These magnificent vases were almost certainly supplied to Jean de Jullienne (1686-1766), the grand amateur, who was most notably a collector of paintings by Watteau as well as Boulle furniture and the decorative arts. While they do not appear in the sale of his estate in 1767, they were noted in Randon de Boisset’s sale ten years later as having come from Julliene’s ‘cabinet’, as opposed to his ‘vente’ (as in the case of other lots), and it is possible that Randon de Boisset (1708-1776) acquired them privately. Randon de Boisset’s sale of 1777 notes eight lots with the same Jullienne provenance, although an annotated copy of Jullienne’s sale in 1767 is inscribed with de Boisset’s name next to no fewer than thirty-seven lots of decorative arts, including numerous pieces of Boulle furniture, porcelain and objects d’art, as well as two further lots which were bought on his behalf by the auctioneer Julliot.
In Rondon de Boisset’s sale the vases were noted as having been sold for 1250 to ‘Dainval’, almost certainly referring to Rondon de Boisset’s nephew and heir Jean-Louis Millon d’Ainval. D’Ainval was the son of Boisset’s sister Suzanne and her husband Pierre-Charles-Antoine Million. Like his uncle Jean-Louis-Millan d’Ainval (1749-1812) he was réceveur general des finances de Lyon.
Mounted with ram’s masks, laurel garlands and scrolled serpents these vases perfectly embody the taste for objéts montées of the second half of the 18th century, and in particular the entwined serpents can be found illustrated by a plethora of designs popularised by bronziers, sculptors, ornemanistes and designers of the time. These include Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (d.1801) whose celebrated series of designs was published in 1764, as well as Gilles-Paul Cauvet (d.1788), whose design for a vase with entwined serpents and Bacchic masks was published in the 1777 'Recueil d'Ornemens à l'usage des jeunes artistes qui se destinent à la décoration des bâtiments' (Drawings for Architecture, Design and Ornament) and the designs by the sculpteur, ciseleur et doreur du Roy, Jean-Louis Prieur (d.1792).
The rich variegated deep red, purple and pink breccia Africano marble which was cut and polished to form the core of the present vases reflects the gout for rare marble, porphyry, jasper, agates and other precious stones in the second half of the 18th century. The passion for collecting rare stone vessels or precious mounted objects was further enhanced by the visionary marchands-merciers - then ultimate arbiters of taste. From about 1765, vessels modelled upon prototypes from classical antiquity were produced from these rare materials. In 1770 Louis-Marie Augustin, 5th duc d'Aumont (1709-1782), arguably the most fervent admirer and hardstone collector of the century, set up a workshop at the hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs specialising in the cutting and polishing of precious stones, most often with a view to adorn these with rich mounts to satisfy the ever increasing appetite for objéts montées. His reputation as a keen collector was further enhanced when the majority of his collection was acquired by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Of the 383,322 livres realised by the sales a staggering 251,420 livres were spent by the King and Queen over 56 lots.
Most probably commissioned by a sophisticated connoisseur such as Blondel de Gagny or Ange-Laurent de Lalive de Jully (d.1779) and likely supplied by a prominent 18th century marchand-mercier, the present vases were almost certainly executed by one of the leading bronziers. And while the identity of such bronzier will remain unknown without any further evidence to support an attribution, one of the most likely contenders is Robert-Joseph Auguste (1723 – circa 1805), sculpteur et orfèvre royal to Louis XV, who is probably also the author of the spectacular gilt-bronze mounts on a vase in the Wallace collection. Pierre Verlet identified that vase as that noted in 1766 by the marchand-mercier, Thomas-Joachim Hébert, in the first Salon of the hôtel of Augustin Blondel de Gagny (d.1776), the renowned collector and supervisor of the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi from 1752.