„Magician and Temple boxes“
(Spieldosen mit einem Automatenwerk „Zauberer und Tempel“)

Magician and Temple boxes, as they are known, are the most complex of the miniature automata produced in Switzerland in the early 19th century. They are justly prized for their ‘magic’ qualities, their beauty and their extreme rarity. Whereas singing bird boxes charm with their artifice, an improvement on nature, the magician and ‘temple’ boxes venture into an arcane world of soothsayers and necromancy.

5 ‘temple’ boxes

The very small surviving group of so-called ‘temple’ boxes produced in Geneva between 1800 and 1810 includes automata of the utmost sophistication. At the present time only five are known to exist and still to perform their magic.

Magic indeed since their existence springs from the series of ‘Magician’ boxes, created a few years earlier, by which the figure of a magician appears, waves his magic wand and summons up a small singing bird.

2 earlier ‘temple’ boxes with a magician who causes columns to rotate (John Rich)

In an earlier, simpler pair of ‘Temple’ boxes, dating from around 1800, with movements by John Rich, a door opens to reveal a magician who causes the columns of the building to rotate and change colour (footnote 1).

3 later ‘temple’ boxes with two performing figures, a spining star, and a door opens to a sanctum where an altar flames (Sené & Neisser)

The later three, even more sophisticated, which date from 1805-1808, including the present example, have two changing articulated figures behind the magic temple doors, a dancer and a musician or priest, or two musicians, who perform while the columns in the colonnade turn and change colour as music plays and a star spins above and another door opens to a hidden sanctum where an altar flames (footnote 2).

The present example and its ‘pair’, now in the Sandoz Collection, are unusually contained in cases formed as a book. The spine opens to provide three compartments, the top enclosing a small watch movement, the second empty to contain the keys to the movements, and the bottom with a ‘vinaigrette’ compartment, designed to contain a tiny sponge soaked in perfumed vinegar to revive a fainting lady or to protect her nose from unpleasant street odours.

The front cover shows a magnificent painting in enamel of a leopard and a bunch of grapes within a trailing vine border. It might seem somewhat counter-intuitive to have such a Dionysian beast and alcoholic symbols on an object intended for a lady but this is a beast of the Golden Age, when even leopards feasted on grapes rather than devouring their prey. The reverse with its plethora of fruits and flowers clustered near a Grecian urn, reinforces the Arcadian theme.

Although the symbolism on this magic book appears to be classically themed, it is probable that it was intended for the Chinese market. At this time, mechanical inventors, goldsmiths, painters in enamel and entrepreneurs in Geneva were all seeking to produce novelties to tempt the Emperor and his court. It was a risky business of speculation since there were many dangers on the long voyage as well as the financial problems involved. Still those involved felt the rewards outweighed the risks and we are lucky enough to enjoy the results.


1 Bernard Pin, Watches & Automata, The Maurice Sandoz Collection, Le Locle, 2011, vol. III, pp. 186/7; Peter Friess, Patek Philippe Museum, The Emergence of the Portable Watch, Geneva, 2015, inv. S-309

2 The present example and its pair in the Sandoz Collection, Bernard Pin, Watches & Automata, The Maurice Sandoz Collection, Le Locle, 2011, vol. I, no. 6.6, p. 54ff; and a third with similar movement but a plain gold case, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 26 October 2005, lot 1639

Zum „Magician and Temple boxes“-Hersteller Sené & Neisser