A guide to collecting gold boxes

Can you tell your tabatière from your boîte-à-mouches or your bonbonnière? Specialist Isabelle Cartier-Stone is your expert guide — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

An Important Louis XV lacquer and gold-cagework snuff-box by Daniel Gouers (also known as Govaers), Paris, 1732-33

An Important Louis XV lacquer and gold-cagework snuff-box by Daniel Gouers (also known as Govaers), Paris, 1732-33. 7.5 cm (3 in) diam. Sold for €81,900 on 22 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

When and why did gold boxes become popular?

In 18th-century Europe, boxes played a key role in the conduct of social affairs. They were produced in large numbers in France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Russia, Austria and Italy, and even in Sweden and Denmark.

The rectangular gold boxes, which would become the century’s most sought-after accessories, took their form from the earlier pomanders (apple-shaped aromatic balls or containers) and vinaigrettes (small boxes, often in silver and carried primarily by women) that came into fashion as receptacles for perfume or vinegar to ward off the stink of city streets.

In Europe, the popularisation of snuff in the second half of the 17th century led to the use of the tabatière, or snuff-box. These were originally made of carved wood, ivory, iron or silver, but by the 18th century, gold snuff-boxes — often attractively enamelled — had become the height of functional fashion.

In some cases, boxes were made of tortoiseshell, rock crystal or another semi-precious hardstone.

Are there different types of gold boxes for different uses?

Yes indeed. Boxes were not just for men — smaller models were also produced for women. Some were meant for the table, while others were to be carried in the pocket. A smaller box was sometimes called a journée, being just large enough to contain one day’s supply of snuff.

Louis XIV hated snuff, but loved the boxes. This led to the development in France of the boîte-à-portrait, which looked like a snuff-box but featured a portrait miniature either within it or mounted on its cover. The boîte-à-portrait was far from being the only style of box that grew out of the tabatière. Others are listed below.

Boîte-à-mouches: a box that contained small patches (mouches) of various shapes and sizes. These were applied to the faces of ladies or gentlemen to hide smallpox scars, or for decoration.

Boîte-à-rouge et à mouches: containing both rouge and patches. The inside cover was fitted with a mirror, and the box itself held a small brush for applying the rouge.

Bonbonnière: a circular box with a detachable cover, used to hold confectionery such as dried fruit or nuts.

Carnet-de-bals: designed to hold an ivory tablet and a pencil, and often decorated with portrait miniatures and the initials of the owner. Ladies carried these to dances, and would inscribe the names of their dance partners on the ivory tablet.

Nécessaire: a box designed to hold implements relating to sewing or personal grooming, such as small scissors, tweezers, toothpicks and folding knives.

Etui: a general term for an upright container designed to hold a specific object such as a needle or bodkin.

Freedom box: presented to an individual in recognition of their position or achievements.

A Swiss enamelled gold snuff-box set with a Roman micromosaic plaque. The box by Jean-François Bautte & Co., Geneva, circa 1830; the micromosaic, by Gioacchino Barberi, Rome, circa 1830. 9 cm (3½ in) wide. Sold for €81,900 on 22 November 2023 at Christie’s Online

Micromosaic box: a French or English snuff-box with a micromosaic design — usually made in Rome and purchased there by travellers on the Grand Tour — set into the cover.

Sealing-wax case: typically a cylindrical gold container with a detachable cover, used to hold sealing wax. The base was sometimes engraved with the owner’s coat of arms, and could be impressed into wax to seal a letter.

What do collectors look for?

The hugely elaborate and decorative boxes that were produced in the reign of Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-1786) are now perhaps the most highly prized examples of all. The king owned some 1,500 gold boxes, and started an industry for their manufacture in Berlin, where he supervised their design and construction.

According to Isabelle Cartier-Stone, specialist in Gold Boxes & Objects of Vertu at Christie’s in London, the rarest gold boxes today — and those of most interest to collectors — are by French goldsmiths such as Louis Charonnat, Jean Ducrollay, Jean Formey, Gabriel Gallois, Daniel Gouers, Barnabé Sageret and Jean-Marie Tiron.

Rare German boxes include those by Johann-Christian Neuber, court jeweller to Friedrich Augustus III in Dresden, and Heinrich Taddel.

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Boxes set with painted miniatures are also highly sought-after, says Cartier-Stone. Examples from the 1750s by the top goldsmiths, clearly marked and dated, in good condition and with well-established provenance, will attract the most interest.

As with most precious objects, there will always be fakes and reproductions. ‘French boxes are always marked,’ explains Cartier-Stone. ‘Fake marks tend to be poorly struck, incomplete or badly formed, although some very good forgeries exist. Many German and English boxes, however, are unmarked.’

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