A selection of the 100 lots of Neapolitan crib figures to be offered in Paris by Beaussant-Lefèvre on January 31. Estimates for individual lots range from €50-5000. Image copyright: Studio Sebert - Beaussant Lefevre.

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Although the tradition of a crib scene is thought to have started with St Francis of Assisi with living figures forming a tableau, the Neapolitan creations are particularly arresting multi-figure arrangements. They feature not just figures from the Nativity story but also a host of different local artisans and street sellers identified by their costume and accoutrements.

These elaborate south Italian creations really got under way in the 18th century when well-known Neapolitan artists and sculptors were employed to create what were in effect small-scale sculptures in terracotta and wood, wearing costumes of real cloth.

They were set in architectural surrounds and as well as being displayed in churches, they were commissioned by aristocratic families.

Today the presepe tradition is still strong in Italy and smaller-scale crib scenes are found in private homes as well as the grander display in churches. They are set up before Christmas and retained until the feast of the Epiphany.

On January 31 the Paris auction firm of Beaussant-Lefèvre will be selling a large collection of Neapolitan presepe figures that has been assembled by an couple of enthusiasts over a 30-year period.

More than 100 lots of individual figures and groups spanning the 18th-20th centuries will be offered. They constitute all the typical elements from a Neapolitan crib scene.

The Holy Family, the three Magi, shepherds and angels are there, as well as various Neapolitan society characters from well-heeled gentlefolk to beggars.