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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.

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