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Frederick II's elephant, depicted in an imperial procession in Cremona in 1237.
(Matthew Paris, 'Cronica Maiora', Part II,Parker Library, MS 16, fol. 151V).
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An allegory of Hearing. Oil on copper. 59,3 × 91 cm.
Estimate: CHF 200 000/300 000
Sold for CHF 244 000
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Collecting exotic and domestic animals for display was a pastime and a symbol of prestige and power for European monarchs for centuries. Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II exchanged a series of rare beasts with Al-Malik al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt, in the early 13th century. Al-Kamil sent an elephant to Frederick, as well as a white cockatoo from Australasia – a region that was completely unknown to the Western world at that time, so the bird would have been exceedingly rare. In return, Frederick’s gifts to the Sultan included horses with gem-incrusted golden stirrups, a white peacock, and a white bear. Frederick also sent three lions to King Henry III of England, a gift which inspired Henry to start a menagerie in the Tower of London. The English king received a polar bear in 1252 from the king of Norway, and an elephant in 1255 from King Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France.

Many artists throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods were also captivated by animals, both exotic and domestic. Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros from 1515, despite its anatomical inaccuracies (he never actually saw the beast) was enormously popular and widely distributed throughout Europe. Dürer owned several parrots, and this exotic creature can be spotted in several of his works, including the 1504 engraving, ‘Adam & Eve’. Parrots, like many other animals, were given a symbolic meaning in art. They came to be associated with the Immaculate Conception – perhaps because the bird’s ability to speak seemed as miraculous as Mary’s birth, or because they are the only animals that can pronounce words and miracles supposedly occurred through the ‘Word’ of God.

Some early to mid-17th-century artists seem to have included animals in their paintings not only for their symbolic meaning, but for the sheer pleasure of depicting them in all their furry or feathery glory. Jan Brueghel the Younger’s ‘Allegory of hearing’ includes two macaws who seem to be deep in conversation, a white cockatoo and other colourful birds flying above the scene, and a mischievous monkey attempting to play a horn.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Oil on panel. 46 × 70,8 cm.
Estimate: CHF 50 000/70 000
Sold for CHF 61 000
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An otter lying on a rocky shore.
Oil on copper. 15,5 × 22,3 cm.
Estimate: CHF 25 000/35 000
Sold for CHF 25 000
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Jacob Savery the Younger seemed to delight in placing a wide variety of animals in his depiction of the Garden of Eden, from commonplace creatures such as a cow and a dog to leopards, an ostrich, a giraffe and even a unicorn, while Adam & Eve are reduced to tiny, spectral figures, almost as an afterthought.

In their ‘Allegory of air’, Jan Brueghel the Younger and Ambrosius Francken the Younger depict a wonderful maelstrom of birds, from the terrestrial turkey and ostrich to a delicate and high-flying bird of paradise. And Jan van Kessel even indulged himself in a small-format study of a sleeping otter.

The wealthy ruling class of the time did not settle for merely admiring artistic depictions of animals, however, when the true status symbol was owning one’s own. Louis XIV’s ‘Ménagerie royale’ at Versailles had a great influence on his fellow European regents. Constructed between 1662 and 1668 as a display of exotic birds and animals such as ostriches, an elephant and a dromedary, it was an essential part of any visit to the royal château. Soon similar menageries began to appear in castles such as Het Loo in the Netherlands, the Belvedere in Vienna and Sanssouci in Potsdam. The message intended to be conveyed by such collections was that the ruler exercised his power and control not only over his subjects, but over the chaos of nature itself.

An allegory of air.
Oil on panel. 42,7 × 61,5 cm.
Estimate: CHF 60 000/80 000
Sold for CHF 73 000
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La Ménagerie de Versailles: le pavillon central vu depuis la Cour des Demoiselles.
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Meissen, circa 1732. The model probably by J. J. Kändler for the Japanese Palace in Dresden.

© Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989-22-2.
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The porcelain circa 1751–53. The model probably by J. J. Kändler.
Estimate: CHF 26 000/30 000
Sold for CHF 61 000
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The models circa 1741 by J. J. Kändler.

Augustus II ‘the Strong’ of Saxony surely visited the Versailles menagerie when he stayed there as a youth during his Grand Tour in 1687 and 1688, but he was especially impressed by the ‘Labyrinthe’, an elaborate garden maze with thirty-nine fountains decorated with painted lead statues of animals and birds. It is possible that the Labyrinthe at Versailles was one of the inspirations for Augustus’s gargantuan and ultimately unfinished project for the ‘Japanese Palace’ in Dresden. Augustus planned to fill the palace with hundreds of life-sized painted porcelain figures of animals and birds, designed and created by his Meissen porcelain manufactory. Augustus was of course also an avid collector of live animals. Not content to rely on the traditional network of gift-giving between monarchs to obtain his creatures, he organised an African expedition in the early 1730s to collect wild game and birds. The beasts in his menageries served as models for the artists and craftsmen charged with creating his porcelain menagerie, a sort of still-life counterpoint to his live collections, as well as a powerful advertisement for his porcelain manufactory.

Although the Japanese Palace project was eventually abandoned after the death of Augustus the Strong, Meissen continued to make models of animals in smaller formats. The pair of lions offered here from circa 1751–53 were modelled by J. J. Kändler for the base of a planned equestrian statue for Augustus the Strong’s son, Augustus III.

The series of small figurines modelled as deer in various poses, a hunter, a hare and a fox were likely part of an intricate table setting. Hunting was an important part of life at the Saxon court, and banquets featuring game were regularly held. The porcelain figurines would have been part of a lavishly set dessert table, perhaps with a herd of deer being pursued by hunters, accompanied by sugar and marzipan sculptures and fountains.

Meissen figurines of all sorts of animals were quite popular in the 18th century, and included cats, dogs, and – still beloved more than 400 years after Frederick II and three centuries after Dürer – parrots. Royal menageries have evolved into state-run zoos, but China’s gift of two giant pandas to the United States following President Nixon’s visit in 1972 (and the return gift of two musk oxen to China) shows that this particular age-old tradition continues – and that animals still have a role to play in international relations.

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Vue de l’entrée du bosquet du Labyrinthe avec des nymphes et des amours prenant des oiseaux dans leurs filets. © Château de Versailles
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The models probably by J.J. Kändler, circa 1736.
Estimate: CHF 5 600/6 200
Sold for CHF 7 000
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The giant pandas Ling Ling and Sing Sing.
Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press
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