Ingenious Napoleonic medal cabinet saved for the nation

A Napoleonic medal cabinet, thought to be one of the finest pieces of French Empire furniture in Britain, has been saved from export with support from the Art Fund.

Created around 1810, the cabinet is a stunning example of the Egyptian style that was popular in Europe and North America in the first decades of the 19th century. While the client for the cabinet is unknown, the quality of the its design, materials and workmanship suggest that it must have been made for someone in the circle of Emperor Napoleon – possibly Napoleon himself.

The attribution of the cabinet is the subject of ongoing research, but the lockplate is signed by Martin-Guillaume Biennais, the greatest goldsmith of the Napoleonic period, and it is likely that the cabinet was made entirely in or for Biennais's workshop. The upper section of the cabinet is based on a drawing of a ruined Egyptian temple pylon by the French artist Dominique-Vivant Denon, while a second drawing by the architect Charles Percier is marked 'for Biennais'.

As well as its unrivalled craftsmanship, the cabinet holds some ingenious secrets. To open the cabinet, the user first has to press the eye of one of the cobras on the face, revealing a keyhole. After unlocking the door, the cabinet opens to reveal 41 narrow drawers, each decorated with a silver scarab-like design. Each drawer is opened by lifting the right wing of its scarab, allowing the drawer to slide open.

The British government placed a temporary export bar on the cabinet in January 2014, and it has been saved for the nation following the V&A's successful campaign to raise the £534,000 necessary to buy the piece, with help from a £150,000 grant from the Art Fund.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: 'This magnificent cabinet is one of the very finest pieces of French Empire furniture in the UK, and the V&A is without doubt its proper home. It is great news that it will now remain in the UK.'

The medal cabinet will be on display in the V&A's Whiteley Silver Galleries until the end of August. It will then be exhibited permanently as part of the Museum's new Europe 1600-1800 galleries, which will open in spring 2015.

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