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Exhibition of 18th-century gold boxes from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on view at LACMA
James Cox, Automaton Snuffbox and Watch, 1766-1772. Gold, moss agate, glass, clockwork mechanism, and enameled watch dial, 2 x 3 1/8 x 2 5/8 in.

By: Dr. Rosie Mills

LOS ANGELES, CA.- "So small a thing imposes on people,” remarked the notorious Giacomo Girolamo Casanova (1725-1798), who also carefully selected the type of tobacco to send inside such boxes when he presented them as gifts. Taking snuff and carrying it with you in an elaborate container was a universal practice in 18th-century Europe. A year before the death of the Elector of Cologne, one of the most powerful men in Europe at the time, Casanova had been given a snuffbox decorated with the Elector’s portrait. Going incognito to the Ridotto (the famous gambling halls of Venice), it was important that Casanova use an accessory he had not been seen with before. However, the very distinctive gold box with the Elector’s portrait eventually betrayed him when a former lover remembered it.

You yourself may recognize some of the gold boxes on view at LACMA through March 1, 2015. Carefully collected by Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert in Los Angeles, they are here on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Designed to carry just a small amount of powdered tobacco, the fine decorations of these pocket-sized containers have to be examined close up. The proximity of the viewing experience makes it very personal, intensifies the response, and can be a powerful experience when shared. Even today, a common reaction when examining them is wonderment, but these complex objects also have the potential to spark a wide range of emotions. Infinitely customizable, gold boxes became the most versatile form of gift in the 18th century.

Unlike the cups of precious metal that continue to lend themselves to specific types of acknowledgment such as loyalty of service or achievements in sport, these portable presents made it possible to communicate a spectrum of sentiments in a variety of social situations. While the double snuffbox covered with maps detailing maneuverings in the Seven Years' War was probably made in Berlin or among the Prussian allies, other examples are less readily attributable to one side of the conflict. The same imagery would have been understood as a political statement and demonstration of allegiance by participants on either side.

Elite production of the flashiest boxes was controlled by Frederick II, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, who banned imports from France (the unrivalled center of production at the time) “for the best [interest] of the gold workers in Berlin.” He presented some of his lavish commissions to courtiers and other sovereigns, and the local industry flourished under his patronage. Frederick’s personal enjoyment of these intensely bejeweled trinkets, and appreciation for their artistry, inspired him to engage with the manual process of designing them himself. Often the precious metal of the boxes is marked, revealing the places, names, and sometimes dates attached to their making and circulation. However, the designers, royal or otherwise, upon whose creativity all gold snuffboxes depend, cannot be as readily identified. A design on paper signed “Choffard fecit 1759” for a box bearing the mark of maker Jean Ducrollay, is the great exception. However, we have very little information about Pierre-Philippe Choffard as a man or an artist.

Tantalizing details are a major characteristic of gold boxes, and eccentric examples have captivated many onlookers through their puzzling appearance. Like other curious objet d’art, such as the elephant supported musical vanity box (called a nécessaire), some snuffboxes were more than just containers. In the form of gadgets or figurines, they beg to be picked up and turned over in the hand. For example, a delicate box imitating a wicker basket reveals (when the lid is lifted) a cornucopia of fruit painted to fool the eye.

You would have to travel to Strawberry Hill near London, the residence of Horace Walpole (1717–1797), to see a truly bizarre example of a snuffbox commissioned exclusively as a curiosity rather than a functional object. Exploiting the genre’s reputation for erudite encoding and connoisseurial delectation, it titillates through its command of wit. An elaborate ruse, it was conceived by the French patron of the arts Marie Anne de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du Deffand (1697–1780) as a fake declaration of love from a social rival of hers to Walpole, the fourth Earl of Orford and a famous English collector. Her good friend was completely taken in by the exquisite portrait-clad box containing a flattering letter, and he wrote to the marquise about the excitement it gave him. Although the prank was at his expense, he seems to have been rather tickled by the incident. In the introduction to the catalog of his private collections, he recounts the practical joke as an enticement to his readers.

There can be no joking about the significance of the display of gold snuffboxes in the Koenig Gallery. Nothing prepares you for the power of these petite and precious masterpieces of extraordinary design and making. To really understand their attraction, you must encounter the real thing. And once you do, you will have an insider’s view of the preoccupations and passions of 18th-century aristocrats as well as an admiration for the genius of the best makers and designers of the period. With their curious shapes, elaborate surfaces, and the intriguing thoughts they express, gold boxes are some of the most delightful objects ever made.

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