 1909
Naturalistically shaped as a rhinoceros, the oxidised silver body finely cast and chased to simulate the coarse texture of the rhinoceros’ skin, the head and four legs attached to the body with screws, moves on wheels, nodding its head and moving its tail, with the original silver winding key, apparently unmarked; in the original silk and velvet-lined wood case stamped 'Fabergé St Petersburg Moscow London' beneath the Imperial warrant
2 7/8 in. (7.4 cm.) wide
Provenance
Probably purchased from the London branch of Fabergé by Lord Chamberlain, Lord Howe (1861-1929) on 3 November 1909 for £60, entered into ledgers under inventory number 17665.
Then given to Queen Alexandra (1844-1925) for her sixty-fifth birthday in 1909 by Lord Howe.
Then a possible gift from Queen Alexandra to her sister Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (1847-1928) during one of her visits to England.
A gift to Prince Vasili Alexandrovich (1907-1989) from his grandmother Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna circa 1914-1915.
Acquired by the father of the present owner from the descendants of Prince Vasili Alexandrovich in 2003.
Literature
A. von Solodkoff, et al., Masterpieces from the House of Fabergé, New York, 1984, p. 18 (illustrated).
U. Tillander-Godenhielm, Fabergé: ja hänen suomalaiset mestarinsa, Helsinki, 2008, pp. 340–341.
M. Moehrke, Unknown Fabergé: New Finds and Re-discoveries, Minneapolis, 2016, pp. 46-47, no. 21 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Shanghai, Christie’s, October 2014.
Minneapolis, The Museum of Russian Art, Unknown Fabergé: New Finds and Re-discoveries, 8 October 2016 – 26 February 2017, no. 21.

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Alexis de Tiesenhausen
Alexis de Tiesenhausen

Lot Essay

Rhinoceros Automatons by Fabergé
Automatons are amongst the rarest objects produced by Fabergé. Those that are known were important and specific commissions, notably the surprises for Imperial Eggs. This automated silver rhinoceros is one of only four known examples by Fabergé. All four of the recorded rhinoceroses appear to be unmarked and are very similar in size to the present lot.
The present rhinoceros was acquired directly from the descendants of Prince Vasili Alexandrovich (1907-1989), the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna’s favourite grandchild.

A second example with scratched inventory number 17591 was originally purchased by Grand Duke Nikolai Mikhailovich (1859 –1919) from Fabergé in 1914 for 600 roubles. This example eventually formed part of the Forbes Magazine Collection and is now owned by the Link of Times foundation, held in the collection of the Fabergé Museum, St Petersburg.

A further automated rhinoceros, with a sapphire horn, was sold at Christie’s, New York, 22-23 October 1984, lot 676.

The fourth example of a rhinoceros automaton by Fabergé, without a scratched inventory number, is currently held in a private collection.

Fabergé’s London ledgers indicate that Lord Chamberlain Howe purchased an automated rhinoceros from the London branch of Fabergé for £60 in November 1909. Later that year, Lord Howe presented the silver animal to Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), sister of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, on her sixty-fifth birthday.

Viscount Knutsford described this gift in the journal In Black and White published in 1926, mistakenly referring to it as a hippopotamus: ‘… What pleased her most, I think, was Howe’s present of a little hippopotamus made of silver by this Russian (Fabergé), perfectly modelled, and when wound up, it walked by means of little clockwork wheels in the legs, and wagged its tail!’ (K. Snowman, Fabergé. Jeweller to Royalty, Washington, D. C., 1983, pp. 12-13).
In the ledgers, the rhinoceros purchased by Lord Chamberlain Howe was recorded under number 17665 and its description does not include sapphire, thus ruling out the possibility that it could be either the rhinoceros now in the Fabergé Museum or the one sold by Christie’s in 1984.

The present rhinoceros atomaton was presented to Prince Vasili by Maria Feodorovna around 1914 to 1915 as a toy gift. From the Dowager’s diaries, we also know that Prince Vasili was seriously ill with typhoid in November 1914. His grandmother visited him almost daily, referring to him as ‘my beloved little baby Vasia’ in her diaries (Dnevniki imperatritsy Marii Fedorovny (1914–1920, 1923 gody). Moscow, 2005, p. 73). Perhaps it was during his illness that Maria Feodorovna gave him the present automated rhinoceros to raise his spirits.

At the same time, it is known that Maria Feodorovna regularly visited her sister Alix, as she fondly called Queen Alexandra in her diaries, including a three-moth stay in London from May to July 1914. Interestingly the Royal Collection does not include any rhinoceros automatons by Fabergé. It is possible to therefore suggest that Queen Alexandra gave the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna the automaton during one of their frequent meetings.

Although the present rhinoceros now appears to be without a scratched inventory number, the logical exclusion of the other known examples and the close relationship between Queen Alexandra, her sister the Dowager Empress and Prince Vasili, make it likely that the present rhino is the one purchased by Lord Howe from Fabergé’s London branch.

Prince Vasili Romanov
Prince Vasili Romanov was the youngest of the seven children of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna and the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich. Nephew to Emperor Nicholas II, he was born in Gatchina Palace and spent many days of his childhood with his grandmother Maria Feodorovna. Following the Revolution, Prince Vasili was rescued with his parents and grandmother by the British Warship HMS Marlborough, sent by Queen Alexandra in April 1919. Prince Vasili stayed in England until the late 1920s, after which he emigrated to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life.

