August 14, 2015
By Joel R Kolander
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If you have an interest in gun or art collecting, you know that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has an extensive collection of firearms. Their Arms & Armor Department, founded in 1912, houses hundreds of spectacular pieces from various nations, eras, and masters of their craft. Not just for firearms, the area is also filled with historic edged weapons and various types of armor and helmets. It is no exaggeration to call it an encyclopedia of its subject matter and one of the finest groupings in the entire world.
In an effort to display some of the more spectacular items that have arrived relatively recently at the Met, they’ve even displayed a new exhibit, Arms and Armor: Notable Acquisitions 2003 – 2014, a noble commitment to these gorgeous and historic pieces, the firearms of which often find themselves under popular attack. They are even rotating many of the items every several weeks! This exhibit began on November 14, 2014 and will continue to run through December 6, 2015, so if you find yourself in the “City that Never Sleeps,” there’s still time to view a good number of the amazing recent additions.
Keeping in mind the beautiful and historic items displayed at the Met, Rock Island Auction Company would like to show you five outstanding pieces that would easily find their place at the lauded art museum. All the pieces shown will be appearing in the 2015 September Premiere Firearms Auction, the catalog for which can be found here. If you would like to see additional photos or know more of the history behind any of the items shown in this article, such information is contained in said online catalog. Without further ado, here are the Top Five Items that Deserve to Be In the Met.
This is a rifle that must be seen to be believed. Clicking on the first photo will enlarge it and show the absolutely stunning briarwood stock that acts as the foundation for this breathtaking French carbine. With a profile that would not appear out of place in modern science fiction, the De Petigny target rifle served as an exhibition piece for the gunsmith at L’Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie Francaise (The Exhibition of French Industry Products) held in Paris during the early summer months of 1839.
The high points of the rifle are easier to list than to show a picture of each one, so please click the link above to see all the high-resolution, detailed photos of this masterpiece. The lockplate and hammer still show touches of their gold plating, and the rest of the gun wears it profusely.
The entire length of the heavy, Damascus steel barrel, forged by Parisian master gunsmith Louis Pincon, is smothered by the work of engraver Joseph Fallois. It is a mixture of panel scenes, etching, and floral scrollwork. The theme of the embellishments on this rifle is that of “danse macabre,” illustrated in even the tiniest of details. A skull and cross bones appear on top of the receiver, and the upper right and left barrel flats together depict 30 engraved scenes bearing the likeness of death. Small Latin phrases also appear on the gun to reinforce the motif, such as “Post mortem nihil est,” (After death, there is nothing) on the barrel, and the text “Memento mori,” (Remember you must die) curls around the muzzle along with two crossed bones.
Even the bottom of the forearm is exquisitely engraved with large overlays depicting Napoleon I with an eagle featuring gold inlaid accents, as well as a soldier in military uniform. Not a single centimeter was ignored in the creation of this expertly crafted and stunning carbine. It truly epitomizes the phrase, “steel canvas,” and is readily one of the most significant true pieces of art we are ever offered.
Before touching on this pistol’s aesthetics, discussing its extreme rarity would be prudent. For even in all its beauty and craftsmanship, it remains even more rare thanks to the firing mechanism. The petronel is the rarest form of all 16th century wheel locks. The last petronel to be offered for sale was in 2008 and prior to that was 1983.
Petronels fit between arquebuses and pistols, being distinct from the two by being similar to a pistol, but differing with a wider butt as well as its overall shape. They were distinctly larger than pistols, this example points a lengthy 22 1/4″ barrel, and fired a larger round. Having a wider butt made it easier to fire by bracing it against the chest – earning the gun its name from the French poitrine (chest). Due to the weight inherent in a larger gun, it was frequently carried by a baudrick (shoulder sling). It was often used by horsemen, making it a derivation of the harquebuss, and would be carried on a sling with the gun resting on the chest for ease of access. Consider it the “saddle ring carbine” of the 1500s.
It is a head turning piece with its dramatically curved fruitwood stock inlaid almost entirely with white stag horn that has been polished and engraved with scenes of gods and goddesses from antiquity, grotesque masks, geometric designs, mythical dragons, and large scrollwork. As if that weren’t enough, selected portions of the ivory-like bone inlay have been stained a vibrant green producing an enamel effect known as polychrome. Such verdant accents immediately catch the eye and draw the viewer in for a closer look at this petronel’s incredible detail.
Once this arm held a place of honor in the collection of Baron Frederic Spitzer. Spitzer was the most important dealer in medieval and Renaissance art during the late 19th century, with clients including the Baron Adolphe de Rothschild and Sir Richard Wallace. When he passed in 1890, his collection was a museum in itself, and one of the largest of its kind in Europe. After being sold once, the majority of the collection was donated to several renowned English museums. There being virtually no petronels in private American collections, this piece represents a fine and rare opportunity rife with provenance that is sure to offer pride of ownership for decades to come.
