Skip to content
A trio of French Empire gilt bronzes from the Napoleonides series by Martin-Guillaume Biennais sold for $40,000 at Stair Galleries.

Trio of French Empire gilt bronzes by Napoleon’s goldsmith roared to $51K at Stair

HUDSON, N.Y. – Spotted in a regular Thursday Morning at Stair sale, a trio of French Empire gilt bronzes by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, Napoleon’s goldsmith, sold far above expectations on January 15. After just six bids, they hammered for $40,000 ($51,200 with buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $800-$1,200.

Stair Galleries’ cataloging was brief but, as indicted by the engraved signatures to the bases reading Biennais Orfre de LL. MM. Imp. et Roi a Paris (Biennais, goldsmith to their Imperial and Royal Majesties in Paris), these were made in the workshop of the Imperial goldsmith and bronzier Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843). He took advantage of the abolition of the guild system during the Revolution to build a business ‘at the sign of the Singe Violet’ in Paris that at its Napoleonic peak employed some 200 craftsmen making luxury goods of all kinds.

Although offered as a garniture, the models are part of set of 28 different ormolu busts known as the Napoleonides. Made circa 1808-1810, each features a different member of the Napoleonic family raised on a crested square section or cylindrical plinth. They may have been made as diplomatic gifts and distributed in the territories where Napoleon – the ultimate nepotist – had given his family positions of great power.

The two persons depicted here are Napoleon himself (seen to the right) and his youngest brother Jerome Bonaparte (1784-1860), king of Westphalia from 1807 to 1813, whose head and shoulders top both the plinth to the left and the clock case.

Busts from the Biennais Napoleonides series make occasional saleroom appearances, most frequently in France, where they can sell for upwards of €10,000 (about $10,500) depending on subject matter. Some of the models are known in only small numbers. Only six depictions of Caroline Bonaparte, queen of Naples, are recorded, one of which sold at Ivoire in Paris in January 2022 for €40,000 (about $43,500).

The 12in (30cm) clock case, with movement by Henri Fort of Paris, is particularly scarce. No other examples have been offered in recent memory, although another with the bust of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, is in the collection of the Fondation Napoléon in Paris.