Fabergé Automatons and their Sources
From as early as the third century B.C., automatons have captured our imagination and entertained with their lifelike movement. In the eighteenth century, the artform of the automaton reached its apogee in the work of the famous English clockmaker James Cox, who founded a museum of luxurious curiosities in 1772 (Paul Schaffer, ‘An Introduction’, Mechanical Wonders: The Sandoz Collection, New York, 26 October – 26 November 2011, p. 30). China and Russia provided the greatest market for Cox’s ingenious works of art. The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg famously owns some of his most important pieces, including his gilt peacock in a cage and an ornate gold-mounted agate table clock, incorporating a nécessaire and musical mechanism, which is supported on four rhinoceroses.

For over twenty years, Carl Fabergé voluntarily gave his time and expertise to the Imperial Hermitage, repairing, restoring and classifying its treasures. James Cox’s automaton Peacock Clock was of particular interest and Fabergé, together with a mechanic, examined and repaired the work. Familiarity with this large-scale mechanical masterpiece directly influenced the design of the smaller 1900 Cockerel Easter Egg, and the slightly later Rothschild (Christie’s, London, 28 November 2007, lot 55), Chanticleer and Imperial Peacock Eggs (T. Fabergé, L. Proler and V. Skurlov, The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs, London, 1997, p. 146).

The similarity in design of the rhinoceroses used in James Cox’s Hermitage table clock to the present rhinoceros automaton provides another interesting parallel between Fabergé and the famous clock maker. Other examples of Fabergé’s interpretation of Cox Mantle clocks are a silver and nephrite clock in the collection of the Hillwood Museum, Washington D.C. that was directly inspired by a James Cox clock that reputedly belonging to the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, now in the collection of the Walter’s Art Museum, Baltimore.

A further source of Fabergé’s inspiration for the present rhinoceros automaton could have been French mantel clocks incorporating figures of rhinoceri, elephants, bulls and lions which were highly fashionable in mid-18th century Paris. One such rhinoceros clock dating to circa 1770 is also in collection of the Hermitage and reproduced in T. H. Clarke, The Rhinoceros from Dürer to Stubbs 1515-1799, London, 1986, pl. 102. A related example was sold Christie’s, London, 6 December 2012, lot 18.

The vogue for incorporating rhinoceri in the designs for decorative objects was originally inspired by an Indian rhinoceros named Clara, who travelled throughout Europe for seventeen years. She was the tame adopted animal of the director of the Dutch East India Company Jan Albert Sichterman in Bengal and the highlights of her European tour included posing for Johann Joachim Kändler from the Meissen porcelain factory in 1747 and being received by Louis XV at the Royal Menagerie at Versailles in 1749. During her five months in Paris she was seen by the naturalist Buffon, and Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted a life-size portrait of her. In 1750 she travelled to Italy, where she visited the Baths of Diocletian; she arrived in Venice in 1751 where she was painted by Pietro Longhi and starred in the carnival (G. Ridley, Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, London, 2004).

The marchands-mercier seized this opportunity to produce and market three types of clock incorporating rhinoceri, as studied by T.H. Clarke in The Rhinoceros from Dürer to Stubbs 1515-1799, London, 1986. The first and earliest group was based on Albrecht Dürer's celebrated engraving of 1515, a version of which is in the collection of the Hermitage. Durer’s interpretation emphasises the large scales of the rhinoceros' legs and the articulation of its parts. The influence of this model can be seen in the chasing and construction of the present example by Fabergé.

The movement of the rhinoceros’s head as it walks may relate to a second model of these clocks, probably based on Johann Joachim Kändler's model of the rhinoceros which is less stylized and depicts the rhinoceros’s head as rearing.

Fabergé’s interpretation of Dürer, Cox and French Mantle clocks can be seen in the automated rhinoceros’s chased and embossed matte silver finish, resembling the leathery skin of the animal. When wound with the original key, the animal slowly moves on ratcheted wheels and lifts its head up and down. The articulated tail also sways from side to side as the rhino glides along. Along the spine of the rhino, there is a mechanism with a release rod that starts and stops the movement.

While the movement of the present rhinoceros is not signed, an indication of its complexity can be understood by what we know of the other Fabergé automaton makers, such as Aaron Niskanen and Semion Dorofeiev. The peacock in the Imperial Peacock egg of 1908 took Dorofeiev over three years to complete (K. Snowman, Carl Fabergé: Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia, London, 1979, p. 90).

Other famous automatons by Fabergé include a miniature sedan chair with a figure of Catherine the Great, being carried by two blackamoors (Christie’s, Geneva, 13 November 1985, lot 30), the silver automaton of an elephant with an enamelled mahout and the ivory and enamel automaton recently discovered by Caroline de Guitaut to be the 'surprise' for the Diamond Trellis Egg, both of which are held in the Royal Collection, London. Other Fabergé eggs that contained automated surprises include The Pine Cone Egg of 1900, The Trans-Siberia Railway Egg of 1900, The Swan Egg of 1906, and The Peacock Egg of 1908.


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