The large and beautifully coloured amethyst in this ring is carved with an 18th century intaglio depicting Hercules (wearing the skin of the Nemean lion he recently slew), shooting an arrow into the figure of Hades/Pluto, the King of the Underworld, who is holding a trident, during battle in defence of the city of Pylos. In the corner are the three heads of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of the Underworld. Underneath is a copied signature KPOMOY, the signature of Cronius, an ancient Greek carver of gemstones.
This extraordinary 18th century intaglio in the ancient style can be traced directly to the collection of Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833). Prince Stanislas was the nephew of the last King of Poland, Stanislas II Augustus, and a key figure of the 18th century Polish/Lithuanian government, acting as Grand Treasurer of the Grandy Duchy of Lithuania and Governer of Stryj. He was also an avid antiquarian and patron of the arts, who commissioned around 2500 carved gems from a group of gem engravers in Rome, depicting a number of Greco-Roman historical and mythological scenes, primarily using literature as their source material. Poniatowski encouraged the belief that these were ancient gems rather than contemporary works, and published details of his collection in his own Catalogue des Pierres Gravees Antiques de S.A. le Prince Stanislas Poniatowski in 1830.
Upon the prince’s death, his collection was sold at auction through Christie’s in London in 1839, and the collection was dispersed. A large portion of the collection was purchased by the collector John Tyrrell, who painstakingly took plaster casts of each of his purchases, and recorded their subject matter and the stone they were carved in. Tyrrell tried to sell his portion of the collection to the British Museum, but once it was discovered that the carvings weren’t ancient as previously believed, this fell through, and Tyrrell was forced to once again disperse the jewels.
Nearly two centuries after they were sold, the Poniatowski gems are now recognised as an important triumph of neoclassical gem carving, but due to their dispersal on the market, most have disappeared, our only detailed resource being Tyrrell’s collection of casts, which are now housed at the University of Oxford. Luckily, this exact intaglio is recorded among them. Its provenance after Tyrrell’s dispersal is unknown, but its mount, signed Monture Cartier means that, probably in the 1940s, it was taken to renowned jewellery house Cartier by its owner for remounting.
This exciting rediscovery represents an extremely rare opportunity to purchase a superb carved gem with royal provenance, from a storied, historic collection, mounted as a stylish mid-century statement ring by the world’s most famous jewellery house.
The collection of Prince Stanislas Poniatowski (1754-1833)
Sold at Christie's, London: 1839, Lot 2292
Purchased by John Tyrrell Esq.
The plaster cast can be found at the Beazley Archive at the University of Oxford, reference no. T434, which can be accessed here.
To learn more about intaglio rings, read our Notebook entry here.