‘I’ve known this clock since the 1990s,’ says William Strafford, European Furniture and Decorative Arts specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘We sold it in Monte Carlo in 1999, before foreign auction houses were allowed to hold sales in Paris. I remember being very struck by it and it making a strong impression on me.’
Strafford says he lost track of the clock after the sale before encountering it again a year ago, when he was asked to value the contents of a client’s home. 'There it was in the entrance hall,’ he says with a smile.
The ormolu, bronze and marble clock is offered in Christie’s sale of French & English Furniture from a Distinguished Private Collection on 24 October in New York. It dates from the mid-1780s, a stylistic period that marked a return to the ornamental details of classical Greece and Rome.
‘Your eye is first drawn to a pair of amazing mythological beasts in bronze on either side of the central dial,’ Strafford says. ‘Griffins were a potent symbol in classical antiquity. Part eagle and part lion, they combine the most regal beasts of air and land.
‘The eye is also drawn to the elegant blue-and-white relief plaques. You see one in an oval above the dial, and there are two medallions in the base. This is extremely interesting because, although this is a French clock, the plaques were made by Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English manufacturer.’ Wedgwood perfected a way of imitating ancient cameo jewellery in ceramic form, which appealed to those who wanted objects that looked as if they came from ancient Rome, but who couldn’t necessarily visit Italy or Greece.
‘The other really strong feature — and a rare one — is the painting on the base,’ explains the specialist. ‘It’s very unusual to see marble with painted details. The level of luxury in the details is a sign that this clock was made for a very sophisticated patron.’
‘The other really strong feature — and a rare one — is the painting on the base,’ explains the specialist. ‘It’s very unusual to see marble with painted details’
The clock was acquired around 1786 by Archduchess Marie-Christine of Habsburg — sister of Marie-Antoinette — and her husband, Prince Albert. From 1780-82, Marie-Christine and Prince Albert served as joint governors of the Habsburg Netherlands, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Upon arriving in the Netherlands they decided to build a grand palace, and commissioned Charles de Wailly, one of the most fashionable neoclassical architects in Paris, to design it for them.
In August 1786, Marie-Christine and Duke Albert visited Paris especially for the purpose of furnishing their newly built chateau. There they met with Dominique Daguerre, Marie-Antoinette’s ‘favourite dealer in Paris’, says Strafford, and responsible for many of the great commissions for her palaces in the 1780s.
One particularly interesting detail indicates a direct link with Daguerre. ‘Daguerre struck a deal in the 1780s to be the exclusive importer of Wedgwood into France. So French pieces inset with Wedgwood like this are almost certain to have come from his shop.’
‘Marie-Christine’s new chateau had a circular salon. You can imagine there would be circular alcoves in that salon, and the clock could have been designed to fit there’
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has an album of drawings of furniture and objets d’art produced by Daguerre to present to Marie-Christine and Duke Albert on that visit. ‘We think that album was the equivalent of a sale catalogue,’ the specialist continues, ‘showcasing different pieces he could produce for them, or that he had in stock.’
Strafford's guess is that the piece was made specifically for them, given that the painted decoration is such an unusual and luxurious feature — and the fact that the clock is curved at the back. ‘Most mantel clocks would be placed against a straight wall,’ he explains, ‘But Marie-Christine’s new chateau had a central domed rotunda with a circular salon. You can imagine there would be circular alcoves in that salon, and the clock could have been designed to fit there.’
Strafford stresses that now is a ‘fantastic time’ for anyone wanting to collect 18th-century French furniture. Specifically, he notes, ‘an object like this clock has held its value better than larger furnishings, such as chests of drawers or consoles. You could put a clock like this on a very modern console — an Art Deco sideboard for instance — and because its lines are so strong, it would look just as good as it would in a purely 18th-century environment.’