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The cabinet was acquired by the vendor’s family from the purchaser, who bought it in 1937 at a Sotheby’s sale of the contents of 148 Piccadilly, London home of Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild of the celebrated banking and collecting family. In Sotheby’s 1937 catalogue the piece was described as “a rare French dwarf cabinet… the front panel of black marble… inlaid with an attractive design of a vase of flowers ....in finely shaded mother-of-pearl”, but when it came up for sale at Sotheby’s 65 years later, the auctioneers’ furniture specialist Maxine Fox managed to research and piece together a great deal more information about that panel and reattribute the cabinet to an English rather than a French maker.

The panel, inlaid in mother-of-pearl and breccia marble on black slate is the work of Dirck Van Rijswijck, a celebrated 17th century Dutch craftsman renowned for his production of high-quality panels inspired by contemporary Dutch painting. Although Sotheby’s panel is only signed with a D, the piece can be firmly attributed to Van Rijswijck on the basis of the researches into this field conducted by Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide published in Oude Holland in 1997, in which this piece is cited and pictured. Amongst the other known works by him is an example set into an octagonal table in the Rijksmuseum and two small plaques in the V&A. Sotheby’s piece is a particularly large example of his work in what Maxine Fox described as “amazing condition”. It is doubly interesting for its Vanitas subject matter, with features such as the hourglass, skull, sword and many other less obvious items symbolising the vacuousness of earthly possessions (an interesting choice, incidentally, for a wealthy banker/collector).

When Sotheby’s examined the
19th century boulle cabinet into which the panel is set, they discovered the signature Blake on the reverse of a mount. This makes the surround English rather than French boulle revival work, for Robert Blake of London was a renowned cabinet inlayer and boulle manufacturer. Although no Blake bills exist in the Rothschild archive that can be firmly tied to this piece, Baron Lionel evidently employed him for there are no fewer than eight Blake receipts relating to work carried out for the Baron between 1857 and ’65, and Lionel is known to have furnished his sitting room at 148 Piccadilly with boulle revival furniture. It seems most likely that the Baron commissioned the cabinet to house the panel when he was decorating his London home. Last month at Sotheby’s it fetched £200,000, selling to a private European purchaser.