Specialist Marcus Rädecke decodes a remarkable Renaissance survivor, thought to be its maker’s last great work
What does a furniture expert do when he or she is presented with a rare work for the first time? Here, Christie’s specialist Marcus Rädecke shows how clues across the surface of this 17th-century games box provide a key to unlocking its history.
The fantastic thing about this object is that it has been both signed and dated by its maker. On the front panel, in the bottom left corner, a small, carved and inlaid tablet reads ADAM.ECK.FECIT.1664, identifying the maker as Adam Eck — perhaps the most important cabinetmaker working in Eger, Bohemia, in the 17th century.
This piece is earlier than most objects we work with, which tend to date from the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, only the very wealthiest members of society could afford beautiful furniture, with much of what does survive coming from ecclesiastical or royal collections.
Even without a signature, the very particular technique used to create this work would have allowed us to identify and date it. The exceptionally detailed image on the front is a beautiful example of ‘relief marquetry’, formed from many tiny cut sections of wood, arranged and carved to create a three-dimensional image. Although southern Germany was already widely renowned for marquetry, this technique was particular to the city of Eger.
The scene here is The Rape of the Sabine Women — an episode in classical Roman history, in which the first generation of Roman men acquired wives from Italy’s Sabine tribe (the Latin for ‘rape’ here translating as ‘abduction’). The subject was well known at the time this piece was made, shortly after the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe, appearing in paintings by artists including Poussin and Rubens.
Although we don’t know who this piece was made for, we can speculate. The main image suggests that it was owned by a political or military leader, and we know that pieces made in the city of Eger were often commissioned as diplomatic gifts. A similar casket was gifted to a notoriously violent commander of Sweden’s troops, and is now held in the country’s Skokloster Castle.
An almost identical games box was commissioned by the young prince of Saxony for his father’s 70th birthday in 1655, and is now held in Dresden’s Green Vault — its royal affiliation indicating just how valuable a work such as this would have been.
Inside the box is an ornately presented game known as ‘trictrac’ — a variation on backgammon, in which two players move counters in opposing directions, according to the rolls of dice.
The magnificent interior of the games box also makes reference to the highly volatile period during the Thirty Years War, with the triangular fields of the trictrac depicted as obelisks, laden with military trophies and flags of the participating armies — from the French fleur-de-lys to the double-headed Habsburg eagle. This was either made for someone involved in battles, or its maker wisely made a piece that would fit any client’s allegiances.
Running between the obelisks are two landscape friezes — composed entirely of intricately inlaid wood — depicting a sea battle (left) and a besieged city (right).
Each is based on an original engraving by artist Matthäus Merian the Elder (1590-1650), known for his views of cities across central Europe. On the right, part of the image of a city under siege first appears in a work by French artist Jacques Callot, thought to be the first ‘anti-war’ statement in Western art.
For an artist like Adam Eck, who may not have travelled, works by other artists were a chance to see outside their city. The marquetry is so detailed that the work must have been carried out with a magnifying glass.
While we know this box was made in the German-speaking city of Eger, we also know that it spent some time in Sweden during the 19th century. The hinges joining the front and back sections are later replacements, stamped with the mark of a Stockholm-based silversmith, and dated 1822. Silversmiths active during the period were required to stamp their products to guarantee they were pure silver. The discovery suggests it might have been a diplomatic present for a Swedish general or other member of Swedish high society.
The raised borders of the trictrac field are flanked with decorative tulips — a flower which, though usually associated with Holland, was also linked to the city of Eger.
On the reverse of the games box, a chequerboard can be used for chess or draughts, and is magnificently decorated with different types of flowers, fruits and nuts — from walnuts to almonds and hazelnuts. Each is individually cut from different timbers and inlaid.
Four silver feet, placed on either side of the box, are designed to prevent scratching as the piece is turned over and used. Although it is highly decorative, it is unlikely that the box was kept for display only. Gaming was highly popular, especially on cold winter nights at court, or in military camps, when there was little else to do.
The exceptionally well-preserved condition of this box suggests it has changed hands only a few times. Particularly in the early 20th century, Renaissance pieces such as this were hugely sought-after.