Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The pieces (milk cup, eggcup and three other cups) may have been intended as an early-morning lesson in ornithology: each featured gold-on-blue flower-and-garland borders containing polychrome medallions with intricate reproductions of insects and exotic birds after engravings in the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle.* Inscriptions underneath each piece – some with rather approximate spelling – identified the birds and insects concerned.

The pieces were sold individually and prices wildly surpassed estimates. Just Fr70,000 (£6800) had been expected overall, but the four lots totalled Fr268,000 (£26,000).

A 3in (7.5cm) milk cup with two curved handles, adorned with a lortolan de roseaux (ortolan) and le verdier (greenfinch), was estimated at around £400 but shot up to Fr56,000 (£5400); and an eggcup, of equal height and bearing the same estimate, reached Fr30,000 (£2900) despite a slight crack. This was the only piece without an inscription to identify its (admittedly) tiny medallion, which appeared to feature a multi-coloured butterfly.

An even smaller litron cup, just 11/2in (4cm) high, embellished with a gobe-mouche du cap de bonne-espérance (South African fly-catcher), pulled in Fr27,000 (£2620) against an estimate of £200-£250.

The top price of Fr155,000 (£15,000), triple low-estimate, went to two square-handled litron cups, with matching saucers 43/4in (12cm) in diameter, featuring la hupe (hoopoe); a choucas de philippines (Philippines
jackdaw); la grue d’amérique (American crane); and le carrillonneur de cayenne, not listed in any French dictionary that we know of, but presumably a South American bird with a belle voix.

A litron was an Ancien Régime volume measurement corresponding to roughly 0.8 litres (just under 11/2 pints), and was one-sixteenth of a boisseau (roughly 13 litres or just under 3 gallons). The boisseau is still used in Quebec as the equivalent to 8 gallons, or 36.4 litres. Although known as tasses litron, the capacity of the cups here fell well short.

* Coincidentally, a 21-volume set of the Buffon’s Oeuvres Complètes, published by Pourrat Frères of Paris in 1833/34 and containing 181 watercoloured engravings of birds (and animals), sold for Fr4800 (£465) at Piasa on March 2.