The phrase Cabinet of Curiosities hints at unlikely accumulations and buried treasure, rediscovered after centuries of oblivion, filled with the marvellous and the unexpected in turn. These singular arrays have always fascinated connoisseurs, artists and collectors. Sothebys
will pay tribute to this phenomenon with a sale of over 300 lots, in a variety of styles and from a range of periods, in Paris on March 26. Its audacious ensemble of incongruous items ranges from vanities and medieval sculpture to mysterious skeletons of extinct animals and contemporary works.
The Cabinet of Curiosity originally symbolized knowledge, and came into its own at the start of the Italian Renaissance, in what were known as studioli designed to demonstrate their owners virtue and erudition. In the 16th century Cabinets of Curiosities came to assume a religious nature, featuring fragile vanities that reflected the power of the divine. Their symbol-laden appeal lasted until the 18th century then lapsed, before making a comeback in the 20th century under the Surrealists, with their love of cadavres exquis (game of consequences) whose strange associations echoed the unusual objects to be found in Cabinets of Curiosities.
Today the idea behind a Cabinet of Curiosities, with its blend of the sacred and the profane, seems to be the subject of renewed interest both among contemporary artists and top commercial brands: you only need to look in the windows of luxury shops, hotels and restaurants, or at certain fashion accessories. The history of Cabinets of Curiosity is also the subject of an exhibition at the Musée Sainte-Croix in Poitiers, La licorne et le bézoard une histoire des cabinets de curiosités, that has attracted considerable media attention.
Sothebys thought-provoking sale reflects the popular enthusiasm for these curious ensembles, and will be full of all kinds of unexpected items some accessible, some on the borderline between art and the profane, suitable both for a time-honoured Cabinet of Curiosities or the home of contemporary art aficionados. Vanities, extinct species, forgotten objects and contemporary works imbued with worrying strangeness ranging from gestual abstraction to modern photography via the Nouveaux Réalistes and Art Brut will offer something for everyone, from specialist collectors to the merely curious.
Memento Mori Past And Present
True to the tradition of cabinets of curiosity, the sale includes a selection of vanities old and new, recalling the ephemeral nature of our existence and our fragile place in the relentless scheme of things. A tremendous variety of items symbolize the passing of time, in a host of different materials: wood, enamel, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, coral, ivory or rock crystal.
Also on offer will be a precious 19th century silver skull, enclosing a clock with a string of tiny skulls, complete with its rewinding key and enclosed within in an old glass cage. The item subtly evokes mans ultimately tragic destiny in a style that is part-Gothic, part-Romantic (est. 3,500-5,000 / $4,770-6,800).
The art of the Vanity is also to be found in contemporary works, led by a dizzying Untitled portrait by Cindy Sherman where the artist's deliberately aged, deformed face seems to surge forth from a gloomy background in incandescent light (est. 1,500-2,000 / $2,050-2,700).
Assessing The World
An awareness of death, and a compelling need to assess the physical world in order to understand it, are other obsessions of Cabinets of Curiosity. A number of items in the sale reflect this quest for knowledge.
A Renaissance-style, anatomically impressive bronze écorché on stand reveals the secrets of the human body. It is one of three 19th century bronzes with a combined estimate of 4,000-6,000 / $5,450-8,200.
This thirst for knowledge is not limited to the terrestrial world, but also encompasses the heavens. The sale features a telescope from the first half of the 19th century, 13in (33cm) tall, reflecting mans perennial desire to seek answers to metaphysical questions in the stars (est. 4,000-6,000 / $5,450-8,200).
Weird & Wonderful Creatures
The sales Natural History items include fossils, a pair of Aepyornis Maximus eggs, and an exceptional Moa Skeleton 4ft 7in (140cm) tall. This strange, flightless bird was a native of New Zealand; it was extensively hunted by the ancestors of the Maoris for its meat, and became extinct around 1400. This very rare example, whose delicate bones have withstood the test of time, is 99% complete; the esophagus stones that enabled it to crush its food also remain intact (est. 150,000-170,000 / $204,570-231,850).
In a contemporary, but equally enigmatic, vein is a disturbing 1981 black-and-white photographic portrait of a profiled Pelican by Bettina Rheims. The majestic bird takes on an almost human appearance as it surveys the viewer out of the corner of its eye (est. 2,500-3,000 / $3,400-4,090).
Marvels & Rarities
Perhaps the most flamboyant of the sales many rare and wonderful items is an enormous, champagne-coloured Topaz weighing no less than 9,630 carats, with 301 endlessly scintillating facets (est. 150,000-160,000 / $204,570-218,200).
Another item with mythical overtones is a 19th century Renaissance-style turned ivory cup, embellished with the profile of King Henri IV and the French royal arms, with a knop in the form of the legendary unicorn a creature which has fascinated theologians, poets and alchemists down the centuries (est. 5,000-7,000 / $6,800-9,550).
The sale will also include long-forgotten objects that are sure to delight connoisseurs and savvy collectors, such as a rare Claude Glass, a mirror used by artists to trace the outlines of their sitters and obtain a better likeness on canvas (est. 4,000-6,000 / $5,450-8,200).