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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Good Things Come in Pairs: Artisan Blades

It's not all guns here at Rock Island Auction Company.  As many of you are already aware, RIAC also sells a great number of edged weapons and military artifacts from various eras.  From Japanese swords and full samurai suits of armor to the weapons and armor of medieval Europe, RIAC has been extremely fortunate to welcome historic, fascinating, and exceedingly well preserved items from centuries past.  This week in the "Good Things Come in Pairs" series will examine two bladed weapons that are as historical as they are beautiful - and that's no easy task.  Each of them is a masterpiece, exhibiting stunning craftsmanship and a wondrous attention to detail.

This brilliant dagger was once a gift to Adalbert Ferdinand Berengar Viktor of Prussia by his mother Kaiserin (Empress) Auguste "Dona" Victoria, who was wed to his father, Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Adalbert was the third son of the last German monarch.  He was inducted into the Imperial Navy at the age of 10 by his father, mostly as a publicity/propaganda stunt.  However, in the 20-year span from 1894 until the start of the Great War, the young man dedicated himself well and achieved the rank of Kapitanliutenant while serving aboard the SMS Kaiser.  He made a name for himself not only as a soldier, but also as a womanizer, which Kaiser Wilhelm II frowned upon greatly.  Adalbert, a married man, was banished from the house and never again saw his father alive.  Following the monarchy's destruction after World War I, he went into exile in neutral Switzerland where he would spend the rest of his life until his death in 1948, nearly seven years after his father.

The dagger is said to be a gift from Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, his mother, upon his "official" entry into the Imperial Navy (as opposed to his ceremonial entrance at age 10).  Meant to be a companion piece to his naval uniform dagger, it had to have both a military feel as well as be fit for a prince to wear as a display piece.  Thankfully, not being a part of the official naval uniform, the dagger was not subject to its rigorous standards.

That said, the dagger is exquisitely made in its every detail.  The dagger is 18 1/2" long in total with a 13" Damascus blade, the manufacturer etched into the spine and a bold, interlocked "AV" gold inlaid on one side, signifying "Auguste Victoria," the presenter.  The other side holds a gold inlaid "A" for Adelbert.  The hilt and grip are an impressive gold plated brass depicting a feather pattern, a clamshell languet, and two raptor's legs serving as the quillions.  The pommel (shown above) is a single piece of green jade carved to make a falcon's head two inches in height.  The detail in the feathers is incredible and the eyes are inlaid glass.  Regarding the jade falcon head, our official description says it best,

"Out of all the decoration of the dagger, this pommel merits the greatest amount of curiosity. A significant deviation from traditional German edged weapon design, the jade falcon head stands as a unique item among the blades auctioned by this firm; while three-dimensional animal head motifs are often seen (for instance, the traditional lion head on German martial sabers) they are traditionally rendered in a single piece with the rest of the grip hardware. Additionally, jade in this color is a scarce item which would need to be sourced overseas."

The scabbard is also of exceptional quality and craftsmanship with its handsome brown leather sheath plus gold plated throat and tip each engraved to mimic the reptilian skin of a falcon's legs.

Historic Tiffany & Co. 1852 Pattern Naval Officer Sword, Inscribed to the Executive Officer of the Union Experimental Ironclad Gunboat Naugatuck

When people think of the "ironclads" during the U.S. Civil War, their memory often turns to the indecisive yet alliterative "Monitor v. Merrimack" naval battle. While the USS Monitor is the first ironclad commissioned by the Union Navy, it was certainly not the first ironclad ever. In fact, the demand for iron-hulled ships increased dramatically after the utilization of the shell-firing cannon. Shells could penetrate any amount of wood that could be practically used on a ship, so other methods of defense were necessary. Also, plating ships in iron wasn't feasible until steam power became available as well, since wind borne ships would struggle to move the great weight. The French, fighting in the Crimean War, were the first to develop ironclads, shells, and rifled cannons, but those innovations would soon quickly spread to Britain.

