A trio of French Empire gilt bronzes from the Napoleonides series by Martin-Guillaume Biennais sold for $40,000 (£31,500) at Stair Galleries. The signature to the base of the clock case reads Biennais Orfre de LL MM Imp. et Roi a Paris (Biennais, goldsmith to their Imperial and Royal Majesties in Paris).

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Spotted in a regular ‘Thursday Morning at Stair’ sale in upstate New York, a trio of French Empire gilt bronzes by Martin-Guillaume Biennais sold way above expectations on January 15.

After just six muscular bids they hammered for $40,000 (£31,500) against an estimate of $800-1200.

The Stair Galleries (23% buyers premium) cataloguing was brief but, as indicted by the engraved signatures to the bases reading Biennais Orfre de LL MM Imp et Roi a Paris, these were made in the workshop of the imperial goldsmith and bronzier Martin-Guillaume Biennais (1764-1843).

He took advantage of the abolition of the guild system during the Revolution to build a business ‘at the sign of the Singe Violet’ in Paris that at its Napoleonic peak employed some 200 craftsmen making luxury goods of all kinds.

Although offered as a garniture, the models are part of a set of 28 different ormolu busts known as the Napoleonides. Made c.1808-10, each features a different member of the Napoleonic family raised on a crested square section or cylindrical plinth.

They may have been made as diplomatic gifts and distributed in the territories where Napoleon – the ultimate nepotist – had given his family positions of great power.

The two persons depicted here are Napoleon himself (seen to the right) and his youngest brother Jerome Bonaparte (1784-1860), king of Westphalia from 1807-13, whose head and shoulders top both the plinth to the left and the clock case.


Side view of a trio of French Empire gilt bronzes from the Napoleonides series by Martin-Guillaume Biennais sold for $40,000 (£31,500) at Stair Galleries.

Saleroom appearances

Busts from the Biennais Napoleonides series make occasional saleroom appearances, most frequently in France where they can sell for upwards of €10,000 depending on subject matter.

Some of the models are known in only small numbers. Only six depictions of Caroline Bonaparte, queen of Naples, are recorded, one of which sold at Ivoire in Paris in January 2022 for €40,000.

The 12in (30cm) clock case, with movement by Henri Fort of Paris, is particularly scarce.

No other examples have been offered at auction in recent memory although another with the bust of Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, is in the collection of the Fondation Napoléon in Paris.