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These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more The Hamilton Palace agate ewer


The ewer with a lobed body with acanthus decoration in relief and a carved dolphin handle above a baluster and carved foliate stem and on an oval spreading base mounted with a spirally turned collar rim and with original silver mounts; above a lobed and foliate-engraved oval basin supported by ormolu mounts of four kneeling tritons issuing from scrolling foliage supporting the ewer and four winged sphinxes with scrolling tails terminating in flower heads, on a re-entrant base centred by a fruiting finial supporting the basin
19 ½ in. (42 cm.) high; 12 ½ in. (32. cm.) wide; 10 ½ in. (27 cm.) deep
Anonymous sale organised by the marchands experts Paillet and Delaroche, Notice de Tableaux, Gouches, Aquarelles, Dessins et Estampes..., Paris, 20 July 1801, lot 47.
Acquired by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Douglas and later 10th Duke of Hamilton (d.1852), possibly in Russia, when Ambassador in St Petersburg, circa 1807.
Thence by descent to William, 12th Duke of Hamilton (d. 1895), Hamilton Palace, Lanarkshire; sold Christie's, London, 17 June-20 July 1882, lot 1436 (£850 10s) to
Christopher Beckett Denison; sold Christie's, London, 6 June 1885, lot 777 (£573 6s) to
William, 5th Earl of Carysfort, Elton Hall, Cambridgeshire and thence by descent, until sold
Christie’s, London, 7 July 2005, lot 445, where acquired by the present owner.

Russian Lists, circa 1807, Hamilton Archives/ 332/ M12.30.
Art Furniture Purchased by 5th Earl [of Carysfort], manuscript, circa 1885.
P. Humfrey ed., The Reception of Titian in Britain, Belgium, 2013, p. 143.
Special notice

These lots have been imported from outside the EU for sale using a Temporary Import regime. Import VAT is payable (at 5%) on the Hammer price. VAT is also payable (at 20%) on the buyer’s Premium on a VAT inclusive basis. When a buyer of such a lot has registered an EU address but wishes to export the lot or complete the import into another EU country, he must advise Christie's immediately after the auction.

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Amelia Walker
Amelia Walker

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Lot Essay

This magnificent and highly prized agate ewer and basin is a tour-de-force of exotic, translucent agate, possibly commissioned for the Grand Dauphin's personal collection in the late 17th Century, and owned by some of the greatest collectors in Europe following the French Revolution.

The ewer and basin is first described in an 1801 sale catalogue of an anonymous, but important collection of exotic hardstones, objets d'arts and fine furniture and paintings. Highlighted on both the title and in the introduction to the sale, the ewer and basin is described under number 47. Interestingly, it was said to be non doré (ungilded):

'Un très beau vase forme d'éguerre, avec anse figurant un serpent, sur son plateau de forme ovale, morceau du plus grand volume et du plus riche ton, en agathe d'Allemagne. Le plateau a une fêlure et quelques égrenures; le tout est richement monté sur un pied de cuivre cizelé, et non doré, dans la forme arabesque, à quatres consoles, ornées chacune d'un sphinx ailé; le vase est elevé sur son plateau par une montere aussi en cuivre cizelé et non doré, représentant quatre enfans, tritons assis, qui le soutiennent. Il est rare de rencontrer un morceau aussi capital, et nous sommes assurés d'avance que les connaisseurs sauront l'apprécier. Haut. du vase, 24 centim., diamètre 10 c. Largeur du plateau, 30 sur 25 centim.'

The ewer next appears in an undated and unaddressed shipping list in the Hamilton archive (Hamilton MSS Misc. M12.30). Written in French but priced in roubles, this shipping list is believed to be of works of art brought back from Russia by Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852) when he served as the British Ambassador to Russia in St Petersburg between late January and June 1807. The highly precious and eclectic works of art described on the Russian lists - many of which have recently been identified – constitute a veritable princely schatzkammer of extraordinary importance and rarity. The entry describing the present lot is as follows:

'No.4 Aiguerre avec sa Jatte montée en Bronze et Soutennue par des amours' and further '1 Aiguerre avec sa Jatte monté en Bronze et Soustenus par des amours #300 formant en Rouble 1350'.

This remarkable schatzkammer was comprised principally of sumptuously mounted hardstones, many of which have a direct association with the French Royal collections – not only bearing the Royal arms of France and Navarre but also personally associated with historical figures including the Emperor Charlemagne and Anne of Austria, the Regent and mother of Louis XIV. These factors open up the possibility that several of the works of art on the Hamilton Russian shipping lists, especially the hardstones, may originally have formed part of the collections assembled by French royalty, most notably the Grand Dauphin.


The striking Dauphin agate handle on the present ewer is extremely similar to the open-mouthed, leaping dolphin of the coat-of-arms of the Dauphin of France, an emblem repeatedly seen in hardstone objects known to have belonged to Louis, the Grand Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. The Grand Dauphin formed an extraordinary treasury of hardstone objects of jasper, agate, rock crystal and lapis-lazuli. These had been purchased predominantly from Parisian dealers between 1681 and 1689, and were mounted in gold or silver-gilt, often enamelled and with small precious stones.