The Naugatuck was not originally designed as an ironclad warship, but merely as a "proof of concept" vehicle set to prove three things, 1) that a naval ship could be quickly lowered and raised by use of interior ballasts, 2) that turning and propulsion could be achieved by twin screw propellers, and 3) that recoil of the ship's guns could be more easily managed by using rubber.  Originally, the Naugatuck was a simple steamship that its developers bought to adapt and use as a prototype for their final design, the "Stevens Battery."

Naugatuck could lower itself 2 feet in the water, which kept the steam machinery below deck underneath the waterline, thus protecting it from enemy shells and shot.  Its hull may have been all iron, but the only true armor was a 18" tall angled band of iron which circumnavigated the main deck.  Not much, but then again, this was a proof of concept, not a fully commissioned warship.  Upon the start of the Civil War, the ship was offered by its developers, Robert and Edwin Stevens, to the Navy, but the Navy declined the unproven prototype.  The Naugatuck was then donated to the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service and served outside Hampton Roads, up the James River to harass Richmond, VA by sea,  outside New York City to guard the city's harbor, and later to patrol North Carolina's inland sounds.  She would eventually be sold to again be a merchant vessel in 1889.  Her most famous action was the Battle of Drewry's Bluff, when she used her 100-pound Parrott Rifle and 2 x 12-pound howitzers against the Confederate fort there.  One of the only ships capable of elevating her guns high enough to hit the fort, Naugatuck performed nobly and her innovations were a success.

At sometime aboard this noted ironclad was Executive Officer J.M. Rosse, who was presented this fine and superbly decorated sword.  We know this thanks to the engraving close to the throat of the scabbard which reads, "From Col M.D. Myers to his friend J.M. Rosse, Executive Officer U.S. Steamer Naugatuck, June 12, 1865," which radiates around an engraving of the icon for a high level Royal Arch Mason and Knight Templar of the Sylvan Chapter.  The sword as a whole is magnificent, measuring over 34" long with patriotic and naval themes etched into its nearly 29" blade.  The gold plated hilt is striking in both its luminous golden color and its sculpture.  It is decorated liberally with oak leaves, acorns, vines, and sea serpents.  The silver plated brass grip is bound with copper wire wrap and is also capped with a gold plated pommel.

The scabbard is also remarkable with attractive engraving, bright gilded hardware, and aesthetic sculpted anchor that seems to be wrapping itself around the suspension bands.  The tip is similarly adorned with a sea serpent wrapped around a trident engraved onto even more gilded metal ending in an anchor/rope motif.

Regardless of their respective countries of origin, these blades are from another time.  A time when craftsmanship was journey that took a lifetime, when you could honor someone with the gift of a fine weapon, and when blades were still a viable threat on the battlefield.  While tactics and arms may have changed, the appreciation for outstanding quality, stunning beauty, and the shimmer of gold have certainly not faded away.

These items and those of their kind will always have a place at Rock Island Auction Company.  Search out listings today and see for yourself.  Whether you seek gold plating, master engraving, shining silver, artistic etchings, precious metals, excellent condition, historic significance, or something that simply elicits a "Wow," you'll find it at RIAC.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Good Things Come in Pairs: Artisan Pistol Sets

If you've been reading articles in the last month, you know that Rock Island Auction Company has been taking a closer look at pairs of items appearing in its September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.  These are not necessarily items that will be sold as pairs, but rather items that are served well by being juxtaposed.  Today's pair, is actually a pair of pairs - two beautiful pairs of artisan pistols to be exact.  Each one made by a noted artisan and master in his own right.

