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An important ormolu-mounted automaton singing bird vase clock

About the object

"The Empress Clock", An ormolu-mounted tôle peint automaton singing bird vase clock attributed to DeBelle, Paris, circa 1805, The tapered body painted to resemble veined marble the upper section and neck appled with finely chased mounts representing Arts and Science, the 2-inch enamel dial within a frieze of rams and cornucopias, flanked by crisply cast eagles attacking serpents which form part of the scroll handles, the lower section flanked by rams' masks above anthemion and water leaf mounts, fluted socle raised on a moulded rectangular plinth, the base tray cast with putti wings, the two train clock movement with lever platform escapement and striking on a bell: the automaton bird revealed when the plaque in the neck of the vase slides away, singing one of three tunes played on a nine pipe organ whilst flapping his wings and opening his beak, his breast feathers moving as though breathing; a separate movement controlling the main automata depicting a watery grotto with Neptune at the centre standing on a shell supported by mermaids and with automaton glass rods, Charon ferries a mortal, seen paying his fare, across the fiver Styx to Hades; at the same time the doors on the plinth open to reveal and automaton scene of Vulcan's forge with four men hammering an anvil whilst a boy pumps the bellows for the fire\n82.5cm. 32½in. high


The case of this clock can be attributed to Claude Galle, (1759-1815), an important bronzier and gilder working in Paris and supplying furnishing bronzes to royal households throughout Europe at the end of the Eighteenth Century.  He became a master in 1786 and worked with Thomire and others for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. He is known to have supplied the Emperor Napoleon with numerous items for the Grand Trianon and Compi and candlesticks for Fontainebleau.

Galle used the vase from of this case not only for clocks but as ewers and vases and it is the clock and automaton maker, Jean Francois DeBelle who is credited with creating this spectacular clock.  DeBelle was a pupil of the great horologist Robert Robin and became master in 1781. He appears to have been somewhat of a maverick, working outside the guilds but popular for his fine work. He became court clockmaker to Louis XVI. Having been so closely associated with the court, he went into hiding during the revolution.  It is believed that his talents were bought to the noice of the Emperor Napoleon as he had supplied two vase clocks to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Naples and Spain.  These clocks are currently in the Madrid National Museum.  Similar to the present clock, they lack the singing bird which adds such delightful surprise to this piece.

Napoleon and Josephine were married in 1796 and were crowned Emperor and Empress of France in 1804. In 1805 Napoleon asked DeBelle to make an automaton clock as a gift to the Empress and one year later the clock was delivered and became a firm favourite, remaining with her at Malmaison following her divorce from the Emperor.  After her death in 1814, her property went to the children of her first marriage, Eugene and Hortense.

A very similar clock in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Fig. 1, is claimed to be the Empress clock and is said to have been taken to Philadelphia when Joseph Bonaparte emigrated there in 1815.  However, it is unlikely that Josephine would have wished her beloved clock to be given to a member of the Bonaparte family.  It was donated to the Institute in 1936 by Mrs S Warren Ingersoll.

Whichever is the true Empress clock may never be known but they are both extraordinarily fine examples of Empire craftsmanship and a tribute to their creators.


Bronze, painted brass, steel, glass, stained peacock feathers


82.5cm. 32½in. high


Chapuis, Alfred & Droz, Edmond, Automata, New York, 1958. fig. 112


Ikle Collection, Switzerland

Time Museum, Rockford Illinois, Inventory no. 695 sold Sotheby's New York, 19th June 2002, Lot 216

Private Collection

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.