The ewer and basin, both with agate of the same fiery, volcanic natural colourings, were likely carved in northern Italy during the period when the Grand Dauphin was collecting most abundantly in the 1680s. Of the Grand Dauphin's collection that went to Spain (see below) at least seven of the hardstone objects, of rock crystal and cornelian, have been recently attributed to the Milanese craftsman Giovanni Battista Metellino (d. 1724) or placed in his workshop. These include a rock crystal salt cellar in the form of a dolphin, which is mounted with silver bands similar to those on the present ewer. Another of these objects attributed to Metellino is a rock crystal vase carved with a lobed oval basin, baluster stem and oval spreading base also highly comparable in form to the present ewer (Prado Museum Website [accessed 03 June 2015]). A rock crystal cup by Metellino, which was acquired by August the Strong and is now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, also has a deep gadrooned basin and an open mouthed dolphin handle (inv. V 312).

A drawing of 1702 by Nicolas Ambroise Cousinet of a silver Pot à Oille owned by Louis XIV (illustrated in Institut Culturel Suédois, Hôtel de Marle, Paris 'Versailles à Stockholm', exh.cat., September-October 1985, pp. 183-4), with a similarly designed Dauphin handle further exemplifies that such symbolic ornament was in favour with Louis XIV and his son.

When the Grand Dauphin died in 1711 the Treasury was divided - his second son the King of Spain inherited one fifth of the collection, while his two other sons inherited one sixth of the collection, and the rest was auctioned at Meudon in July 1711 to settle the huge debts he had accumulated. It is therefore entirely possible that several pieces from the Royal Treasury sold at Meudon resurfaced during the Revolutionary sales.


The superbly chased mounts, executed by a master ciseleur, are designed in the unusual 'arabesque' style, and are likely the work of Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1833). Thomire was the most important Parisian manufacturer of gilt bronzes at the turn of the century. He studied sculpture at the Academy of Saint-Luc, where his talent was noted by Houdon. He was apprenticed to Pierre Gouthière and was received as maître-fondeur in 1772. As well as Gouthière he worked for Prieur, before opening his own atelier in 1776. The use and style of the classically-inspired sphinxes and the characterisation of the faces of the tritons can be seen in comparable work by Thomire from this period (M. Ottomeyer & P. Pröschel, Vergoldete Bronzen: Bronzearbeiten des Spätbarock und Klassizismus, Munich, 1986, vol. II, pp. 657-665; J. Niclausse, Thomire, Fondeur-Ciseleur (1751-1843) Sa Vie - Son Oeuvre, Paris, 1947, pls. 10-12 and 19).
In the 1780s Marie Antoinette revived the royal tradition of collecting and mounting precious hardstones that had been started by Louis XIV and the Grand Dauphin. The mounting of the present agate ewer and basin with ormolu in the neo-classical style would have been to this particular taste she advanced. She displayed pieces from Louis XIV’s Gemmes de la Couronne, together with extraordinary works of semi-precious stones that she commissioned, in her private apartments at Versailles, such as an ormolu-mounted bloodstone cup, mounted in Paris circa 1785, which has a foot with four sphinxes and spirally twisted supports of similar design to the present mounts and connected to Thomire’s oeuvre (Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, Royal Treasures from the Louvre: Louis XIV to Marie-Antoinette, 17 November 2012 – 31 March 2013, M. Chapman ed., p. 155).

The description of the mounts in the 1801 sale catalogue as non doré suggests that the mounts were unfinished in 1801. It is unlikely that they were purposefully left ungilded. This leaves the possibility that the ciseleur-doreur responsible had not completed the work in 1801. Alongside the agate ewer and basin, the 1801 sale catalogue featured paintings and furnishings of the latest fashion at the end of the 18th Century. This suggests that the owner was someone recently enriched who had been active in the Revolutionary sales in Paris, such as a vente biens d'émigrés (for example the duc de Choiseul-Praslin, 1793) or vente biens nationaux, and therefore could have come from the French Royal collections, passed down from the Grand Dauphin. Stylistically the mounts date from around the Louis XVI period, and the mounts may have remained unfinished due to an unwillingness to spend money on gilding in the midst of the uncertainty and turmoil of the Revolution. The sale of the recently assembled collection in 1801 indicates that the owner faced sudden financial difficulties. This gives another possible explanation for the lack of gilding; the collector may not have had the funds available to pay for the work before he was compelled to sell. By the time of the Russian shipping lists of circa 1807 the mounts are still described as 'bronze' . However as other objects on the list with gilt-bronze mounts, such as the lapis-lazuli tazza, were described in the same fashion, it is possible that the mounts for the ewer and basin had been gilded by this time.


