Having fulfilled a long-delayed dream of having a seal engraved (below) with the ancient Lord coat of arms recorded in the College of Arms in London in 1510 (see left), I wanted to store it in a box appropriate to the symbolism - being England in the early 16th century.
Endless searching on Ebay produced several "medieval-style" boxes, or "caskets" as they were termed, some of unknown origin and some clearly low-quality Asian copies of earlier European originals.
I finally found the perfect box, being sold by a person in northern England and priced at under $100 (below). It was advertised as "A brass box with ecclesiastical scenes". It is made of very heavy brass and measures about 3 x 3 x 6 inches.
The front of the casket (above) displays a false (non-functional) lock and four panels presenting Biblical scenes rendered in a typical Medieval style, as seen in the ivory panels shown below, which date to the period.
The ends of the box (above) are divided in to two panels each, keeping the same uniform size as the panels on the front. Each panel shows a different Biblical scene.
The back of the box (above) is divided much as the front into four panels, each with a Biblical scene. Heavy cast exterior hinges attach the top to the back.
The top of the box (above) is separated into four, more elongated panels, each showing, in somewhat finer detail, additional Biblical scenes.
The bottom of the box is a plain brass sheet (above), and the interior is lined with what looks like cedar (below).
The lid is lined with a thick beveled piece of the same wood (above) held in place with very fine small fastenings or rivets (below).
In style and proportions, this brass box resembles very closely European ivory boxes of the 13th and 14th centuries, such as the one below attributed to France in about 1340.
Most striking is the fact that the brass box copies the original iron mounts attached to the exterior of the ivory box (see below). According to the museum description, these iron mounts were added at a later date, but still very ancient.
So although I was very happy to have a box in the style of a medieval one, and certainly would not expect to get an original for such a modest price, I began to imagine that perhaps this was in some form a very ancient English casket.
But that hope was quickly dashed when I encountered an identical brass casket on Ebay (below - note the description and the price!!!)
This box was certainly cast from the same mold as mine as it was precise in every detail. Except one! Instead of a plain brass bottom, this was stamped!
It was quite a shock to face the leap of my casket from the imagined 13th century to what seemed like yesterday - 1975!
Some research proved this company still exists and deals in various types of cast metal items for the home and designer trade (below), but nothing like the brass casket stamped with his mark.
The question was did he create this box himself. His biographical infornmation suggests he may have:
Arthur opened his own interior design company and a store that offered
of art, mineral specimens and furniture. As a result of
his projects, he began traveling and importing exotic objects from the
Pacific Rim. His reputation grew and soon his collections were featured
in Neiman Marcus and Gumps. Arthur's
casting ability came from a line of jewelry which he
fossils, shells, bones and stones. The bone concept inspired a cast
aluminum Antler furniture line that has been a signature look for
Arthur Court since the sixties and is now rare and sought after.
But why was one casket - the one I had - NOT stamped on the bottom and the other one WAS?
I was able to get in touch with his wife, Elena Court, who tried to provide some insight. But although 1975 did not seem all that long ago to me, I began to realise that in the history of a company, what happened in 1975 could be almost beyond the grasp of recollection! She wrote:
"The brass box is so old the history is vague. The brass box you purchased in England could very well be an 'original box' made before the box with the Arthur Court stamp. How many castings were done of the original English box is not known.
"In the later 1970s Arthur would go to England and collect all kinds of unusual things from old mills, military tunnels, open markets and antique stores. In those days he made many brass items. Some were copies of older pieces he collected...
"If the box was copied by us it would have been made in southern Taiwan at the time. This is an educated guess however. Both the theme and style of the box your refer to looks like it originated in England, not from a collection designed here."
So I was leaning toward this being a pre-Arthur-Court English original, supported somewhat by the fact that I bought it from an English source, and it seemed not likely a California design firm would be marketing its copies back to England.
And then to make things more complex, I enclounterered another brass casket on Ebay (below), which at first seemed to be another duplicate.
But very quickly it became clear that although this box was intended to be a copy of mine, it was NOT and in fact was a very crude rendering of the same design (below)
If you compare the front panels of this crude box (top, above) with mine (above) you see they are attempting to copy the very same Biblical scenes, and although so crudely rendered as to be almost unrecognizeable, even the rosettes on the vertical bands separating the panels have been "copied". The rough box does have a workable lock in so far as a lock can be put through the loop and the casket secured.
On the back panels, above, you can see the same crude attempt at reproducing the subjects of the casket I have. This is not just a low-quality rough sand casting, but a totally new casting from a new mold.
This fact is more fully confirmed if we compare one of the end panel sets on the two boxes (above).
And the interior is totally unrefined, being just very rough slab-work. Why does this very crude copy exist? Why would anyone bother?
So this all was left somewhat hanging since 2010, with my belief that I had, bought directly from England, an "original" British box that probably dated to the late 19th or early 20th century at best. But it suited me and the quality - especially after seeing that rough copy above - was impressive.
I was watching old episodes on my iPad of "Black Adder", the 2000-2001 British TV comedy starring Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as an idiot in the Elizabethan age.
Suddenly in one episode there stood a nobleman...with my box!!!
It is clearly the back of the box facing the camera, as you can see the two dark patches along the upper edge that are the hinges. And even though this video capture is a bit blurred, comparison with my original shows this is not the crude copy but the finer original version (below).
