Archive for the 'M.S. Rau Blog' Category

The Haunting Death Mask of Napoléon Bonaparte

October 20th, 2016 | posted by Robert Boese

Death mask of Napoléon Bonaparte by Dr. Francesco Antommarchi

The deposed Emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, spent the final years of his life on the remote island of St. Helena. It is there, 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa, that Napoléon died a lonely death on May 5, 1821. One and a half days later, a plaster cast was made from the face of the fallen ruler. Nearly two centuries later, mystery surrounds the haunting death mask of Napoléon Bonaparte.


Historically, it has been accepted that Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, Napoléon’s personal physician and companion, took the original “parent cast” from the somber face Napoléon Bonaparte. However, it is almost certain that the mold was created under far more mysterious circumstances. Today, there many who believe that the “parent cast” was not taken by Napoléon’s physician but by one of his captors, Dr. Francis Burton of Britain’s 66th Regiment. Most likely, Dr. Burton gathered materials to mix a simple plaster-of-Paris and took the mold on May 7, 1821. He then reluctantly entrusted the mold to Madame Bertrand, a member of Napoléon’s court who shared his exile on the island of St. Helena, for safekeeping.

30-3849_3According to legend, Madame Bertrand secretly removed the valuable majority of the mask and returned to France with her husband, keeping the precious treasure for herself. Dr. Burton later stated that Madame Bertrand stole the mask and attempted to sue her for its return, to no avail. Upon her return to France, Madame Bertrand passed the plaster mold to Dr. Antommarchi, who then commissioned the firm Richard et Quesnel to produce several bronze and plaster casts of it.

Over the years, most of these bronze and plaster casts have found their way into the permanent collections of museums around the globe. Perhaps the most famous, however, is housed at the Cabildo of the Louisiana State Museum right here in New Orleans. The Cabildo’s death mask of Napoléon was personally brought to New Orleans by Dr. Antommarchi in 1834. During the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, the mask was removed from the museum and disappeared altogether, only to reappear–in a garbage bin–in 1866! The death mask was finally returned, safe and sound, to the Louisiana State Museum in 1909.


Medallion below the neck reading “Napoleon Emp. et Roi/Souscription/Dr. Antommarchi 1833”

Are you intrigued by Napoléon Bonaparte? We invite you to join us for “Napoléon: General. Emperor. Legend” November 5th – January 7th. This comprehensive exhibition will be held at M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal Street, New Orleans; it is free and open to the public.

Kaleidoscope Brilliancy: Lightning Ridge Black Opals

October 14th, 2016 | posted by Ludovic Rousset

Pandora. Light of the World. Empress. Immediately recognizable for its flashing, mingling array of colors, the opal is the one of the most elusive, unique gemstones in the world. In the centuries since the gem’s discovery, the opal has endured as a symbol of healing, protection, and hope.

A kaleidoscope of colors is exhibited in this striking 16.44-carat black opal, which hails from the famed Lightning Ridge Mine in Australia

A kaleidoscope of colors is exhibited in this striking 16.44-carat black opal, which hails from the famed Lightning Ridge Mine in Australia


The 8.40 carats of Australian black opals in these sumptuous earrings perfectly display the characteristic brilliance and array of color for which Lightning Ridge opals are famous

Opal has been the focus of numerous legends and prophecies and has been counted alongside the finest gemstones in the world in terms of brilliance and rarity. Legends from the Ancient Greeks and Romans tell of the opal guarding citizens from disease and predicting divine intervention. Into the Middle Ages, high-ranking officials used the opal to foresee atmospheric patterns and temperature changes. A stone with the power to strengthen vision and sooth the heart, eyes, and nerves, the opal was a driving force amongst the myths and legends of other gemstones. While a veil of superstition draped the opal with the release of Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Anne of Gerstein, the fear of the opal did not discourage its praise and development. With continuing stories about the reputation and high status of the opal, it is no surprise that the stone continues to reach celebrated heights in both value and regard.

Though the opal was discovered centuries ago, the finest variety was not discovered 1905 in Lightning Ridge, Australia. Before this time, it was a dismal mystery to everyone what lied beneath this dry, quiet region. However, upon the first dig, an eager Charles Nettleton discovered a specimen of opal that would aesthetically surpass any other previously known opal: The Lightning Ridge black opal. News of this pioneering discovery soon broke and the gemstone market erupted in satisfaction and excitement. Spreading out of Australia and into Europe, this black-opal type experienced important and massive praise more than any other opal-type before. Lightning Ridge, consequently, became synonymous with these hypnotic jewels.


