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A rare chance to dine on Napoléon’s dinner plates

On May 8, a suite of opulently decorated porcelain pieces from the so-called 'Marly Rouge' dessert service, commissioned by none other than the Emperor Napoléon, is among the storied offerings in a sale of 253 lots of English and Continental furnishings owned by David and Peggy Rockefeller at Christie’s in New York.

The service, which is painted with butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, beetles, and other insects, includes an elephant-head-handled ice pail (glacière) with a cover and liner; a pair of oval eagle-headed sauce tureens or sugar bowls (sucriers), with covers and navette-shaped stands; a footed bowl; two compotes (compotiers) supported by four parcel-gilt dolphins; four smaller-footed compotes; and 12 plates.

"This marvelous dessert service must have been important to Napoléon as he took it with him when he was exiled to Elba following the signing of the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April 1814," says Jody Wilkie, cochairman in the department of decorative arts at Christie’s in New York.

napoleon-2 Bonaparte crossing the St Bernard Pass, May 1800, 1801 painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), oil on canvas, 264x231 cm. French Revolutionary Wars, Italy-Switzerland, 18th century. Photo: Getty

The dessert service, she explains, was made for the emperor in 1807–09 and was originally to be delivered to his favorite residence, the Château at Compiègne. However, he wound up taking delivery of it at his hunting lodge at Fontainebleau in October 1809, not long after signing the Treaty of Schönbrunn in Vienna. "The bespoke service was delivered during a rather emotional time for Napoléon as he had decided to divorce his beloved Josephine, who was unable to bear an heir, and essentially handed the empress her walking papers."

Following Napoléon’s death, says Wilkie, much of the service was dispersed, with Fontainebleau—now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum—retaining but a single dolphin-footed compotier and perhaps six plates, which they were able to acquire on the art market. "I’d say the Rockefeller Collection has a good third, if not more, of Napoléon’s original service. Perhaps more important, it includes an example of every piece that was in it."

For those hoping to own a bit of imperial history, Lot 118 carries an estimate of £107,000/AU$192,000 to £ $141,000/AU$256,000

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