Q: I was given this piece by my grandparents and am interested in knowing when it was made, where and why.
A: Some pictures may be worth a thousand words, but this particular picture’s words are a little garbled.
At one time vital information was on the label on the back, but now the small paper rectangle is not easy to read, at least not in the photographs we have. What we can decipher appears to be the word “Grenoble” and “1815,” which may refer to Napoleon’s visit to Grenoble, France, in 1815 when he was once again proclaimed emperor.
The scene appears to depict a rather common tavern interior with three men sitting at a table inscribed “1762” and a woman in a doorway. Instead of this having anything to do with Napoleon and his 1815 visit to Grenoble, it may just be a souvenir that represents a tale from popular literature or a folk tale — or maybe just a romanticized scene of an 18th- or 19th-century tavern.
Generally a piece like this would be called a “diorama,” which in this case is a small-scale replica of a scene. (A diorama may also be a full-size 3-D depiction, often found as museum exhibits or visual aids in a visitors center of some sort of historical attraction.)
The word “diorama” originated in 1823 in France when Charles-Marie Bouton and Louis Daguerre (of daguerreotype photography fame) created a full-sized theatrical attraction in Paris that made the audience feel as if they were experiencing a real scene when actually they were seeing cleverly lighted paintings on linen panels.
This diorama is somewhat in the style of the Black Forest, which was a kind of carving that can be traced to an 1816 famine in Brienz, Switzerland. Looking for a way to buy food, the local woodcarvers began turning out furniture, household accessories and decorations that would appeal to tourists.
Black Forest items were made primarily in Switzerland and Austria and consisted of such things as the familiar cuckoo clocks, boxes decorated with a variety of animals, benches supported by bears and figures of everything from human hunters to owls, wild boar, dogs and pheasants. Some items were very fanciful, while others were more practical.
Some of the Black Forest dioramas were carved from single boards to form a 3-D scene, but others appear to have had some assembly. Pine was often used, as was black walnut. Your piece appears to have been made at least partially from black walnut and then painted.
This example is probably from the last quarter of the 19th century (circa 1890) and at auction would probably sell for around $400. Its retail value would be in the $600 to $750 range.
Q: We need some help trying to find out what we have. This bird was in my father’s family, and we have a photograph of it in my grandfather’s house. The photograph was from the 1920s so we think this piece is more than 100 years old. Both the tree and the bird are cast bronze. We have not been able to find any manufacturer’s name on it. Can you help us?
A: Thank you for putting a 12-inch ruler next to the piece. This measuring device seems to indicate the piece is 16 to 18 inches tall.
The size would make the sculpture somewhat imposing, with its realistic depiction of a menacing bird of prey looking like it is just about to launch into the air and grab its next meal. The piece is meant to be artistic and not a mass-produced table decoration.
It would be important to know who the artist was who conceived the image and then had it cast in bronze. We are sure the artist was Japanese and equally sure the piece was made during the so-called Meiji period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912.
Before the mid-19th century, Japanese sculpture typically featured Buddhist and Shinto themes and was greatly influenced by Chinese art. When Japan opened its doors to Western trade and contact, many Japanese bronze sculptors became influenced by European art, specifically in this case the artists known as “animaliers.”
The term was first applied derisively to the work of Antoine-Louis Barye in 1831, but many other artists such as Isidore and Rosa Bonheur, Pierre-Jules Mene and Emile-Coriolan Guillemin were noted for their small-scale, naturalist depictions of various animals. Japanese artists working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also worked in this vein, producing realistic images of animals taken from Japanese folklore and the environment.
Many are signed by the artists, but many others are not. Look carefully for several Asian characters worked into the metal that may be very hard to find. Sometimes the characters can be well hidden, but sometimes they are written within a cartouche, which makes them much easier to spot. Finding the characters and obtaining a translation into English would potentially reveal the artist’s name and could greatly enhance the value.
It is impossible to give an accurate estimate of the value of the piece without being absolutely sure whether it is signed. But if it is not, we feel the piece would probably sell in the $1,000 to $2,000 range at auction. That price could be higher on the right day and in the right place.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques.