Caucasian grease boxes

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Gun parts need to be oiled from time to time, which in the XIXth century was often done with grease (animal, usually cow fat), also used to grease paper cartridges. Because of this, many chose to carry a small box containing supply of fat; in Caucasus it would be hanging, together with the rest of similar equipment, on the warrior’s belt. Most of these boxes were strictly utilitarian, made from low grade silver, covered with crude niello or engravings – and very few of them actually survived. High class boxes, such as the ones shown here, are even more rare. Very few were made in the first place, and from those even fewer survived. They are almost never encountered by collectors, and even major museums do not have them: they are small and in the XIXth century collectors preferred to go after larger items. Even is such a piece were to be donated to a museum, it is unlikely to be as strongly appreciated as similarly decorated long sword or dagger – despite tremendous rarity of these objects. So here we have four high end “fat” boxes, as they are often called, courtesy of one of the most important private Collections. It would be interesting to demonstrate how these can be appraised by using the method proposed by us in Arms and Armor of Caucasus.

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The easiest one would be the item (A) – granular design, with extensive use of filigree is very clearly indicative of 1900-1910 Western Caucasus, most likely Western Georgia (Kutaisi?). The quality of work exhibited here suggests someone related to the school of Idris/Dzadzamidze. Indeed, the object is signed 1916 on the back. Indeed, limiting the upper bound by 1910 was not based on the observation that this school disappeared in this particular year (it continued to function all the way till 1917, and even a little bit afterwards), but rather a guess, based on the observation that such items dating to the period of WWI are very uncommon, and majority tend to date from 1900-1910, or maybe 1900-1913.

In (B) the image is formed by deep carving, which creates a recessed background – something strongly associated with Dagestani craftsmen. The design however is somewhat reserved and sparse, which would suggest an earlier date (around 1870s?), during which time a number of related work in “double layer” style was produced.

(C) is by far the most rare and unusual of the group. The style is clearly Circassian, but the strong central symmetry, and more “flowing”, rather than purely geometrical bullhorns, suggest its Georgian interpretation. A strong yellow color (gilding) is however very indicative specifically of Iosif Papov’s work, roughly from the same period as when he made his famous shashka, intended for Prince Menshikov, commander of the Russian Army during the Crimean war. Indeed, it is signed on the back by Iosif Papov and dated 1863. It is known that besides weapons, Papov made a reasonable number of gunpowder flasks, a few belts, but this appears to be the only fat box known to exist today.

(D) is a combination of carved animal (a typical Georgian, Tbilisi feature) and carved background, indicating that it was actually made by Dagestani, though probably residing in Tbilisi. The design is crowded, and the carving is not very sharp, indicating later work, probably just somewhat earlier than 1900.