HistoryofScience.com Blog

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Did you ever think that a book was "a crock of . . . ."?

I own an octavo volume of the Journal de Medicine for January 1760 that has been hollowed out to hold a music box which plays when you open the cover. You wind it up by turning a key visible when you lift the back cover.This also amuses me because it has the bookplate of the famous physician, Joseph Recamier. One would not expect a medical book to be made into a music box, but then whoever created this may not have paid any attention to the contents of the volume.

Many years ago I attempted to order from a dealer's catalogue a seventeenth century prayer book, if I remember correctly, which concealed an authentic small flint-lock pistol. The price was around $3000, perhaps 25 or 30 years ago, and when I telephoned the dealer, whose name I have forgotten, he told me that my order was perhaps the twenty-fifth that he had received for this apparently truly desirable item. Since then I do not recall any comparable item being offered.

Next week the otherwise distinguished auctioneers, Bloomsbury, will offer at auction in New York a book that they politely describe as a "Travelling Commode." Here is their description:

"383. Travelling Commode in form of Large Book. Wooden folio book titled on spine: Historia Universalis. [France]: 18th Century, Oak and calf leather, Folio (Closed: 500 mm high x 90 long (binding) x 380 mm deep. Full calf covers elaborately blind-stamped in geometric design over oak boards, spine with lettering label in red morocco paneled in gilt, 6 raised bands. The folio opens to reveal two oaken boards that can be folded out to form a closed square and one board lifted upward to become the seat, the hole in the middle ready to hold a chamber pot. The box rests on four small wooden pegs, the binding protected by a small brass plate at the foot. Condition: clasps possibly renewed in 19th century, seat cracked, old restorations, minor losses to calf.
An unusual example of the use of the book form to disguise travelling personal furniture, probably for use on the military field. Other examples include a piece of furniture at the Chateau de Lamothe-Fenelon in the Dordogne, consists of a pile of folios on short legs with a lid to open, but is not portable. Other examples listed in Komrij, Kaka fonie, p, 286, and plate V.

est. $1500 – $2500"

Why the auctioneers think this item might have been used in a military context I have no idea. One would think that a military officer would have no pressing need to conceal his desire to use a private seat over a chamber pot. My guess is that this was built for a man or woman who travelled in more polite contexts. The question is who collects this sort of thing today? Not me.

Note added on 10-09-2008: The lot sold on September 9 for its low estimate of $1500 plus premium.

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