Brilliant white diamonds, weighing 1.43 total carats, add exceptional sparkle to this extraordinary platinum ring

Because the opal can contain an infinite number of patterns, no two are alike. It is this simple characteristic that sets the opal apart from any other gemstone. Black Lightning Ridge opals display plays of color unlike any other opal type. Black, meaning any dark body tone, enables the rainbow of spectral colors to bend and break in the opal, causing an intense and vivid play of contrasting and bright colors.

Modern day obsession with the opal erupted in the 1920s. A time of daring fashion, opulence, and utter abandon showed America at its height, the gemstone market welcomed in stunning new trends. The opal, consequently, was ushered in as one of the fixture gemstones in this decade.  Women’s draping, opulent, necklaces were now sprinkled with the flashing opal colors and black opals from the Lightning Ridge region continued their steady rise in admiration.

With its remarkable history and stable fixture in the gemstone market, the importance of the opal cannot be overexpressed. Because opals are reaching higher values with their increasing rarity, particulary those involving rich and pronounced colors, such as with black opals, are the most prized.

Wedgwood: A Story of Splendor

October 6th, 2016 | posted by Phillip Youngberg

The ceramics of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) rank amongst the most expert and stunning in the world. Throughout the development and craft of pottery in England throughout the 18th century, there exist few names that speak to perfection like Wedgwood. Having no equal, Wedgwood and his workshops transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary and elevating the craft of ceramics manufacturing into a grand industry.30-5197_3

Coming from a long line of pottery manufacturers, Wedgwood was immediately immersed with the craft. He was just 9 when he was thrown into the realm of pottery throwing. However, when Wedgwood contracted smallpox, it left his knee permanently damaged and unable to work the pedal on the potter’s wheel, forcing him to concentrate more on modeling and experimentation. With this occurrence, few imagined that his craft and talent would achieve the immense success that it did. Yet, these early trials only served to motivate him to achieve the highest level of precision in his work.

Crafted of light blue jasper dip in the Brewster shape, the teapot’s straight sides display beautifully applied classical figures

Crafted of light blue jasper dip in the Brewster shape, the teapot’s straight sides display beautifully applied classical figures

Before Wedgwood, ceramics manufacture was still considered a peasant craft: methods of production were still primitive and potters were not looked at with high regard. In all, pottery before Wedgwood was merely a modest trade. Faced with the dilemma of crafting fine ceramics in the changing tastes of the time, Wedgwood changed the game of ceramics manufacturing. He became a pioneer in his field. His eye for fine craft prompted him into uncharted territories of pottery design and innovations. Holding a thorough understanding of the chemistry of ceramics, Wedgwood was able to craft what had never before been imagined.

Only created for a short period of time during the 1920s, crimson jasper pieces by Wedgwood are incredibly rare

Only created for a short period of time during the 1920s, crimson jasper pieces by Wedgwood are incredibly rare

When it came to his most notable works, there is no question that his greatest success lies in the development of a new range of materials, inventive styles, and more durable wares.  Wedgwood’s first distinctive achievement as an independent potter was his invention of new type of stoneware called Jasperware. Ground-breaking in the field, some described this as most important development in the history of ceramics since the Chinese discovery of porcelain 1,000 years earlier. Masterfully crafting wares out of this new material, Wedgwood also looked back to Classical motifs and neo-classical, drawing tastes away from the opulent Rococo. Adorning his pieces with applied neo-classical foliate accents and relief figures, his pieces began to take on a personality of their own.

His success didn’t stop there. A short number of years later, Wedgwood crafted a cream-colored tea and coffee service for Queen Charlotte, known as Queensware, that brought him international recognition. It was later in his already established career that Wedgwood’s career reached its pinnacle: creating a copy of the Ancient Roman Portland Vase. This crowning achievement cemented his legacy.

In the years after the development of this sophisticated stoneware, the importance of Wedgwood is still far reaching. Undeniably, the Wedgwood’s early experimentations were a turning point in the industry. With their unmistakable designs and forms, the splendor of Wedgwood ceramics continues to captivate experts and consumers alike.  Today, the mere mention of the name Wedgwood evokes thoughts of innovative designs and high quality wares.

Beauty & Beer: The Steins of Mettlach

September 26th, 2016 | posted by Danielle Halikias

Mettlach stein adorned with a wonderful landscape of the village of Beerfurth and topped by a finial of Rodenstein Castle

A “stein” is a drinking vessel, usually with a handle and hinged lid, historically used for consuming beer. While cups and glasses have existed since ancient times, steins were first created in response to “the black death” or bubonic plague. Following the devastation of Europe during the Middle Ages, parts of Germany passed legislation requiring that all containers be covered. This new law kept swarming insects from contaminating food and drink. Thus, the stein was invented!

