Estimated at $700,000-$1m on October 13, the timepiece had not been seen on the market for more than 80 years.
The silvered bronze, enamelled silver and giltbronze work of art was made in Augsburg, Germany, c.1600-10, and had been owned by the Goldschmidt-Rothschild family until 1938 when they were forced to sell it to the City of Frankfurt by the Nazi government.
It had been consigned to Christie’s after being restituted by the city of Wetzlar (its most recent owner) to the heirs of Maximilian Baron von Goldschmidt-Rothschild earlier this year.
The auctioneer introduced the clock as “this is what we have all been waiting for” and three phone bidders took it to a premium-inclusive $2.61m.
The 13¾in (35cm) high artwork would have been made as a table decoration and features an elephant with a howdah (the carriage atop the elephant) in the form of a castle tower and the clock movement. The mechanics of the automaton (although intact are currently not fully working) allow the elephants’ eyes to move and for it to move forward with its mahout’s (rider’s) arms moving.
A similar Augsburg elephant automaton clock is currently in the collection of the Loyola University Chicago in the US and another, with a different howdah, is in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.
Automaton clocks were made in Germany for export to the Far East. According to the Loyola University Museum of Art: “From the time China first had contact with the West, clocks were in high demand – particularly those featuring automata. Father Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits were permitted to settle in Peking in 1601 largely on account of the curious clocks and watches they brought with them.”