Its most celebrated practitioners were German (probably Augsburg) emigrés G Stephany and J Dresch. Working in Bath in the 1790s and later in London, the pair specialised in miniature carvings of sometimes breathtaking intricacy.
Advertisements at the time described them as ‘the most eminent sculptors in ivory in Europe who will execute any design for Rings, Bracelets, Lockets, or for Cabinet pieces’. Their work was ‘so fine that a glass is necessary to discover its beauties’. A royal warrant was granted in 1793.
Although it was not labelled (as some are), a 3 x 1in (8 x 2.5cm) gold and ivory toothpick or patch box offered by Hannam’s (23% buyer’s premium) in Selborne on March 15 was typical of the Stephany and Dresch output.
The scene, mounted in rose gold, depicts shipping and pleasure boats against the backdrop of a magnificent 18th century building that may be the St Nicholas Naval Cathedral on the Kryukov canal in St Petersburg.
Would this box have come for sale under the rules of the Ivory Act 2018? The auction house estimated it was worth £200-300 – roughly the £250 sum proposed by Defra to apply for a pre-1918 object to be considered ‘of outstanding artistic, cultural or historic value’ and thus exempt from a wider ban.
In fact, as an item that surely ticks all of those boxes, it sold for £10,000.