Decorative Sevres boxes open a world of possibilities
NEW YORK — One can never have too many boxes, especially when considering Sevres porcelain dresser, jewelry and trinket boxes. It’s always worth it to make room, somehow, somewhere, for another of these exquisite, functional antique works of decorative art.
Ranging in size from a generous 11 by 5in to tiny examples measuring but a few inches, these lavishly decorated boxes gained prominence when having a home safe was not that common. Larger dresser boxes were used for storing important papers and objects and even jewelry. Historically, they would sit on a lady’s vanity and collect the small dressing accessories she relied on, such as hairpins, powders and in some cases, the hair that came off her hairbrush after a vigorous nightly brushing session.
Dresser boxes, both large and small, come in many forms and styles, from wood to silver and porcelain. Within the last category, Sevres examples are the cream of the crop. The Sevres Porcelain Manufactory, which began operations in the French town of Vincennes in 1740 and settled into a larger space at Sevres 16 years later, became the most illustrious and prolific porcelain manufacturer in Europe in the late 18th century.
In its early days, the company benefited from royal patronage by King Louis XV and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. The firm’s move from Vincennes to Sevres was said to be at her request so that it would be closer to her country home. Only the well-to-do could afford Sevres porcelain boxes, as they were closer to works of art than mere decorative objects.
The company had a large team of painters and an even larger variety of styles that would be painted onto its porcelain boxes, vases and urns. Of note is a large Sevres porcelain box that achieved $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Antiques Online Auctions. The 6¾ by 15⅞ by 11⅝in-box was dedicated to Lady Caperton by the Directorate of the Port of Montevideo, Uruguay in 1918. Her husband, Admiral William Banks Caperton of the United States Navy, undertook what was called a “visit of friendship” to Montevideo that spring. His duties as a Pacific Fleet commander were to guard the waters off eastern South America during World War I to look out for German raiders.
The box sports small landscape scenes on its side panels. On the top of its hinged lid is a near copy of Jean-Baptiste Greuzeca’s circa-1761 painting The Marriage Contract. Sevres was already well known for copying contemporary and earlier artworks when in 1800, it shifted its focus to picturing so-called “fragile” famous paintings on its offerings to make these works of art more accessible to a wider audience. The Caperton box, as with nearly all Sevres pieces, features the company’s signature blue background color known as a bright blue de roi (king’s blue).
Most Sevres porcelain boxes are rectangular, square, round or of bombe form. An exception is an unusual fan-shape Sevres box with a hand-painted scene of a well-dressed family in a parlor or drawing room. Boasting extensive gilt decoration in relief, the box realized $4,250 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022 at Akiba Galleries. The mid-19th-century box, measuring 3½ by 13½ by 10in, has a padded interior, indicating it was probably made for storing jewelry.
On occasion, a Sevres object might have an undecorated white background, referred to as “biscuit,” instead of the familiar blue color. A fine example is a very large Sevres dresser box that earned $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Echoes Antiques & Auction Gallery, Inc. The box is signed Musy-Torino for the father-son artisans based in Turin, Italy. The floral decoration on this box is a common style motif for Sevres, which was well known for its complex yet delicate decoration that spanned landscapes and floral designs to scenes from art and history.
At some point, possibly during the Edwardian era or a little earlier, legs became fashionable on these boxes, as evidenced by a circa-1880 ormolu-mounted Sevres box signed by French cabinet maker Alphonse Giroux. The box, which had a pink porcelain background and retained its original key, brought $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Louvre Antique Auction.
Undulating and curved edges were also in style around this time. A large 19th-century jewelry box, measuring 10 by 4½in, went for $2,750 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Auction Plus, Inc. The box depicts a tender scene of a man playing a lute, perhaps trying to woo the woman with him, who is reading a book while seated under a tree. The scene was painted by artist Claire Maglin Rochette, who worked at Sevres in the late 19th century.
Lifestyles have changed much since Sevres first made these decorative boxes. Space-saving jewelry armoires have assumed the task of holding the abundance of jewelry and trinkets owned by the average person. Quality and elegance are always in style, however, and a well-placed Sevres porcelain box, perhaps holding a passport, a set of keys, a remote control or a few special whatchamacallits, makes a beautiful addition to any room.