Another encounter with another popular BBC show, this time set in Medieval England and centered on a monk named Cadfael (above). As the Father Abbott prepares to send someone on a journey, the monks are seen considering the options (below).
On the table in the foreground (above) sits this same box? (It shows more clearly in the video.)
The similarity is confirmed as this scene evolves, and the Father Abbott picks up the box to take the precious Bishop's ring to give to the traveler for safe passage (below).
If you compare back of the Cadfael box (above, top) with mine (above, bottom) you can see, even as out of focus as the screen shot is, they are the same. And as the Abbot opens the reliquary box (below) the exact likeness of my brass casket is obvious.
So this box (or rather this product, since at least two were made indentically), seems to have an identity attached more to England than to the US, which suggests that the one stamped "Arthur Court Designs" was probably one he brought back from England, not one he had made.
A cursory internet search for "Gothic brass box" produced several similar to nearly identical caskets.
This one (above) was sold on a British auction site for £ 28. It was described as "A brass Gothic style box... with arched ecclesiastical scenes." The bas relief looks identical to my box, but there are differences. The front lock is missing, but the stump of the clasp shows on the lid, as if the top was sand cast from one that had a lock. Also the corners have a segmented dove-tail-like treatment, instead of being solid as mine is.
This box (above) is being sold on an American website for $39.95 and is described as "Solid Brass Cathedral Reliquary Box" in the "French-Gothic style" and covered with "bas-relief scenes of early Christian imagery surrounding a center 'True Cross'".
And the very same image is being used to offer the same box on eBay at a price of $81.95! The key here is that this Florida seller claims to have "6 available" and that he has "5 sold" already, suggesting this is a mass-produced item.
Out of curiosity I contacted the seller, asking if there was a maker's mark or any indication of where these boxes were made, and he wrote back: "Thank you for your inquiry. There is a removable sticker on the bottom that says 'Made In India'. There is no other marking. All the boxes are indentical."
The quality of the brasswork certainly fits Indian manufactore, although the subject matter is seemingly unusual, suggesting these were made specifically for the British market.
This box (above) is offered on an American online auction site, with an estimated sale price of $200-$300. It is described as "A 19th C. brass box, w/ Gothic Christian scenes, circa 1875". It appears to be identical to mine, including the lock and hasp cast on the front. But in this box the lock is fully functional, key-operated. Given the exact match of the casting (below), and the functioning lock, could this be the master from which my box, and others, were later copied?
If you compare the fronts of the two boxes below, this one (below, top) and mine (below, bottom) you can see they are identical, except the lock on mine is not functional, suggesting it is copied from the other one.
Another box (below) was found being offered on a British fine antiques website for £65 and described as a "very detailed Victorian gothic brass casket".
This box appears to be identical to the one offered on the American auction (see above on this page) for $39.95 (which would be about £24 or one-third he British asking price). The top of the box appears the same as mine and others, but in place of a lock plate, it has a large cross.
So..... although evidence has suggested mine is a British 19th century replica of a religious "reliquary", possibly suggested by the ecclesiastical scenes with which it is decorated, the full cedar wood lining suggests it is nothing more than an elaborate humidor for cigars or cigarettes. Others, as we have seen above, may have been proposed as everything from true antiques to modern jewelry boxes.
But it serves its purpose as a "medieval seal box" very nicely, and perhaps someday we will know more about it and how it came to be in a British TV comedy.
Some new information sent in during the last year or so.....
Several people wrote me reporting having a nearly ideitical, or identical, brass box. the details they attached to those reports added a lot to the discussion.
One person reported a box for sale, as described below:
Notice the box in the lower portion of the page as a silver finish and modern latch. The description seems a bit overblown.
The box owner sent an inage of the bottom, which, unlike mine, bears a stamp (see following):
The stamp is shown below in detail:
The following provide details on this maker:
Another viewer reports this identical box:
It appears the maker mark is the same as that above, by Frankau and Co. These reports suggest this was a widely
made item originating in the late 19th century, at least those with this maker's mark.
but the most detail response I received is the following:
I think I may be able to solve the riddle for you.
We have had one of the original boxes in our family possession for the last 70 years or so.
The story goes that during WWII my grandfather was tasked with firewatch duties in a small
Cheshire village. The surrounding countryside was targetted by the Luftwaffe as it was quite
near to a munitions factory and reflections from the surface of a nearby lake were on occassion
mistaken for the factory roof.
After the war he was presented with a casket by the church , in recognition of his services.
The Church was built around 1875. The casket was either made by or sold by Adolph Frankau & Co ,
London.They actually manufactured clay pipes , but could have traded in objects which were then stamped
with their mark.
At the time 1860-1880 there was a resurgence in interest in all things Gothic prior to the period
1880-1910 which we refer to as Art Nouveau
The base of the casket is stamped as shown here
The casket was either made for or acquired by the church at the time it was built. Since then many
copies have been made, but the original[s] will be stamped with the suppliers mark... A F C
I supect that the object you have is one of the many copies possibly made mid 20th Century.
A similar but original Victorian casket appeared on Ebay recently.
Hope this helps
This last seems to conclude this mystery and is supported by the evidence above. (11/2014)