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The clock is in the form of an elephant, with a howdah in the form of a castle tower, with four turbaned soldiers with raised scimitars which rotate around the tower, there are two enameled dials and two glass dials through which the clock works are visible, the elephant’s eyes move and he is accompanied by two mahouts, one riding on his back and a second walking alongside, all on a naturalistically-cast ground on a silver-mounted ebony and ebonized pearwood veneered base over an oak carcass, which encloses further mechanics which propel the automaton forward in a slight circle, the works are currently partially non-functioning but are largely intact and, with restoration, will almost certainly be able to function and detailed condition reports are available upon request.
Approximately 13.7 in. (35 cm.) height overall; 3.5 in. (9 cm.) height of pedestal; 10.2 in. (26 cm.) height of elephant from ground to top of tower
Hannah Mathilde Baroness von Rothschild (1832-1924) and Wilhelm Carl Baron von Rothschild (1828-1901), Schloss Grüneburg, Frankfurt am Main and Königstein im Taunus [unconfirmed].
Minna Karoline (Minka) Baroness von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1857-1903) and Maximilian Baron von Goldschmidt-Rothschild (1843-1940), Rothschild Palais, Bockenheimer Landstraße 10, Frankfurt am Main, until 1938.
Museum für Kunsthandwerk (now the Museum Angewandte Kunst), Frankfurt am Main, 11 November, 1938 (inv. no. G.R.1353) [von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s forced sale to the City of Frankfurt am Main].
With Carl Müller-Ruzika, art dealership, Frankfurt am Main, 1943 [the museum traded von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s clock for a ‘Louis XV Bronze Wall Clock‘].
Art market, Frankfurt am Main or Cologne, 1943-late 1940s [unconfirmed].
Dr. Irmgard Baroness von Lemmers-Danforth (1892-1984), late 1940s-1963.
Städtische Museen of the city of Wetzlar, Sammlung Dr. Irmgard von Lemmers-Danforth: Europäische Wohnkultur der Renaissance und des Barock, Palais Papius, Wetzlar, 1963-2021.
Restituted by the city of Wetzlar to the heirs of Maximilian Baron von Goldschmidt-Rothschild, 2021.
K. Maurice, Die deutsche Räderuhr: Zur Kunst und Technik des mechanischen Zeitmessers im deutschen Sprachraum, Munich, 1976, vol. 2, p. 48, no. 287.
W. Koeppe, Die-Lemmers-Danforth Sammlung Wetzlar: Europäische Wohnkultur aus Renaissance und Barock, Heidelberg, 1992, p. 268.
W. Koeppe, Die Lemmers-Danforth-Sammlung, Wetzlar, Regensburg, 1994 [English translation].
A. Kugel, Un bestiaire mécanique: Horloges à automates de la Renaissance 1580-1640, Paris, 2016, p. 130, fig. 3.
W. Koeppe, ed., Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2019, p. 238.
Städtische Museen, Sammlung Dr. Irmgard von Lemmers-Danforth: Europäische Wohnkultur der Renaissance und des Barock, Palais Papius, Wetzlar, 1963-2021.
Sale room notice
Please note the additional Literature.

Lot Essay

This Elephant Clock has charmed and astonished connoisseurs and the general public alike for more than four hundred years. The exterior, with its dazzling decoration and finish, is perhaps even exceeded in importance by the hidden mechanics of the interior. Marvelously, the works propel the darting eyes of the elephant and the armed guards which race ferociously around the tower and keep the clock moving in a circle – as it was designed never to fall off the table. But, clearly, as so few working ones survive, this happened all too often. So, despite participating in (admittedly very high-level) drinking games since the Baroque period, and despite the vicissitudes of the 20th century in particular, this Elephant Clock is a miracle of technology. And survival.

The present clock belongs to a group of ten elephant clocks which have all been discussed in Klaus Maurice’s iconic 1976 study of Central European clocks, as well as more recently in two spectacular exhibitions of automatons, the first held at the Galerie Kugel, Paris in 2016 and accompanied by Alexis Kugel’s catalogue, and the second held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2019, and accompanied by the catalogue edited by Wolfram Koeppe. And among this group there are three that are extremely close in design and it is nearly impossible to imagine they were not made by the same Augsburg workshop. The first is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna , the second is in the Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago and the third is in a private collection, Paris. The present Elephant Clock, as discussed by Koeppe, remains perhaps in the most complete condition of them all (Koeppe, 2019, p. 238).

