Fake history is everywhere and often quite difficult to root out. Today, I’m going to break format a little bit to look at an inflated historical claim that is a little unusual. I came across this listing for an antique brass humidor for sale at a wildly inflated price of $795, and I had a hard time believing it.
As many of you know, I collect unusual items with double-headed eagles on them, so I know a good deal about many different objects featuring the heraldic device. The humidor in question is a brass box with claw feet, lion pulls on the side and hand-embossed decorations of two lions supporting a shield on the front and the Romanov coat of arms on the lid. Take a look at how Kensington House Antiques of Maryland described the box:
England and Russia signed the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, and along with the Entente Cordiale (England & France) and the Franco-Russian Alliance (France & Imperial Russia), the three nations formed the Triple Entente that eventually entered into World War I against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Anglo-Russian Entente greatly leveled the balance of power in Continental Europe and was widely celebrated. This box was created in honor of that event and may have been a mid-level diplomatic gift from a British representative to his Russian peer. Although we have not seen it, we understand that the same box exists with the French arms on the lid in place of Romanov double eagle.
Every word of it is bullshit.
How do I know this?
Well, as it happens, I have an identical brass humidor sitting in my office, thus proving there is nothing unique about it, and there is no way a British diplomat commissioned it to give to a Russian one.
The lions on the front of the box are not British. The U.K.’s arms are supported by a lion and a unicorn, while England is symbolized by three lions on a red field, not two supporting a shield. The quality of the embossing is, to put it kindly, questionable. It is quite obviously folk art, and it is far below the quality that a professional metalsmith would have produced in 1907.
You will also find other people describing similar boxes as dating from the Napoleonic era. That’s wrong, too. I don’t believe the box to be either English or Russian, either, since every example known to me is currently located in the United States.
There are dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of these boxes located all over the United States, and the quality of their embossing ranges from near-professional to almost a cartoonish disaster. As best I can tell, the designs were added by folk artists to mass-produced plain humidors to decorate them. The differences between the boxes can be attributed to the skill of the folk artist, but they also form a rough taxonomy that allows us to see how copies were made from copies by artists who were unfamiliar with the original and therefore didn’t understand the details they mimicked. The last copies in that daisy chain are stylized almost to the point of incoherence. [Update: Peter de Geus on Facebook informs me that the more likely explanation is that artists with varying skill sets tried and failed to copy patterns from a pattern-book that provided templates for metalwork like this.] That none of them was an official government issue is obvious from the amateurish mistakes in the heraldry, mixing elements from different versions of the Romanov arms over the course of the nineteenth century.
The nicest such box I have ever seen featured two double-eagles, one on the lid and the other where the lions are on mine. The lions look uncannily like the early nineteenth century spread-winged version of the eagle on this box, and I do wonder if an early copyist misunderstood or misremembered the emblem, thus substituting lions that otherwise don’t seem in keeping with the theme. Otherwise, the lions may represent a Russian princely coat of arms unknown to me or are simply a European-style decoration imagined by an American artist.
Presumably, there was an original humidor that all of these were copied from as the pattern spread across the United States. Whether it was the invention of an American folk artist or a Russian immigrant or whether a humidor made for a Russian prince served as the model, I cannot say. (Russian humidors and tea caddies produced under imperial warrant often featured the Romanov arms, though in much better renderings.)
What I can say is that the box is not rare, nor is it worth $795. It’s maybe a $75-$100 piece depending on the quality of the art.
But telling an almost certainly false story about the box serving a diplomatic purpose commemorating the Anglo-Russian alliance leading up to the First World War ennobles what is, in reality, the work of common folk, and by making it an elite product, twists history to justify a hefty price.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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