Collector’s Guide: from Vinaigrettes to Snuff Boxes

Ahead of the Silver & Objects of Vertu auction on 31 October, Head of Department John Rogers takes a closer look at the snuff boxes, vinaigrettes and card cases that make up the work of the Birmingham Box makers and shares top tips on what to look out for at auction.

‘The snuff boxes, vinaigrettes and card cases produced by the Birmingham Box Makers during the first half of the 19th century represent a richly diverse and rewarding collector’s field. Their varied work fetches an array of different prices under the hammer and with this in mind, it makes a brilliant starting point for a collection that can develop in maturity over time. Simple vinaigrettes can be bought for just £50, while coveted ‘castle-top’ card cases can realise £10,000.’ – John Rogers

The noteworthy box-makers during the first half of the 19th century was the renowned Nathaniel Mills, as well as Joseph Wilmore, Samuel Pemberton, Edward Smith and John Thornton.

Vinaigrettes are small boxes with an internal hinged grill that would have originally contained a sponge. These sponges would have been soaked in vinaigrette oil. Held up to one’s nose, its pungent aroma would have cut through the unpleasant smells encountered on the street.

‘Look for cast foliate rims, rich engine turned decoration and a secure and ornately pierced internal grill. Larger than standard vinaigrette pieces or those with uncommon forms will command more and strengthen a collection.’ – John Rogers

Notable examples in the forthcoming auction include a rare watch case form example by Joseph Wilmore, an unusual circular pierced example by John Thornton and an attractive agate inset example from the Victorian period.

Customary for both men and women, tobacco was chewed by the bourgeoisie and snuffed by even the most elegant of aristocrats. The ‘art of snuff’ quickly found its way into the finest European salons. Snuff was kept in specially made boxes of various materials, forms and sizes depending on its use. The pocket snuff box, for example, ought to be flat, small in size and airtight to avoid humidity when out and about.

It was the fashion to match one’s snuffbox to one’s mood and outfit as well as to the occasion. Responding to the demand, the mid-18th century saw the rise of specialised artisans whose craft was dedicated to the production of snuffboxes. Often decorated, some particularly precious examples were made in gold, which was engraved and chased and set with stones. Others were made in porcelain, enamel, agate, tortoiseshell, ivory or painted.

This new accessory quickly became a status symbol and was popular to give as a token of love or friendship or as a marker of military or diplomatic merit.  Towards the late 18th century, tobacco became accessible to the middle and lower classes. Catering to this new consumer, large quantities of silver boxes were produced in Birmingham by the likes of Pemberton, Smith and Mills who specialised in depictions of idyllic scenes of castles and national landmarks. There are also examples of larger, more elaborate table snuffboxes to be found.

‘The most desirable examples of snuff boxes are the ‘castle-top’ kind, as indeed is the same with card cases and vinaigrette's. These boxes and cases have cast or engraved scenes of castles, cathedrals, notable buildings or monuments on their lids. While Abbotsford House or Windsor Castle from the Thames are most often encountered, extremely rare examples such as Eddystone Lighthouse, Cornwall will fetch between £7,000-£9,000 for a card case.’ – John Rogers

Another aspect of collecting snuffboxes is the presentation inscriptions often found on them or names of the previous owners.

‘Look out for the names and crests of traceable figures or events held in the past where the box may have been a prize or gift. If connected to a famous or notable individual or from an important sporting or political occasion this will add considerably to the value.’ – John Rogers

Noteworthy snuff boxes offered in the sale include one formerly owned by a Ramsgate auctioneer and archaeological writer Henry George Vinten, an oblong snuffbox with a finely cast scene by Edward Smith and a desirable silver gilt ‘castle-top’ example showing the East Terrace of Windsor Castle.

Silver and Objects of Vertu - 31 October