Gift commissioned for the cold-shouldered sister of Marie Antoinette and her husband prince Albert Casimir being auctioned at Bonhams

Fine Silver and Gold Boxes
19 Jun 2013
London, New Bond Street

Imperial silver service rediscovered after escaping ravages of Napoleonic wars

Bonhams is to sell a rare Imperial soup tureen created by the most important artisan of silver objects of Viennese Neoclassicism during the Enlightenment (c.1650 to 1800). The tureen is being offered at as part of the Fine Silver and Gold Box Sale on June 19th at its New Bond Street saleroom. It is estimated at £150,000 to £200,000. Michael Moorcroft, Director of Bonhams Silver Department, comments: "The Sachsen-Teschen service has emerged from the shadows of the past to a glittering future".

The soup tureen was a wedding gift from Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, the mother of Maria Christina and Marie Antoinette, to Archduchess Maria Christina and her husband, Prince Albert Casimir. "Mimi" (as Maria Christina was affectionately called by her mother) fell in love with her second cousin, Prince Albert, and was especially taken by his "interest in everything beautiful, in the fine arts, and in his idealistic dreams to do good". In spite of his prestigious title, the Prince's family had become impoverished in the Seven Years' War and so Maria Christina's marriage to the Prince would not be profitable.

Besotted with Albert, "Mimi" manipulated her mother into allowing the marriage to go ahead. Not only did the couple get permission to marry, they also received a large dowry comprised of some of the most important gold and precious objects created during the Enlightenment. Large parts of the ensemble were made by Franz Caspar Wurth, including the First Sachsen-Teschen Service ever produced. This service was later to be melted to be replaced by an even more spectacular service by Caspar Wurth's son, Ignatz, part of which is the present soup tureen being auctioned at Bonhams. Marie Antoinette was given a very similar service as a dowry made by Ignatz Wurth.

While it is Marie Antoinette who has been immortalised by history, Maria Christina was Maria Theresa's favourite child and for this she was excluded by the rest of the family, including sister Marie Antoinette. "Mimi" was given the cold-shoulder as she was the only daughter who was allowed to choose her own husband and marry Prince Albert for love. Indeed, the sisters never reconciled and it is believed that on the beheading of Marie Antoinette, Maria Christina remained cool and remarked that her sister should never have married. The soup tureen marks this special relationship between the mother and the daughter, but is also a symbol of the romantic love between Maria Christina and her husband.

It was fashionable among the royal households of Europe to hold large Imperial banquets more as displays of wealth than dining. For such occasions, monarchs commissioned Imperial goldsmiths (such as the Wurth dynasty) to create silverware. In a number of paintings of such banquets from the period, monarchs are depicted eating "in state;" consuming their meals at long tables from the elaborate silverware while their guests stand around observing the display. The size and design of such silverware therefore reflects the prestige and wealth of the banqueting monarch. The soup tureen was used as symbol of this, demonstrated through its large size, weighing at 27 pounds and elaborate design of crabs and various shell fish on a bed of sea weed. This patterning tells us that the vase would have been used for the serving of bouillabase and such fish stews.

The innovative French Baroque design and quality of the tureen reflects the deep love Prince Albert and Maria Christina shared for craftsmanship and the arts. Indeed, Prince Albert was described as having inherited his ancestor's passion for collecting, thought to possess "the Wettin's Collector's Bug". His fortunate marriage to Maria Christina gave him the opportunity to realise this zeal for the arts, as they couple spent their lives collecting and promoting Austria's most important artists and goldsmiths. Their collection went onto to form the large part of the Albertina Museum (named after Prince Albert), which holds one of the largest collections of artworks in the world.

Unlike many of his royal counterparts, Prince Albert was a careful spender. Many monarchs during this period were forced to melt down their silver and gold objects to fund their indulgent habits and salvage their courts from financial turmoil. Prince Albert and Maria Christina were famously cautious with their expenditure and this is why such a large part of their collection has remained preserved. It is therefore highly unusual to acquire silver from this period as so much of it was destroyed for politically financial reasons.

It was only in 1947 that the family, directly descending from Prince Albert and Marina Christina, finally ran into financial problems and were forced to sell items from their collection.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to

Related auctions