- Museum number
Intaglio; chalcedony; rectangular; man and woman on couch and gesticulating warrior; Mars and Venus in the net; signed; in gold frame.
- Production date
Length: 4 centimetres
Width: 3 centimetres
- Curator's comments
See J. Rudoe, 'The faking of gems in the eighteenth century' in M. Jones (ed), 'Why Fakes Matter: Essays on Problems of Authenticity', London 1992, fig. 10.
Text: J. Rudoe 'The Poniatowski gems' from Jones 1990, cat no. 154d.
Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833) inherited the nucleus of his gem collection from his uncle, King Stanislas Augustus of Poland (1732-98). King Stanislas' collection, acquired from agents in France and Italy, comprised ancient, Renaissance and modern gems by celebrated contemporary engravers: Guay, Natter, G. Pichler, Cades, Marchant and Burch. Educated by his uncle, Prince Stanislas became by the 1780s a voracious collector of antiquities, intent on outstripping his Polish rivals in Rome, where he settled in 1791 to devote himself to his collecting.
By the time he died Poniatowski's gem collection was renowned for its size and, more particularly, for its inaccessibility: the Prince kept his gems closely guarded and his long-awaited catalogue finally appeared, without an author's name but presumably written by the Prince himself, two years before his death, in 1831. It contained 2,601 gems, of which about twenty were cameos and the rest intaglios, all of remarkably similar large dimensions, and many with elaborately chased gold mounts (see cat. no.154b (registration no. 1978,1002.445). Another disquieting feature was the number of gems bearing the signatures of ancient engravers, 1,737 in all. In his review the French scholar R. Rochette wrote: 'The collection . . . is full of works by Pyrgoteles, Polyclites, Apollonides, Dioscurides, in greater numbers than there were in antiquity itself, while the Berlin curator of gems E. Tölken expressed reasonable surprise at the striking resemblance in style between gems signed by Greek engravers and those signed by Roman engravers: 'Pyrogoteles works like Evodus and there are more than 400 years between them'. But the full scandal did not break until after the Prince's death.
Some items were dispersed in the next few years, but the bulk of the collection was eventually sold at Christie's in London on 29 April 1839, where 1,140 gems were purchased for £12,000 by the collector Colonel John Tyrrell. Tyrrell, wishing to publish his newly acquired gems, commissioned the antiquary Nathaniel Ogle to write an introduction. But to Tyrrell's fury Ogle exposed the gems as works of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A newspaper polemic between Tyrrell and Ogle ensued, from which it emerged that Prince Poniatowski had ordered his gems from Italian engravers like Pichler, Giuseppe Girometti and Nicolo Cerbara. The gems were to illustrate episodes from Greek mythology and literature. He then had the false signatures put on by other engravers, Cades and Odelli being among those cited.
'Intaglio of Vulcan trapping Mars and Venus in his net'
The fake signature is that of Pyrgoteles, the most celebrated engraver of classical antiquity and favourite of Alexander the Great. According to J. Boardman, there are no surviving ancient gems with a genuine signature of this artist. Purchased by Tyrrell in 1839 (Prendeville 1857, no. 105).
Literature: S. Reinach, 'Les Pierres Gravées de la collection Poniatowski', La Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité, no. 1 (5 January 1895), pp. 2-3 and no. 2 (12 January 1895), pp. 11-13; J. Prendeville, Photographie Facsimiles of the Antique Gems formerly possessed by the late Prince Poniatowski, London 1857 & 1859 (Tyrrell Collection); O. Neverov, 'The Art Collections of the two Poniatowski's', Muzei 2 (Moscow 1981), pp. 171-96.
- On display (G47/dc3)
- Acquisition date
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number