Medal cabinet

  • Designer / Maker

    The design attributed to Charles Percier (1764-1838)

    The manufacture attributed to Martin Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843)

  • Detail

    Amboyna, with mahogany interior, embellished on the exterior and drawer fronts with silver; some drawers retaining their original blue silk-lined divisions for medals

    82.6 x 52 (maximum width) x 31.8 cm (maximum depth)

    French (Paris), circa 1810

  • Marked

    ‘Biennais, Orfre de LL. MM. Imples et Royles à Paris’ (on lockplate inside door) and with maker’s mark for Biennais on winged embellishment to frieze, those on the front with a date mark for 1793, and the ones at the sides 1809-19

  • Provenance

    […]; probably Frederick John Monson, 5th Lord Monson (1809-1841); by descent

  • Literature

    Thomas Marks, ‘Acquisition of the Year: Acquisitions Shortlist’, Apollo, December 2014, p. 55

  • Collection

    Victoria and Albert Museum, London

  • Notes

    Virtually unknown before a visit by the Furniture History Society in 2011, this remarkable medal cabinet was sold at Sotheby’s (London) in July 2013.

    For many young design and furniture enthusiasts, one of the most memorable exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1972 exhibition ‘The Age of Neo-Classicism’ was the mahogany version of this cabinet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (cat. no. 1609). At the time the cabinet, an iconic example of the forceful Empire period style known as retour d’Egypte, was attributed to Jacob-Desmalter (1770-1841), but now it appears more likely that entire responsibility should be given to the Biennais workshop.

    There is a drawing in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, from the Biennais workshop and attributed to Percier, that supports the attribution of the present cabinet (inv. no. CD3240). But equally significant is the ‘Petit Médaillier’ by Biennais, from the collection of Louis, Prince Napoléon (1914-97), shown at the Grand Palais in 1969 (see Napoléon, Paris, 1969, no. 289). This rectangular silver-mounted and burl wood cabinet has distinct features in common with the Monson cabinet.

    In due course it is hoped that a connection to Napoleon and his circle will be established for the present cabinet.