Show & Tell: Rococo Microscope

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

This Rococo Parisian microscope, created around 1751, is made of bronze, enamel, shagreen (untanned leather, sometimes coming from the skin of sharks), and glass. The J. Paul Getty Museum, which holds the item, writes that the microscope still works; “the case is fitted with a drawer filled with the necessary attachments such as tweezers, extra lenses, and slides of such items as geranium petals, hair, fly wings, and fleas.”

The microscope’s mechanism was designed by Michel-Ferdinand d’Albert d’Ailly, a French nobleman (the sixth duke of Chaulnes), who lived between 1714 and 1769. In a mid-19th-century biography, the English Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge described the duc de Chaulnes, a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, as “a zealous amateur of scientific pursuits.” He was also an honorary member of the French Royal Academy of Sciences and published several papers on optics, astronomy, and optical instruments.

This microscope, the Getty writes, was made for a man much like de Chaulnes—“an aristocratic amateur scientist,” who might have used it at home to explore his collection of natural specimens. During the 18th and 19th centuries, in Europe, such collections were often arranged as cabinets de curiosité—small in-home natural history museums holding exotic and interesting specimens, which doubled as displays of power and wealth for the people who owned them. This microscope’s gorgeous style would have added further to the owner’s image as an affluent person who cared about intellectual pursuits.

Jacques Caffieri, a bronze caster whose work in the Rococo style won him favor with King Louis XV and his family in the first half of the 18th century, apparently designed the microscope’s curvy mounts. The Getty has digitized a few images of Caffieri’s other pieces—a wall clock and a wall light—showing how he executed similar Rococo motifs for more purely decorative items. “A microscope of this same model belonged to Louis XV,” the Getty writes, “and was part of his observatory at the Château de la Muette.”

Header image via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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