Instantly visible in this royal set of wheel lock pistols are fantastic inlaid bone plaques set into the fruitwood stock. Evenly spaced throughout the wood, grotesque sea serpents are carved and engraved into the bone as are foliage and floral patterns. Another feat of artistry on the pistols are the seven-sided, fluted, pear shaped “pommels,” each side with bone inlay of its own.
When firearms are made for royalty, one can safely assume that only the utmost in care was given to their creation. Not only is bone used in the many inlays that adorn the warm-toned wood, but it is also used in several rosettes, two ramrod ends, the fore-end caps, and surrounding the breech tang. As the headline indicates, this pistol set was created for Prince Christian II, Elector of Saxony and has been in world class collections since its creation. They were once part of the Collection of Saxon Electoral Armories in Dresden, also known as the Dresden Armory. It is one of the world’s largest collections of ceremonial weapons & armor, and to see the museum is to know that it takes a well-preserved, historical masterpiece to earn a place in such an institution (Click on that link. The exhibits are jaw-dropping and you won’t regret it). These pistols were also in the collection of one Mr. Stephen V. Grancsay, who, appropriately enough for this article, was the one-time curator of the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They have also been displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1933 and at the Allentown Museum in 1964. While this article has selected guns that deserve to be in one of the world’s most prestigious art museums, these pistols have the provenance to earn it. They are only the third pair of Stockmann pistols to have been sold in America in 1968. It is an opportunity of a lifetime.
While this cased set of incredible presentation pistols are certainly worthy of their own write-up, they were investigated thoroughly in last week’s article, The Admiral, The King, & the Inventor, and will not be covered again here.
This diminutive pistol was created by arguably one of the greatest manufacturers of high art firearms of all time, Nicolas Noël Boutet. The Parisian was the Director Artiste of Versailles, the gunsmith to King Louis XVI, and even to Emperor Napoleon. Boutet’s resume and generally recognized mastery would be adequate to earn it a place in any museum, and the Met has already recognized this by featuring several of the artisan’s works of pistols, longarms, and even design drawings. France’s Musée de l’Armée is also well known to proudly display Boutet works.
Rock Island Auction Company has sold Boutet pistols before with great success and it’s not difficult to see why. This particular pocket pistol is engraved on the barrel and muzzle with decorative bands that are so tiny, they must be seen to appreciate the excruciating detail. The frame is finely engraved with a bull on the right side and a pair of stallions on the left. The life-like appearance and expertise in these engravings is unmatched during that era and holds its own to this day. Even the underside of the frame has a tiny farmhouse seen, a stag in a field, while the underside of the 1 3/8″ round barrel depicts a woman in period clothing carrying a basket. To perform these engravings so far ahead of their time and on such a Lilliputian scale is simply astounding. For arms so small, they certainly require a great deal of space to describe them. Not yet discussed are the engraved safety switch, the engraved swan neck hammer, frizzen, and top-jaw, as well as the extravagant ebony grip gold inlaid with images of floral vines, leaves, dragons, and gryphons,
Truth be told, there are more than five items in our upcoming 2015 September Premiere Firearms Auction that deserve to be in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There just isn’t time to list them all, but here are a few that certainly warrant an Honorable Mention.
A classic choice for any high end collection or museum, this pistol set has all the essentials: a renowned craftsman, intricate engraving, beautiful inlays, expert and delicate stock carving, Damascus barrels, precious metals, a compliment of exceptional accessories, and a striking case.
The name cinquedea (cinque diti) translates to “five fingers” – a reference to the blade’s width. Its large flat surface provided a natural canvas for artists. Why would the Met be interested in this? They may already have one or two (as does the Louvre) and the engraving on this particular example depicts numerous mythical beasts, several religious texts in Latin, and two faded circular equestrian scenes. The intentionally visible iron tang also features its own text on a mounted bronze panel. The grip is black horn overlaid with antique ivory.
We’ll just let the relief carved stock do the talking for this rifle. Which is easy when said carving depicts a man being trampled to death by a cavalry charge alongside a tiny oil panting of the maker’s family coat of arms.
Many of these guns are out from behind museum glass relatively recently considering their long lives. Blades and arms in general, often only belonged to the well-to-do, and weapons adorned so lavishly would certainly have been made only for royalty and other elite classes. The Met states it succinctly on their web page when they say,
“Arms and armor have been a vital part of virtually all cultures for thousands of years, pivotal not only in conquest and defense, but also in court pageantry and ceremonial events. Throughout time the best armor and weapons have represented the highest artistic and technical capabilities of the society and period in which they were made, forming a unique aspect of both art history and material culture.”
These arms appearing in the September Premiere Firearms Auction are certainly evidence of that, exuding the very best of period artistry, technology, and wealth.
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A Burnside carbine presented by Abraham Lincoln to Kentucky Congressman John Jordan Crittenden points to the important political bond shared by the
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