The piece is a fine example of the intricate automatons that Pierre Jaquet-Droz made in the late 1700s, particularly for the Chinese market. The Jaquet Droz company continues this remarkable tradition still today in pieces such as its Lady 8 Flower.
The scent flask was made in Geneva in 1786-87, and it is a beautifully decorated vessel incorporating a watch face on one side, and an automated bird on the other. The bird is sculpted in ivory, carefully painted, and the mechanism swivels the bird’s body, moves the tail up and down and opens its beak, while it sings. The song is produced by a six-pipe organ powered by compressed air from bellows and controlled by a pinned cylinder operating six valves. The bird itself is just 12 mm high and so this is truly a masterpiece of miniature automation.
A surprising amount of the history of this piece is known. James Cox, a retailer of jeweled automata in London, ordered two identical scent bottles with singing bird and watch, and paid Jean-Frederic Leschot in Geneva £235 for both. Much later it was purchased by The Maurice Sandoz Collection in 1942 for US$2,997, and then by an American purchaser.
Images courtesy of Sotheby's.