Alongside the agate ewer and basin, the Russian shipping lists of circa 1807 record a number of ormolu or gold-mounted hardstone objects of such extraordinarily rich taste and distinguished historical associations that would suggest that Hamilton was either presented with them as a diplomatic gift en bloc, or that he purchased them en bloc from an imperial or aristocratic schatzkammer. A number of the objects on these lists have now been identified:

- La Cassolette de Lapis Lazuli monté en bronze is an ormolu-mounted lapis lazuli tazza, almost certainly mounted by the same ciseleur-doreur, and was also sold to Christopher Beckett Denison in the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale, and was also at Elton Hall from 1885, and by descent, until included for sale at Christie's, London, 2 December 2014, lot 86.
- Benitier de Charlemagne is a Byzantine gold-mounted sardonyx tazza that Hamilton believed to be the holy water stoup of the Emperor Charlemagne. This was one of six outstanding items bought by Alfred de Rothschild shortly before the Hamilton Palace sale of 1882, and was recently accepted in lieu by the National Museums of Scotland from the estate of the late Edmund de Rothschild, and is considered the single most valuable object in their collections.
- 2 Coupes d'Agathe monté a dragons are the Mughal jade drinking cup and agate bowl also sold from the collection of Edmund de Rothschild at Sotheby’s, London, 7 October 2009, lot 117. The Mughal jade bowl was inlaid with the arms of Navarre. In 1572 Henry III of Navarre became Henry IV of France and thereafter the Crown of Navarre was united with the kingdom of France. From 1600 through to 1830 the French Kings continued to use the title of King of Navarre.
-The Grande Coffre Chinois d'Anne d'Autriche interweaves another link to the French crown as Anne of Austria (1601-1666) was queen consort of France and Navarre, and Regent for her son, Louis XIV. This is possibly identifiable with one of the two Cardinal Mazarin Japanese lacquer coffers that were included in the Hamilton Palace sale; one of these is known to have been bought directly for Beckford by the marchand-mercier D'Arnault at the duc de Bouillon's sale, 20-21 July 1800. The Fonthill coffer, included as lot 573 in the 1823 Fonthill sale, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (D. Ostergard et al., William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, Bard, 2001, no. 55, pp. 222-224). A slightly larger example, known as the Lawrence chest, emerged at auction in France in 2013 and is now in the Rijksmuseum.
- The vase de la Duchesse de Kingston is untraced but relates to Elizabeth, the Duchess of Kingston and Hull (1720-1788), who was convicted of bigamy after the death of her husband and fled to the continent in disgrace. She managed to keep her immense fortune and in 1777 travelled to St Petersburg. Hoping to gain favour with Catherine the Great, she lavished gifts upon the Empress, including magnificent English silver which today remains in the Hermitage. The reference to her is interesting as it provides another link to the Russian Imperial Collections.
- The 2 Piedestaux de Lapis-Lazuli oriental avec deux figures en Bronze par Kozlowski, although untraced, also point to a Russian source for the assembled schatzkammer. Mikhail Ivanovich Kozlovsky (1763-1802) was a Russian sculptor working in St Petersburg who was patronised by the Russian Imperial family and Court. He was asked by Count Stroganov to provide designs for the State (Stroganov) bronze factory with the architect A.N. Voronikhin.

The superlative collections ultimately gathered at Hamilton Palace by 1882 - as a result of both Hamilton's and his friend William Beckford's inheritances - led one commentator to describe it as 'One of the noblest residences in Europe.. and probably containing a greater collection of rare works of art than the abode of any man under the rank of sovereign..'.


There are a number of possibilities as to how the agate ewer and basin travelled from Paris in 1801 to St Petersburg circa 1807. The majority of the objects on Hamilton's Russian Lists are likely to have been purchased in Paris at the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century. Hamilton did not receive a significant financial inheritance until his marriage to William Beckford’s daughter, Susan Euphemia, in 1810 and his succession to the Hamilton Dukedom in 1819. If he did not acquire them himself, the objects could have been acquired by his enormously wealthy friend William Beckford and then given to Hamilton. Many of the objects on the list directly appealed to Beckford's taste. Both Hamilton and Beckford suffered from extreme collecting mania. Hamilton was buying for Beckford, both on commission and speculatively and vice-versa and they each ‘swapped’, shared or gifted items – including some of the porcelain later brought back from Russia that was then given or sold on to Beckford. They could also have been purchased by a Russian collector from a marchand-mercier, such as Julliot in Paris, and then sent back to St. Petersburg. If it was the latter, it would explain the various Russian connections to objects included in the shipping lists. A group of such expense and rarity could only have been afforded by a collector of princely means, who would have presented it to Hamilton as a diplomatic gift.


Christie's dispersal of the Hamilton Palace Collection was amongst the greatest auctions of furniture and works of art ever held. Conducted in London between 17 June and 20 July 1882, the sale comprised 2,213 lots, including Old Master paintings, Japanese lacquer, tapestries, coins, medals, Greek vases, Renaissance bronzes and medieval works of art, Islamic glass, Limoges enamels, arms and armour, as well as European and Oriental ceramics and the finest French furniture much of it of royal provenance, and precious hardstones. The ewer and basin, as well as the lapis lazuli tazza also included on the Russian list, were purchased in the Hamilton Palace sale by Christopher Beckett Denison, who sold them shortly afterwards in 1885; in his sale both lots were then purchased by William, 5th Earl of Carysfort, and recorded in a manuscript of his purchases for that year (illustrated left).

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