Mettlach stein from "The Book Stein Series" depicting literature of the architectural trade

Mettlach stein from “The Book Stein Series” depicting literature of the architectural trade

Mettach beer stein depicting the keeper of a wine cellar

At first, steins were created entirely by hand: thrown on the potter’s wheel, fired in a wood-burning kiln, and painstakingly decorated. But by the second half of the 19th century, mass production of ceramics using plaster molds, along with rising popularity both at home and abroad, led to “the Golden Age” of antique steins. By the late 1800’s, beer steins claimed a truly unique place in German culture—a position that they still retain.

Many companies produced stoneware during “the Golden Age,” but the most popular was Villeroy & Boch of Mettlach, Germany. The manufacturer, founded in 1809 and located in an old Benedictine abbey, was the largest and most important producer of ceramics of the 19th century. Known to collectors as simply “Mettlach,” Villeroy & Boch steins are accepted to be the most artistic and of the highest quality.

The subject matter depicted on Mettlach beer steins ranges from whimsical characters to historical battles—and may be any number of things in between! Because custom steins were a popular gift for special occasions, the majority of them depict scenes highly personal to their owner. In fact, the two largest series ever produced by Mettlach revolve around skilled trades or professions. These series, both consisting of 12 designs, are the “The Mettlach Occupationals” and “The Book Stein Series.”

slide1Recent decades have seen a renewed interest in collecting German beer steins, and the most valuable on the market are Villeroy & Boch steins manufactured during the Golden Age (c. 1885-1905). Much like hallmarks on silver, each  Mettlach stein bears the Villeroy & Boch mark. The most sought-after being those featuring the silhouette of the old Mettlach tower. Below the tower is a rectangular banner reading “Mettlach” and a semi-circle bearing “VB” for Villeroy and Boch. The base will also bear three numbers—the left designates the artisan or decorator, the center lists the serial number, and the right records the year that it was made. 

Whether you are drawn to exceptional rarity, specific subject matter, or simply designs that you find interesting, no collection is complete without a beautiful beer stein by Mettlach!


Navigating the Cubist Style

September 21st, 2016 | posted by Lyndon Lasiter

Viewed through the canvases of abstract art giants such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the Cubist movement encapsulated an entirely new visual language that permeated the art world. At once two-dimensional and thought-provoking, Cubist artists were swept away with the idea that they could deviate from the traditional, accepted notions of painting. While earlier academic artists were pre-occupied with painting truth to nature, the Cubists created an art that stemmed from the desire to challenge the conventional forms of representation.

This rich, complex oil on canvas was composed by the modern Cubist Max Papart

This rich, complex oil on canvas was composed by the modern Cubist Max Papart

Often, these modern artistic innovations are thought to be associated with technical advancements at the turn of the 19th century: the emergence of industrialization, development of photography, the motor car, and air travel. It is to no surprise, therefore, that artists reflected on these changes in pioneering ways.

By upending old tried and true methods of painting that had served art for the past four centuries, such as perspective and foreshortening, Cubists abandoned old techniques in favor of new ones. Artists now explored new methods of opening forms, blending background into foreground, and showing one object fragmented and from various angles. In the same instance groundbreaking, distorted, and abstracted, these new stylistic techniques yielded prompt recognition and regard.

Papart’s captivating compositions are a veritable exploration of planes and facets, with geometrically constructed shapes uniquely formed in shallow spaces

Papart’s captivating compositions are a veritable exploration of planes and facets, with geometrically constructed shapes uniquely formed in shallow spaces

While Picasso and Braque are credited with creating this monumental movement, it was developed and further adopted by many others, such as French artist Max Papart (1911-1924). The contemporary tendencies and audaciousness of Cubist art completely enamored Papart, and his working style shifted to embrace the ideals of modern art form.

The pioneering spirit of this movement is evident in his work, Nu Debout dans un Intérieur. At once radical and innovative, this painting shows how he incorporated the revolutionary ideals of Cubism on canvas. Papart invites the viewer to witness a female form not as we see it in reality, but from multiple vantage points. Almost like an exploration of perspective, the surface is thick with overlapping planes and geometrically constructing shapes. Painting as if viewed through a fragmented lens, this compelling work is a testament to Papart’s mastery of the Cubist aesthetic.

Signed “Max Papart” (lower right)

Signed “Max Papart” (lower right)

In the years after the development of this style, the importance of Cubism is still far reaching. Though primarily associated with painting, the Cubist movement exerted profound influence on architecture, interior design, and furniture. Cubist artists, like Max Papart, paved the way for non-representational art by uniting the scene and the two-dimensionality of the canvas.

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