As Koeppe illustrates, perhaps the first automaton elephant clock, hydraulic driven, was designed by al-Jazari, a brilliant and sophisticated 12th century Muslim engineer and the watercolor and ink design of this clock is now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Koeppe, 2019, p. 239, cat. no. 135). Hundreds of years later, in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the elephant was still seen as intensely exotic, especially for Europeans, and was admired both for its intelligence and fearsome power. And the appeal of elephant imagery was clearly universal as a watercolor, identified by Koeppe in 1992, by Jan van Grevenbroeck II of circa 1760, depicts an Augsburg elephant clock almost identical to the present clock, but with Turkish numerals, as it was intended as a gift to the bey of Tripoli (Kugel, 2016, p. 42 and Koeppe, 2019, p.238). Even now, seven hundred years after al-Jazari designed his clock, the elephant remains a wonderous and inspiring symbol of intelligence and restrained power. But perhaps today, the elephant is both better-understood after a century of zoology and also, more-beloved as they become ever more endangered in the wild.

Hospitality has always played an important role in all cultures. And in late-Renaissance / early Baroque Europe, at the end of the 16th century this was taken to dazzling, literally, extremes where the table became almost a festival stage, the guests became part of a specially created spectacle, all of which was choreographed and directed by the host. The table decoration was often the main topic of conversation at these sumptuous banquets and illustrated that they were also a feast for both the eyes and ears and the mind. At some point, between courses, the Elephant Clock would have made a grand entrance. The owner would have arranged for it to be brought from his cabinet of curiosities (Kunst- und Wunderkammer) and, after making some magical gestures to wind up and set off the concealed mechanism, the animal would have advanced along the table. The targeted guest had to entertain the other diners with a toast, perhaps with a rhyme, and thus generate a new topic of conversation in a playful way (R. Zeller, Spiel und Konversation im Barock, Berlin 1974).

So legendary is the Rothschild family, their political, economic and cultural achievements were so successful and ubiquitous, that they seem almost to hover in another realm, above other familial dynasties of the 19th and 20th centuries. This sense of remove was, despite an empire which circumnavigated the globe, probably further heightened by the fact that they remained a close and tightly-connected family. And while the branches of the English, French and Austrian Rothschilds are well-known largely through their massive building projects, spectacular collections and several centuries of philanthropy, the branch of the Frankfurt Rothschilds, the ancestral birthplace of the family empire, has maintained a lower profile and attracted less attention.

Baron Maximilian adopted the Rothschild name in 1901 after his father-in-law died, as Baron Wilhelm Carl von Rothschild (1828-1901) was the last male of the Frankfurt Rothschilds. Baron Maximilian, among his many business achievements, was a partner of the Frankfurt bank founded by his father, Benedikt Hayum Goldschmidt as well as being a partner with his sons of the Berlin bank A. Falkenberger (later Goldschmidt-Rothschild & Co.). Yet like many of his Rothschild in-laws, his true passion, and perhaps his most lasting legacy, was his collecting.

While the collections of Baron Maximilian contained paintings by Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters, it is the decorative arts, Limoges enamels, Italian maiolica, Meissen and Vienna porcelain and, above all, silver, that was the nucleus of his collection. On the occasion of Baron Maximilian’s 80th birthday in 1923, the celebrated art historian and art critic Dr. Adolph Donath wrote of Baron Maximilian’s Kunstkammer that ‘…only at Waddesdon, the British Museum, the Wallace Collection, Schloss Rosenborg [the Royal Danish collections] and the Green Vaults in Dresden can be found pieces of similar quality.’ Donath further noted that Baron Maximilian’s collection of silver animals was ‘unvergleichlich – unrivaled or without equal (Der Kunstwanderer, vol. 4/5, 1922/23, p. 436). It is not clear if the Elephant Clock had belonged to Hannah Mathilde Baroness von Rothschild and Baron Wilhelm Carl von Rothschild, the parents of Baron Maximilian’s wife Minna Karoline (Minka) von Rothschild, as there are unconfirmed reports from the 1920s of the clock in the collection. But this seems unlikely, not only because this is undocumented, but it is much more probable that it was purchased by Baron Maximilian himself over his many decades of intense collecting as he was specifically interested in this period of German Baroque silver and metalwork. And, as Donath mentions, particularly in figures of animals.

