This fine nécessaire de bureau was commissioned by a member of the Imperial house of Austria at some point between 1864 and 1866, either as an engagement gift or an intended wedding present for the Archduchess Matilda of Austria on her marriage to Crown Prince Umberto of Savoy (King Umberto I of Italy from 1878). The couple were engaged in 1864 but, much to Matilda's chagrin, the union was broken off in April 1866 when the Italians signed an offensive alliance with the Prussians at the outbreak of the seven-week Austro-Prussian War. Although an armistice was signed on 12 August 1866, continued friction over the cession of Veneto to Italy by Austria did not bring about a reunion. Tragically, Matilda died in June the following year at the age of only 18, after suffering severe burns having reportedly trodden on and ignited a lucifer match. Given that her engagement to Umberto had been broken off, it is not certain whether this desk set was ever actually presented to her. However, after Matilda's death in 1867, it was retained by her father, Archduke Albrecht, and then appears to have followed a journey dictated by female descendants sharing Matilda's initial adorning the outside of the case.
Frédéric-Jules Rudolphi and Jules Wièse rank alongside François-Désiré Froment-Meurice as two of the outstanding representatives of the goldsmith's craft of French Romantic Historicism, which had been technically and stylistically shaped by Carl Wagner and Jacques-Henri Fauconnier during the 1820s and 30s.
Born in Copenhagen in 1808, Rudolphi studied in Vienna, Berlin and London, before settling in Paris in 1835. From 1840 he collaborated with Carl Wagner, taking over the latter's atelier on his premature death two years later. At the same time, he also collaborated with modellers, goldsmiths and engravers such as Geoffroy-Dechaume, Edouard Verraux and Jules and Alexandre Plouin. Rudolphi's work - a wide variety of caskets, nécessaires, pocket-watches, clocks, écritoires, daggers, swords, jewels and small items of furniture - was shown for the first time and awarded a gold medal at the 1844 Paris Exposition des Produits de l'Industrie française. Operating a retail business from premises at 23, boulevard des Capucines, and participating to acclaim in all of the major international exhibitions of the 1850s and 60s, Rudolphi attracted a distinguished clientele, among whom were European royalty, Turkish princes, and patrons from as far afield as India. His creations were particularly appreciated in England and between 1844 and 1855, no less than five pieces - three vases and two caskets - were acquired for the future Victoria and Albert Museum.
Having served an apprenticeship with the Berlin jeweller, Hossauer, Jules Wièse (d. 1890) moved to Paris and worked first with Jean-Valentin Morel and then, from 1839, with Froment-Meurice, with whom he remained until the latter's death in 1855. That same year, he exhibited under his own name for the first time at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Examples of his richly-mounted and enamelled jewellery were subsequently shown to acclaim at the 1862 London and 1867 Paris exhibitions.
Individual pieces by Rudolphi appear at auction relatively infrequently, emphasizing the rarity of this complete nécessaire de bureau. Influenced by the early 18th century Renaissance revival creations of the celebrated German goldsmith Melchior Dinglinger, the chased, enamelled and oxidised silver, semi-precious cabochons and baroque pearls illustrate the richness of materials that characterizes Rudolphi's best work and sets him apart from many of his contemporaries. Design elements of the present fine set may be found in other known pieces by Rudolphi: a profusion of enamelled vine leaves and baroque pearl 'grapes', together with similar figures to the Bacchic herm found on the paperweight, embellish a sumptuous pendule-écritoire acquired by the Louvre in 1999, whilst the grotesque bat-form feet of the porcelain tray may also be seen on a second pendule-écritoire acquired by the Louvre in the same year; a virtually identical enamelled paperknife was shown by Rudolphi at the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, and a small silver and agate coupe, featuring the same spear-wielding figure as found on the écritoire here, was sold Christie's London, 27 February 1997, lot 201 (£9,775).
In addition to the collaborative efforts of Jules Wièse, the set also includes porcelain decorated by Feuillet Neveu. One of the best decorators of the Restauration period, Feuillet set up business in 1817 and was specially appointed to the Prince de Condé and the Duc de Bourbon. From 1834 onwards, his nephew, 'Feuillet Neveu' was also in business as a decorator and painter of porcelain. The latter himself had a nephew, Hippolyte Manoury, who, continuing under the same name, succeeded his uncle in 1846 and was responsibile for the finely decorated tray and chamberstick in this set. It is also interesting to note that the trade of gainier, or case-maker, was sufficiently respected in mid-19th century France, that the firm of Garnier was able to emblazon its name across the lockplate of such an important commission.