A desktop tomb

In the latest instalment of our “What’s that for?” series, a desk set modelled on a sarcophagus tells the story of the mixed feelings of the Germans towards the French in the early 19th century.

This iron desk set comes in the form of a small, black sarcophagus. The four feet are cast as lion’s paws, the lid is adorned with a cushion featuring a bicorne hat and a rapier. Located beneath the lid are an inkwell and a container for holding the pounce used to dry the ink. But why the shape of a tomb? The inkwell and pounce tin can be removed to reveal a miniature figure: Napoleon Bonaparte in his general’s uniform, a bicorne hat on his head and a rapier by his side.

A dead emperor on a desk to commemorate victory

Franco–German relations had been mixed ever since the French Revolution. Although Napoleon brought revolutionary ideas and new rights to the German states, these were plunged into war – and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation collapsed under Habsburg rule in 1806.

Following the defeat of the French and the death of Napoleon, desk sets such as the one described above, which dates back to 1821, were manufactured at the royal Prussian iron foundry in Gliwice (known at the time as Gleiwitz). With their knowledge of the hidden figure of a dead Napoleon Bonaparte, the owner could, as they conducted their daily business, commemorate the jubilant end (from a Prussian point of view) of the Napoleonic Wars and the victory of the Holy Alliance in 1815.