On November 9-10, 1938, Germany was convulsed by a night of murder and mayhem, the Nazi-sanctioned Novemberpogrome, better known as Kristallnacht. The following day, November 11, Baron Maximilian was forced to ‘sell’ his entire collection to the City of Frankfurt. Grotesquely, the acting mayor of Frankfurt, Dr. Friedrich Krebs, claims to have ‘saved’ the collection from destruction by having the city take ownership of the collection. Earlier in 1938, Baron Maximilian had been forced to commission an inventory of the collection (a Taxationliste imposed on Jewish collections). The collection was now given new inventory numbers, which corresponded this inventory, with the addition of the letters ‘G.R.’ to indicate they were from the von Goldschmidt-Rothschild collections. The collection was purchased for just over 2.5 million Reichsmarks and, adding insult to injury, the funds were paid into a frozen account inaccessible to the family (K. Weiler, ‘Provenance research and Circulation: Examples from the Maximilian von Goldschmidt Collection,’ History of Knowledge, 18 December, 2019 / https://historyofknowledge.net/2019/12/18/provenance-research-and-circulation/). A large part of the purchase price for the art collection went directly to the respective responsible tax offices, partly for the Judenvermögensabgab [the Jewish tax] to be paid by Maximilian himself and partly for the Judenvermögensabgabe as well as the Reichsfluchtsteuer [Reich Flight Tax] imposed on his son Albert. The Goldschmidt-Rothschild Palais, at Bockenheimer Landstraβe 10, had already been ‘sold’ a month earlier, on September 5, and was now opened to the public as a branch of the Museum für Kunsthandwerk. Baron Maximillian was allowed to remain in a small rented apartment. He remained there until his death in 1940, at the age of 97 (C. E. Brennan and K. Weiler, ‘A Provenance Mystery: Two Medieval Silver Beakers at the Met Cloisters / https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/collection-insights/2019/provenance-research-two-medieval-silver-beakers-the-cloisters).

After the war, the heirs of Baron Maximilian requested the return of the collection, the 1938 forced sale was eventually voided and much of the collection was returned to the heirs of Baron Maximilian by February of 1949 (K. Weiler, 2019, note 7). Some of these pieces were then shipped to New York in 1949 and sold at auction a year later in the Parke-Bernet Galleries on March 10-11, 1950 – as described in a New York Times article of 1950 (“Art Nazis ‘Bought’ Will be Sold Here’). The Elephant Clock, was not among these treasures as it had left the collections of the Frankfurt Museum in an odd exchange that took place in the middle of the war. In 1943, a Frankfurt dealer, Carl Müller-Ruzika, traded to the Frankfurt Museum a ‘Louis XV Bronze Wall Clock‘ for von Goldschmidt-Rothschild’s clock. The von Goldschmidt-Rothschild clock then presumably entered the murky art market of the war and post-war period, these few years remain un-documented, and by the late 1940s the Elephant Clock was purchased the Dr. Baroness Irmgard von Lemmers-Danforth. The Dr. Baroness von Lemmers-Danforth was a legendary figure in the Hessian city of Wetzlar. A brilliant mind and a passionate collector, von Lemmers-Danfurth amassed an outstanding collection of decorative arts which were all eventually gifted to Wetzlar’s Städtische Museen and exhibited in the Palais Papius. The Elephant Clock was in the collections of the Städtische Museen from 1963 until earlier this year when it was restituted to the heirs of Baron Maximilian, eighty-three years after it was seized from his collection.

The Elephant Clock, perfectly encapsulates the Kunstkammer aesthetic, a marriage of beauty, artistry and exoticism combined with science and engineering. And indeed the Elephant Clock equally sums up le goût Rothschild which is synonymous with the most refined objects made by the greatest craftsmen and of the most luxurious materials. As Donath concluded in his published celebration of Baron Maximilian and his collection: ‘I just wanted to note, on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Frankfurt art collector, how successful Baron Maximilian von Goldschmidt-Rothschild has been in this half century and how closely and proudly his name is linked with the heyday of collecting in Germany.’

Christie’s would like to thank Dr. Klaus Maurice, a master clock and watchmaker, author, and preeminent scholar in the field, for his examination of the clock and for his help in preparing this essay. Please note the Condition Report will be accompanied by a report prepared by Jürgen Ehrt of Meissen.

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