Designed to prevent the illicit removal of snuff or tobacco, they open only when a series of dials are correctly positioned.
Occasionally a sharp pin is concealed behind the ‘open’ button that provides the unwary thief with a painful surprise.
The manufacture of these boxes (some with just a single numbered dial, others as many as four or five) is closely linked to the ebbs and flows of regional clockmaking. It seems they provided an alternative source of income for Georgian and Victorian watchmakers struggling to compete with foreign imports.
Many combination boxes carry personal inscriptions or ownership details. This example with four numbered dials is engraved for James Borros, London May 15th 1814. A gentleman of that unusual name is listed as a shopkeeper in Monmouth Street, St Giles – the victim of a theft recorded in Old Bailey proceedings in 1812.
A good example of its type estimated at just £120-150, it sold to an online bidder for £1600 (plus 18% premium) at Clarke’s Auctions in Semley, Dorset, on December 29.