At six years old, Peter Guggenheim (1927–2012) was given a cuckoo clock by his grandfather — a gift that would inspire a lifetime of collecting. Together with Dr. John Abbott, he cultivated a renowned collection, following the Guggenheim family legacy by establishing a veritable Kunstkammer, or ‘cabinet of curiosities’.
Here, Christie’s specialist Toby Woolley shares his highlights from the Abbott-Guggenheim Collection — focusing on a selection of mechanical masterpieces that spin, chime, and trace the stars.
A Baroque tour-de-force, David Bushmann’s masterpiece clock is remarkable both for its spectacular size and architectural complexity.
‘In the 17th century,’ explains Toby Woolley, ‘clocks such as these were considered state-of-the-art — the iPads of their day. Comprising up to around 100 parts, this piece by David Bushmann is incredibly intricate, representing some of the craftsman’s finest work.’
At the centre of the piece, an ‘astrolabe’ dial indicates the position of the sun through the Zodiac. ‘There was a fascination with what was in the sky,’ adds Woolley. ‘Stars were used to tell the time, and astronomers were still making significant discoveries.’
‘Though its original owner is unknown, this fantastic lion clock would probably have been an eccentric toy for a rich nobleman or merchant — or even a royal household,’ explains Woolley.
‘Perched on an intricately engraved ebony base, the gilded lion has automated eyes, and a jaw that moves when the hours strike,’ The piece is part of the Abbott Guggenheim ‘menagerie’, with objects in the collection ranging from horses and bulls to a sea monster.
‘It is one of several animal clocks to have been made in the period, feeding into a trend focused on fun, rather symbolism,’ says Woolley.
This clock’s incredibly intricate exterior hides a hub of mechanical activity. ‘Technically, this piece is very developed,’ comments Toby Woolley. ‘Wound by three interlinked barrels, it has several different mechanisms, including an astronomical dial — a rare addition to such a developed piece.
‘Though the maker of the work remains unfortunately unknown, a pinecone, stamped on the work’s metal work, shows it to be from Augsburg, a city in the southwest of Bavaria that was a centre for both clock making and silversmithing’.
Though remarkably detailed, the clock at the centre of this work threatens to be overwhelmed by the plump figure of Bacchus, who drunkenly straddles the wine barrel in which it is encased.
‘Cast in bronze, the figure of Bacchus holds a vine-wrapped staff to his left and, and a bottle to his right,’ explains Woolley. ‘When the hours strike, Bacchus raises his right arm and drinks from the bottle, his jaw lowering to accommodate an imaginary glut of wine.’
Beneath Bacchus’ drunken excess, transparent panels provide a glimpse of a complex mechanism: ‘An opportunity,’ Woolley states, ‘for the clock maker to demonstrate his technical skill.’
Cast in gilt and polychrome brass, this clock features two henchmen, who lash the central figure of Christ as the hours strike.
‘Today, this piece is visually very strong,’, comments Woolley. ‘In the 17th century, however, religious imagery such as this was commonplace, and there are a number of pieces in the Abbott-Guggenheim Collection which depict the Crucifixion.’
Here, the influence of painted works is tangible: ‘If you think of Old Master paintings from the period,’ adds Woolley, ‘the majority would be religious in theme.’ For a master clock maker, this piece represents a natural continuation of those ideas.