At Sotheby’s | Musical Automaton ‘Bird Cage’ Clock

Posted in Art Market by Editor on April 18, 2016

The clock dates to around 1825, but it is an eighteenth-century kind of object—a kind of object that’s not yet appeared here at Enfilade. Try a keyword search for ‘bird cage automaton’ (to the right) and now something turns up. Press release from Sotheby’s:

Important Watches (Sale #GE1601)
Sotheby’s, Geneva, 14 May 2016


Attributed to Jean-David Maillardet with clavier by Charles-Frédéric Nardin, musical automaton bird cage clock, ca. 1825–30 (Sotheby’s Sale #GE1601; estimate: $411,000–825,000).

Sotheby’s upcoming sale of Important Watches, to be held on Saturday, 14 May, will be led by an exceptional and rare musical automaton clock, shaped as a bird cage. This stunning object proudly showcases the very finest of Swiss craftsmanship: its external appearance combines exquisite design and detail, while its inner mechanics represent the most advanced horological complications of the age. The bird cage features two charming singing birds as well as a captivating butterfly. Thanks to three automaton mechanisms, the elements combine to form a delightful scene filled with movement and music. This exceptional piece will be offered with an estimate of CHF 400,000–800,000 ($411,000–825,000).

Speaking ahead of the sale, Pedro Reiser, Department Manager of Sotheby’s Watch Division in Geneva, commented: “It is truly an honour to have been entrusted with such an extraordinary timepiece for our upcoming auction of important watches. This wonderful automaton is a rare find—all the more exceptional because it features an automated butterfly. Records suggest that only one other double-bird cage clock with an automaton butterfly is currently known. We are delighted to be able to present this exquisite creation, which would be equally at home in the collection of a connoisseur or in a museum.”

The ornate cage, of chiselled golden bronze, sits on four lion paw-shaped feet atop a pedestal. The whole structure is finished in shiny piqué-mat. Inside the rectangular cage are two singing birds, which jump from one perch to another, opening and closing their beaks alongside an animated fountain. The fountain is topped by a beautiful butterfly, whose hand-painted wings move as it turns within the cage. The mechanism articulating these delicate movements, built in brass and steel, are ingeniously concealed inside the lower section of the cage. The birdsong, mimicking canaries and nightingales, is reproduced by a combination of bellows, whistles and cams, enabled by an intricate fusee-and-chain mechanism. This feat of horological complexity can be attributed to a highly accomplished craftsman, Jean-David Maillardet (1748–1834) from La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Birdcage clocks were primarily made between 1780 and 1840. In the late 18th century, singing birds were produced in extremely small quantities, and they were considered the ultimate in luxury. The number of privately held pieces has diminished greatly, and their appearance at auction generates tremendous interest.

The music box, which is concealed inside the base of this striking piece, plays three melodies which are triggered on the passing of each hour or on demand. The mechanism triggers brass cylinders, which in turn vibrate the 93 blades of the clavier, or the ‘comb’. The clavier is signed ‘C. F. Nardin’ for Charles-Frédéric Nardin from La Chaux-de-Fonds. The three charming melodies which can be selected include Der Jägerchor (The Huntsmen’s Chorus) by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826), written in 1820.

This masterpiece combines the exceptional skills of Swiss craftsmen, including horologists from Neuchatel, la Vallée de Joux and Geneva, who specialised in singing birds. Among the best known makers were Jaquet-Droz, Frédéric Leschot, Jacob Frisard, Jean-David Maillardet, the Rochat family and the Bruguiers. Their popularity can be seen to rise in parallel with the expanding commercial relationship with the Chinese, Ottoman and Russian markets, which blossomed towards the end of the eighteenth century.

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