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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Devilish Devisme Pistols

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes."

Halloween is a time of year with a history that stretches back for ages.  It is a special and even sacred occasion for many cultures.  While the origins are generally disputed as being either the Celtic festival of Samhain or the early Christian holiday of Allhallowtide, the traditions remain strong in today's culture.  Whether you find yourself celebrating Halloween, All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos, or just enjoying the tastes of the harvest season, the influence of these customs are undeniable.

Many of the traditions are centered around the belief that the worlds of the living and the dead come into close contact during this time of year.  Some cultures believe the dead can communicate with the living, and others believe that the dead or their spirits can walk the earth.  This common context exists as far back as the traditions themselves.  It is easy to imagine people creating this metaphoric connection between life and death as the green, living world around them, slowly turns brown and dark with the arrival of fall and winter.

Some cultures view this time of communication and remembrance very positively, using the opportunity to respect and honor their dead.  Others use it as a chance to mock death and rob it of the fear it often carries with it.  Some light candles or perform other rituals to guide the visiting spirits to their final resting place.  Whatever the tradition, it all stems back to a primary belief that spirits of some sort are more active or able to walk the earth during this time.  Sometimes, those spirits include demons or vengeful souls, which brings us to the subject of this week's article.

Lot 1142:  Magnificent Cased Pair of Devisme Percussion Exhibition Pistols with High Relief Chiseled Barrels and Heavy High Relief Cast and Chased Silver Mounts Featuring A Unique and Unprecedented Diabolic Theme

Demons, tormented spirits, poltergeists, devils, and Death himself are not uncommon characters this time of year.  Nor are they uncommon on this set of percussion pistols crafted by renowned Parisian gunmaker Jean-Louis Francois Devisme, who made some of the world's most artistic firearms for royalty, wealthy members of society, government officials, and high ranking military men.  Famous for his artistic talents, Devisme set the European gunmaking scene on fire, earning an Honorable Mention at the 1834 Exhibition, silver medals at the 1839 & 1841 Exhibitions, and numerous other medals at the  Expositions Universelles in years 1844, 1849, 1851, 1855, 1862, and 1867.  For over three decades he not only competed at the top of his art, but won regularly.  He accomplished this with meticulously crafted arms such as this immaculately crafted pair.

With so much detail appearing on these pistols, it is difficult to know where to begin, but beginning at one tip and ending at the other seems as good a method as any.  Let us begin with the buttcap: a superbly designed slab of silver that reflects a horned demon's face flanked on two sides by humans that appear to be growing from flowers.  On the bottom is a monkey or dog-faced creature's head hanging from a chain, and on the top is a bearded, crowned face with horns.  The picture at left is quite deceiving and makes the sculpture appear quite flat.  In person, it is quite a shock to see the center face protruding from the two men "holding" it by nearly an inch! The ebony stock is fluted and the areas framed by the flutes are smothered in berry laden vines, giving the appearance that the fluted areas are making a cage of sorts that contain a grip filled with vines.  Well, at least at first glance.  Upon a closer look, the vines on the sides contain the faces of demons' with protruding tongues, and the "backstrap" area has vines that form the head of a mythological griffin.

The trigger guards of these pistols are shown in detail in this article's first photograph.  Made of silver, these patterns are some of the most unique on the entire pistol.  On it are demonic faces with a bugler blowing into a horn that splits into two bells, and atop those split bugles is a demon whose horns curl into the bells of the bugles.  Extending toward the barrel, the ornamentation continues with a large devil or satyr holding two torches, the smoke of which forms the head of a beast.

The silver side plate also requires a second glance.  Initially appearing to be a grotesque face, flanked by vines and crests with more vines leading into its mouth, a second look at the incredible detail of these pistols reveals a much more interesting rendering.  The head in the center is flanked on each side by a nude, winged female form donning a sort of period headwear.  Typically we think of winged human figures as angels, but traditionally angels are depicted as male.  Also, in a true glimpse of the macabre, these angels' heads appear to be separated from their bodies.  Whether the thin strands of silver connecting their bodies to their head are meant to be elongated, whimsical necks, strands of hair, or even their spine or innards cannot be determined, but one thing is for certain.  If that strand is to be part of these "angels'" anatomy or hair, then the "vines" leading into the mouth of that devilish face are no longer vines - the face is eating them!  Contrasting heavily with this potentially disturbing imagery are flowers and one snail on each side of the mount.

Perhaps not coincidentally, all of these dark symbols and characters do not appear on the guns when they are sitting in their case..  Nor would they show on the outside of the gun if taken from the case, assuming the each hand grabs the handle closest to it.  These sinister scenes would only be seen by the person bearing the pistol.  The rest of the pistol, while extravagant and elaborately covered with presentation grade chisel work, gives no clue to said scenes.  The silver lock plate, facing out is beautiful and smothered in engravings of leaves, flowers, berries, and vines.  This motif continues to the hammer, barrel, barrel tang, and bolster.  The top flat of the octagonal barrel has highly ornate text that reads, "DEVISME A PARIS" which is so decorative it threatens to be unreadable without some effort expended by the reader.  Even the barrel wedge is carved and surrounded by an engraved escutcheon.  These are truly masterpiece firearms on par, and reminiscent of, the LePage shotgun sold by Rock Island Auction in May 2014.

