5 minutes with… A mysterious silver skull pomander with possible royal provenance

by Christie's Specialist Milo Dickinson

Among the beautiful curiosities collected by the art dealer Oliver Hoare is a 17th-century silver pomander with possible royal attribution. As specialist Milo Dickinson explains, it has baffled experts for half a century.

The British art dealer Oliver Hoare (1945-2018) had a passion for artefacts with cultish and fabled properties. In 2017, in his remarkable London exhibition Every Object Tells a Story, he displayed a unicorn’s horn and a voodoo priest’s silver cane top, but perhaps the most mysterious object he owned is a silver skull pomander dated to 1628.

‘It is an extraordinary piece,’ confirms Milo Dickinson, Head of Sculpture at Christie’s in London. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it before.’

Pomanders are scent carriers which were popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were usually orb-shaped and contained chambers for herbs and spices, and were designed to be worn around the waist on a rope by wealthy aristocrats. Many paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, notably the famous Darnley Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London, depict her wearing finely crafted examples.

This forbidding pomander is no exception. The top of the skull opens like a lid to reveal two small paintings representing Christ descending into Limbo and the inscription ‘Post mortem, vita eternitas’ (after death, life eternal). The skull fits into a silver apple with a bite mark and an inscription dated 1628.

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