The British art dealer Oliver Hoare (1945-2018) had a passion for artefacts with cultish and fabled properties. In 2017, in his remarkable London exhibition Every Object Tells a Story, he displayed a unicorn’s horn and a voodoo priest’s silver cane top, but perhaps the most mysterious object he owned is a silver skull pomander dated to 1628.
‘It is an extraordinary piece,’ confirms Milo Dickinson, Head of Sculpture at Christie’s in London. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it before.’
Pomanders are scent carriers which were popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were usually orb-shaped and contained chambers for herbs and spices, and were designed to be worn around the waist on a rope by wealthy aristocrats. Many paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, notably the famous Darnley Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London, depict her wearing finely crafted examples.
This forbidding pomander is no exception. The top of the skull opens like a lid to reveal two small paintings representing Christ descending into Limbo and the inscription ‘Post mortem, vita eternitas’ (after death, life eternal). The skull fits into a silver apple with a bite mark and an inscription dated 1628.
‘The skull is a vanitas, a reminder of death,’ explains Dickinson. ‘The apple is linked to the story of Adam and Eve. Christ’s sacrifice was a very popular subject in the 17th century, and the skull was there to caution the owner not to get above themselves. It is essentially reminding its owner that we are all going to die in the end.’
Such a portentous symbol might well have been given to someone of great importance, and that’s the mystery which surrounds this unique object. ‘It has a very complicated history which I’ve been trying to unravel,’ Dickinson explains. ‘The burning question being: was it or was it not owned by royalty?’
These are the facts that the specialist has established: the skull was owned by the famous 19th-century collector Albert Denison, 1st Baron Londesborough (1805-1860), who offered it at auction at Christie’s in 1855.
‘The skull was there to caution the owner not to get above themselves... we are all going to die in the end’ — Milo Dickinson
Five years later, a drawing of the pomander was included in a catalogue of the Baron’s collection, but with an added engraving of a crown and the initials ‘JR’ (James Rex) above the date 1628.
‘This inscription no longer exists,’ reveals Dickinson, ‘but if it was genuine it could refer to either James I or James II. The problem is that James I died in 1625 and James II lived at the end of the 17th century, so neither date matches.’
The assumption was that the regal provenance had been added by some unscrupulous character after the sale. ‘If such a mark had existed, I’m sure Christie’s would have mentioned it in the catalogue,’ says Dickinson. ‘But then the mystery deepens.’
In the memoirs of the pre-eminent 20th-century silver scholar and dealer Mrs G.E.P. How is a description of the pomander with the crown and initials in place. She had taken the object to the Head of the Metal Work department at the British Museum to be valued. ‘He assured me that though the Skull and the Apple container were genuine,’ she wrote, ‘and the inscription original, the lightly engraved crown and initials had obviously been put on by somebody at a much later date to give it a spurious association with James I.’
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A few weeks later the expert contacted her again to say he had discovered a drawing of the pomander with the crown in place, indicating that it had probably been owned by James II. ‘Alack! Alas!’ lamented Mrs How, who had already had the crown and initials removed. ‘They cannot go back.’
‘It’s an intriguing mystery,’ says Dickinson. ‘Was the inscription added around 1685 when James II came to the throne in commemoration, or was it added sometime between Christie’s selling the pomander in 1855 and Mrs How buying it in the mid-20th century? I’m not sure we shall ever know.’