The case is also stunning, with its beautiful high polished and beautifully grained wood, forest green velvet-type lining with, "DEVISME A PARIS" embossed in gold lettering.  What is not lined in green fabric is covered in a leather of the same shade with gold embossed floral vines.  Brass hardware is used throughout.  The tools are equally exceptional, with even the percussion cap container and its screw on lid hewn from ebony.  It is difficult to fathom the difficulty encountered when creating the threads for a screw-on lid out of a notoriously hard wood such as ebony.


Underside of the stock and barrel.

As if the gun weren't eerie enough in its design, it also has quite an eccentric owner in its provenance - King Farouk of Egypt.  No documentation is present to concretely connect the guns to this famous collector, only our consignor's assertion that these pistols were purchased from the original buyer of the pistols when King Farouk's collections were dispersed in 1954 in what is generally recognized the most significant sale of the 20th century.

If you don't know about King Farouk, here's the long and short of it.  The British set up an Egyptian monarchy in the 1920s after recognizing Egypt's independence, and the first king had been Fuad I, a former Sultan of Egypt & Sudan as well as a Sovereign of Nubia, Kurdufan & Darfur. His son, Farouk, succeeded him in 1936 at the tender age of 16. King Farouk, being a young man with unimaginable wealth at his fingertips, did what almost anyone imagines themselves doing in a similar scenario - spending it.  Yes, Farouk lived the lavish life.  He was a noted partier and gambler, though he later become known for his appetite.  Stories exist from his own sister of Farouk eating 600 oysters a week, drinking 30 bottles of soda in a day, and eating caviar straight from the can.  It was no wonder he was called by some, "a stomach with a head."  Of course all this gluttonous behavior led to the monarch's weight to balloon past 300 pounds.

"Farouk the Foolish" in his slimmer days.
"Farouk the Foolish" was also known for such eccentricities as painting the military jeeps in his escort the same color red as his 1947 Bentley Mark VI, and then issuing a decree that no other cars could bear that hue.  He was kleptomaniac, once picking the pocketwatch of a visiting Winston Churchill while they sat next to each other at dinner.  The watch had been a gift from Queen Anne to his ancestor the Duke of Marlborough for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim, so Churchill was quite relieved when Farouk "found" it.  In another telling tale, Farouk once had nightmares where lions chased and attacked him, so he did what any normal person would do.  He went to the Cairo Zoo and shot two lions while they were in their cage.  Time magazine even wrote about it.

His lavish lifestyle would be tolerated for many years.  However, sentiment soured against the monarch for such actions as leaving his palace lights on during blackouts during World War II, writing a letter to Hitler welcoming his invasion of Egypt, believing the German presence to be favorable to the British, shamefully losing in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, and generally corrupt & ineffective leadership.  By July of 1952 Farouk had been ousted by members of his own military in a coup that saw him abdicate and exiled to Monaco, while his infant son Fuad II was proclaimed king.

After his exile, many of Farouk's belongings were auctioned off in a legendary sale.  He possessed the 94-carat Star of the East diamond and other large gems, cars, clothes, jewelry, antiquities, art, medals, sculptures, a coin collection that numismatists still speak of with reverence, and of course, masterpiece firearms.  The cased pistol set in this article is said to have sold in this storied auction and was then sold directly to our consignor decades later by the original buyer.  We can offer no documentation of this other than the marking on the trigger guard tang that our consignor states is the mark of the "Collection of King Farouk."

Guns don't come much more ghoulish that this one.  It can be easy to forget after hearing some of the humorous stories about King Farouk, but let us not forget the rather ominous decorations on this gun.  Each likeness was carefully chosen as it was worked into the metal and the ebony.  These were not carelessly sketched onto paper or thrown upon canvas.  These are notoriously difficult mediums in which to work, and the artistry shown here reflects days of careful attention and deliberate choice.  After looking at the guns, one can't help but ask, "Why?"  Why would Devisme craft such dark and haunting art?  Was it commissioned for someone special?  If so, who was this person and what was their obsession with demonic symbolism?  Was this just a bored artist looking for something to create that would titillate the Victorian Era social circles?  Were they actually created as dueling pistols meant to intimidate the other dueling party upon presentation?  Without further research these questions may remain unanswered, but one thing is certain.  They are an unquestionably suitable and magnificent pistol set to read about on Halloween.

-written by Joel Kolander


Haag, Michael. Egypt. Northampton, MA: Cadogan Guides USA, 2010. Print.


  1. Drop the other much did they sell for?

    1. For items of this high a quality a consignor will often want to set a reserve price. Unfortunately, the reserve price was not met in this instance.