- Museum number
Gold box with engine-turned decoration and set with two cornelian intaglios. On the lid the deities: Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Neptune, bordered by signs of the Zodiac. On the base: Hercules shouldering the celestial globe and draped with the skin of the Nemean lion and kneeling behind Atlas. Inscribed with fake Greek signature. Image of base at top.
- Production date
Height: 2.10 centimetres
Width: 5.50 centimetres (box)
- Curator's comments
Text from catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift (Gere et al 1984) no. 836:
The signed intaglio on the base of the box may tentatively be identified with the one that was recorded in the collection of Prince Stanislaus Poniatowski (1754-1833), nephew and heir of the King of Poland, who made a large collection of 'antique' gems when he was living in Rome and Florence in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Poniatowski collection was celebrated during his lifetime and many examples of his so-called 'Greek' intaglios feature in the cast collections of the period. With hindsight it is possible to see that such consistent similarity of style is impossible where a wide range of different engravers' work is supposedly represented, but doubts about the authenticity of the gems were not publicly expressed until after Prince Poniatowski's death. This cornelian intaglio, with the incorrect form of the signature of the great classical engraver Dioscorides, featured as lot no. 1336 in the sale of the collection held at Christie's in London on 29 April 1839. It subsequently passed into the collection of John Tyrrell, who bought approximately 1200 of the Poniatowski gems (the collection numbered 2601 in all) and it is illustrated in the two-volume catalogue of selected gems from that collection (Prendeville 1857, no. 375).
Since the time of the Christie's sale in 1839, when the gems were already widely recognised as modern pastiches, there have been numerous publications devoted to speculating on their authorship. Busiri Vici (1971) cites two articles said to have been published in 1840 and 1841 which claim that the gems were produced by Luigi Pichler, a suggestion which has frequently been adopted since and is substantiated by Anna Somers Cocks's observations (1976, pp. 366-76). Tyrrell replied to the articles with a furious refutation of this theory in a pamphlet entitled 'Remarks exposing the unworthy motives and fallacious opinions of the writer of the critiques on the Poniatowski Gems', which appeared in March 1842. However, subsequent discussions of the gems have always assumed them to be of modern date, and other names associated with their manufacture include Dies, Sirletti, Cerbara, Giuseppe Girometti and Odelli; the last named was allegedly responsible for the faked Greek signatures. One of the dealers from whom Poniatowski purchased a number of his engraved gems was the notorious Ignazio Vescovalli, whose premises were in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and who also supplied the collectors Demidoff and Blacas, and employed the young Benedetto Pistrucci.
The collections made by Prince Stanislaus Poniatowski and his uncle King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland are discussed in detail by Neverov (1981).
The subject of the intaglio on the lid of the box is the same as the circular so-called 'Olympus' gem from the French royal collection, published by Alariette in his 'Traité des Pierres Gravées (1750, pl. 1), and alleged by Mariette to be based on a composition by Raphael. The design of the 'Olympus' gem is, in fact, based rather freely on the roundel at the top of the so-called 'Quos Ego' engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, but it has been very much altered in the grouping of the figures and the substitution in the arched compartment at the bottom of a figure of Neptune for the eagle of Jupiter that appears in the engraving (Fig. 48; British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, 1900, 2-12, 340). This gem, which differs from the 'Olympus' gem only in shape, does not appear to be included in either the catalogue of Poniatowski's collection prepared by the Prince himself in the last two years of his life (Catalogue des Pierres Gravées Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislaus Poniatowski, published in Florence in 1832-3) nor in Christie's 1839 sale catalogue, but the descriptions are not detailed enough to be certain. It is unlikely to have been in the Tyrrell collection - it is not illustrated in the catalogue - as even a collector as gullible as he seems to have been would not have believed this exact copy of a famous gem to be antique. An identical version of this intaglio exists, signed by Luigi Pichler (information kindly provided by Malcolm Carr). The signature is on the very edge of the gem and would be hidden if the gem was set. The example here, set in a box, may be similarly signed, and the gold rim of the box lid may be hiding the inscription. (Charlotte Gere)
Supplement to catalogue entry:
The subject of the intaglio on the lid is closer to the reverse of an anonymous medal of Fulvio Orsini (Armand II, 269.10, BM 936.75) which also has a human figure (Tellus not Neptune) under the throne of Jupiter. (Jennifer Montagu)
See 'The faking of gems in the eighteenth century' by Judy Rudoe in 'Why Fakes Matter: Essays on Problems of Authenticity' ed. Mark Jones, London 1992. fig. 7.
Text: J. Rudoe 'The Poniatowski gems' from Jones 1990, cat no. 154a.
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 Hercules and the globe'
This cornelian intaglio was engraved in Italy in the early nineteenth century, and has a false signature in Greek characters 'by Dioscorides'. It was purchased by Tyrrell in 1839 (Prendeville 1859, no. 375), and is set in the base of a contemporary gold box with engine-turned decoration.
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
- Acquisition notes
- M Hakim, 4 Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street, London W1. Original invoice for £550 to Anne Hull Grundy dated 9.6.1972, described as 'George III oval engine turned gold snuff box, the top and base set with finely engraved intaglios'. The name of the engraved gems are the Poniatowski Gems as they were made to the order of Prince Poniatowski of Poland, probably by Pistrucci.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Miscellaneous number: HG.784 (masterlist number)