Nicolas-Nöel Boutet was an 18th & 19th century Parisian gunsmith whose resume could not sound more accomplished: Director Artiste of Versaille Manufactory, Gunsmith (Arquebusier) to King Louis XVI and Emporer Napoleon, and generally recognized as one of, if not the, greatest artist in the history of firearms.  Born as the son of the royal gunsmith Boutet seems to have been destined for his greatness. This master craftsman and artist forever changed the realm of high art in firearms creation. In 1818, when the factory closed, he had in excess of 800 workers who helped create works of art from solid steel, luminous gold, and sheets of solid silver.
These pistols were made prior to 1804 and exhibit clear evidence of Napoleon Bonapart's conquest of Egypt in 1798.  They display wondrously carved depictions of griffins, sphinx, caduceus, swords, lyre, and what could be a Masonic "all seeing eye" or perhaps was a representation of the Egyptian "Eye of Horus" so commonly seen in hieroglyphics.  The wood carving is an exhibition of Grenoble walnut inlaid with ebony and overlaid with high raised relief carved and polished boxwood.  It's not often that engravings will take a back seat to the grips, but these pistols certainly make their case.  Mixed carved woods on pistol grips is an innovation that was performed solely by Versailles studios and these pistols are among the finest examples known.  The engraving is also delicately performed and depicts a variety of subjects such as a stern looking dog bearing antlers, urns with fruit, the mythical head of a harvest deity, a rooster between two cannon balls, and a horned devil.  The trigger plates are given full treatment as well, showing scenes of beautiful, toga-draped goddesses framed in their own panel scenes, and even the screws, barrels, and push on safeties have been engraved.

These are stunning pieces made even more attractive by their case.  Most pistol sets are laid on their side, head-to-toe inside their case, in an effort to save space.  Empty space is then filled with the various posh accessories.  This set of pistols is quite unique as its case houses them resting vertically.  Boutet designed other lavish pistol cases in such a way, one of which is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this style is still dwarfed by what could be called the "standard" case design.  In addition to its uncommon design is the superb craftsmanship of the original case, with its gold bullion ribbon and its original accessories.  Whether Boutet was manufacturing military arms or presentation pieces for kings, his firearms exuded the utmost in form and craftsmanship with nary a detail overlooked.

A set of dueling or traveler's pistols is almost always impressive.  First, to survive several hundred years to the present day in any kind of desirable condition is a feat in and of itself.  Second, many cased sets that have survived were instantly recognizable as something to be saved due to their dramatic presentation and detailed embellishments.  This set of pistols would certainly fit the bill.  The manufacturer is unknown, though they are certainly European.  The only name on the pistols is the signature "Jean Jaley" on the lock plate near the frizzen spring.

A simple internet search reveals Jean Jaley to be a French sculptor who lived from 1802-1866.  After studying under his father Louis Jaley, an engraver, Jean purportedly sculpted for every major state building project of the July Monarchy and the Second Empire.  He sculpted numerous people of importance of that French era and for several churches, but has received some contemporary renown for his female nudes that were a regular exhibit at the Salon.

This pair of pistols is clearly the creation of a master craftsman and artisan.  Beginning with the metals and their delicate gold inlays, one can still see touches of the original black finish which would have matched the ebony wood and made the gold inlays stand out so much as to nearly jump off the gun.  Today, the metal still offers an attractive coin finish and holds much of the original gold.  The floral pattern engraving hides a cherub or two and extends down the barrel, the frizzen, hammer, and even the lock plate.  It is stunning work, but arguably what often captures most observers' first glance are the carved ebony butts.  Without delving into the difficulty and skill required to carve this very hard wood, the stocks feature grotesque beasts snarling and bearing their teeth.  They eyes appear to be pearl, giving them a life-like shine, while the teeth appear to be made of bone or antique ivory.  The pistols deserve more coverage than can be offered here in the interest of brevity.  From the ornate lock plates, engraved trigger guards, silver escutcheons, and more, every surface has been considered in these pistols' design.   No detail was overlooked in the creation of these phenomenal and ominous pistols.

To show just two pairs of these European marvels seems unfair, especially when considering how many will be appearing in our September 2014 Premiere Firearms Auction.  To help remedy that, one of the first videos we've posted on YouTube for this auction will show even more cased, masterfully crafted pistol sets.  Some are extravagant and others utilize a more understated elegance, but all are certain to draw ample attention and find well-deserved places in what will undoubtedly be accomplished collections.