Global notice COVID-19 Important notice
3 More
6 More


Inset overall with rock crystal cabochons and panels; the hinged lid opening to reveal a later and probably English silk-covered mahogany loose base; the sides embellished with pairs of spiral rock crystal columns with Corinthian capitals, on six gilt-wood feet; the underside with paper label inscribed ‘Art Treasures Exhibition/ WREXHAM, 1876./ D. of Westminster/ Eaton Hall Proprietor.’
15 3/8 in. (39.2 cm.) wide; 11 ½ in. (29.5 cm.) high; 11 1/3 in. (28.7 cm.) deep
Traditionally Pope Paul V Borghese (1550-1621), with an identical pendant casket.
William Beckford (1760-1844; both caskets), possibly acquired through the agent Gregorio Franchi in Italy.
Acquired by John Farquhar, as part of the contents of Fonthill Abbey; and sold, Phillips, The Unique and Splendid Effects of Fonthill Abbey, 1823, lots 1142 and 1143.
Both caskets purchased by Robert Hume at the above sale on behalf of Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor (1767-1845; later 1st Marquess of Westminster).
By descent until at least 1878 when they were loaned by Hugh, 1st Duke of Westminster (1825-1899), to the Midland Counties Art Museum in the Castle, Nottingham.
Probably purchased by Baron Gustave de Rothschild (1829-1911), and by descent.
Magnificent effects at Fonthill Abbey, Wilts: to be sold by auction by Mr. Christie: on the premises, 4 Oct. 1822, lot 101 or 102.
J. Rutter, Delineations of Fonthill and Its Abbey, London, 1823, p. 29.
H. Huth, Lacquer of the West: The History of a Craft and an Industry, 1550-1950, Chicago, 1971.
London, Victoria and Albert Museum, Splendours of the Gonzaga, 1981-1982, no. 213.
P. Hewat-Jaboor et al., William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, London, 2001, p. 375.
Art Treasures Exhibition of North Wales & the Borders, Wrexham, 1876, number 1263 (with its pendant); 'Two crystal coffers, the framework of wood, richly damascened with minute gold arabesques and panels of rock crystal with twisted crystal columns at the corners. Italian work, 16th century.'
Possibly exhibition of Pictures and Objects in the Midland Counties Art Museum, The Castle, Nottingham, 1878, , number 10 (or its pendant); 'Casket, composed of crystal, and wood covered with gold lacquer, with diaper decorations. Italian, 16th century.'

Brought to you by

Paul Gallois
Paul Gallois

Check the condition report or get in touch for additional information about this

Condition report

If you wish to view the condition report of this lot, please sign in to your account.

Sign in
View condition report

Lot Essay

The present casket is one of a recognised group of such rock crystal caskets which are thought to have been produced in Venice in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Although it is assumed that caskets of this type were used for a variety of reasons, such as reliquaries or jewel boxes, they are traditionally said to have been used to house costly baby linen blessed by the pope and given by him to leading European Catholic families on the birth of a male heir.

Evidence for the existence of such caskets in Venice in the late 16th century comes from at least two sources. One is from the historian Francesco Sansovino who wrote a history of Venice in 1581. He describes visiting the shop of the jeweller Antonio Maria Fontana where he saw 'a very large crystal casket made in such a way that the things that are placed inside appear carved from the outside' ('una cassa di cristallo molto grande fatta di modo che le cose che si ripongono dentro appariscano tutti scolpiti di fuori'; quoted in Huth, op. cit., p. 8). The second source is a sixteenth century painting formerly in the collection of Lord Cowper at Panshanger. A variant of Titian's portrait of his daughter Lavinia, the painting depicts her holding aloft a closely comparable casket in place of the bowl of fruit in Titian's original composition.

Huth examines the role that such caskets may have played and points out that several of the extant examples are said to have been papal gifts. In particular, a casket formerly in the collection of the Duc de Mouchy is traditionally said to have been used to house baby linen sent by Pope Urban VIII on the birth of Henri IV. In fact, it is known that such a gift was sent in 1601 to Marie de' Medici, the wife of Henri IV, on the occasion of the birth of Louis XIII. It is easy to see how the story might have been confused in the intervening years.
This story relates to a longstanding tradition of such linen - or fascie - being blessed by the pope and sent as diplomatic gifts to princely Catholic houses on the birth of a male heir. The first documented example took place in the same year as the example described above, 1601, when Pope Clement VIII sent a coat of silver cloth, and a blanket of silver cloth embroidered with an image of the Holy Manger to Queen Margaret of Spain on the birth of her son. Clearly these costly garments, blessed by the pope, were precious, and required a similarly extravagant container. The gilded casket with crystal panels that would allow the silver garments to be seen was clearly the perfect solution.

The present casket was originally one of a pair which must have been separated in the late 19th or early 20th century. However, in the early 19th century both caskets belonged to the collector and author William Beckford, possibly acquired on the continent through his agent Gregorio Franchi. With their lavish use of rock crystal and their Islamic-inspired lacquer decoration it is easy to see how they would have appealed to Beckford. In addition, when the caskets were eventually sold in the celebrated Fonthill Abbey sale of 1823, they were said to have come from the collection of Pope Paul V Borghese (reigned 1605-1621), who could have commissioned them himself. The caskets were purchased at the Fonthill sale by an agent on behalf of the 2nd Earl Grosvenor. They remained in the collection until at least 1878 when one of the pair was loaned by the 1st Duke of Westminster to the Midland Counties Art Museum in Nottingham. It is unclear when they were acquired by the Rothschild family but subsequent to their purchase they were separated in the family. The pendant casket eventually ended up in the collection of Baron Guy de Rothschild and was sold in 1975 (Sotheby’s Monaco 25-26 May, lot 157). It is now in the Hanns Schell Collection, in Graz, Austria.

More from Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection

View All
View All