Long Before The Six Napoleons

Those of you who enjoy the Sherlock Holmes mysteries may well be familiar with The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, a story about a half-dozen plaster busts of Bonaparte, set in late Victorian London. But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not the first to consider the idea of hiding something valuable inside a sculpture. At least one of the more prominent sculptors of the later eighteenth century employed the same technique in real life more than a century and a half before Sir Arthur depicted it in fiction.

When sculpture was used for smuggling . . .

Case in point is the well-known sculptor, Joseph Nollekens. Young Nollekens was the son of a Flemish painter who had emigrated to Britain in the early eighteenth century. The young man initially studied sculpture in the London studio of a fellow Flemish immigrant, Peter Scheemakers. As he studied and steadily improved his skills, Nollekens was aware that one of the most effective ways he could advance his career was to study in Italy. Many young sculptors who attained membership in the Royal Academy were often provided with a grant which enabled them to travel to Rome and supported them for two to three years while they studied classical sculpture. Nollekens was not a member of the Royal Academy. Nevertheless, he was determined to study in Rome.

By 1762, Joseph Nollekens had completed his apprenticeship and had saved enough money to pay his way to Rome. Once he arrived there, he was eventually able to find employment in the sculpture workshop of Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. Nollekens initially spent most of his time restoring ancient sculptures as well as the work of Renaissance sculptors such as Michelangelo, Andrea Della Robbia and Giambologna. Through this process, he was able to closely study both antique and classical sculpture, thereby perfecting his own elegant Neo-classical style. A style which had become very fashionable in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Nollekens’ employer, Cavaceppi, was a talented sculptor, but he also had a side business as a dealer in antique sculptures. Cavaceppi is known to have regularly supplemented his income with the making of fakes. This was the height of the Grand Tour era and there were many more tourists wanting antique sculptures as souvenirs than there were authentic sculptures to meet those demands. Nollekens, always in need of funds, soon learned the necessary skills to fake antique classical sculpture himself and began his own side business as a dealer. He frequently bought broken pieces of old statuary, then sorted and reassembled the various bits into a large sculpture, usually supplemented with some parts of his own work. Once the piece was assembled, he carefully "aged" it with the judicious application of tobacco-water to give the whole sculpture the correct patina.

In one instance, Nollekens had purchased the headless torso of a sculpture, purportedly of the goddess Minerva. Not long after that, a notorious dealer in antiquities, Jenkins by name, had the head of an antique sculpture returned to him by a dissatisfied customer. Nollekens noticed that the gender, character and proportion of the returned head was a good match to his headless torso. Nollekens had paid fifty guineas for the torso, while he paid Jenkins two hundred and fifty guineas for the head. He invested another twenty guineas into labor and stone to "restore" the sculpture. Once the "restoration" was complete, Nollekens sold his Minerva for one thousand guineas.

It was not long before Nollekens became very popular among the English tourists who traveled through Rome on the Grand Tour. Most of them came to him originally for souvenir antique classical sculptures. However, a number of them also engaged him to carve a portrait bust of themselves. The great actor and playwright, David Garrick, and the noted novelist, Laurence Stern, both had Nollekens carve a portrait bust of them when they visited Rome. The most affluent typically had him carve their portrait bust in Italian marble, while those of lesser means had him execute their portraits in less costly stone or plaster. As a service to his patrons, Nollekens usually also took on the responsibility of crating and shipping these portrait busts back to England for them. He was already crating and shipping antique sculptures for many of his patrons, so, along with the portraits busts, he was sending regular shipments of sculpture to Britain nearly every month.

Despite the brisk business he was doing as a sculptor and a dealer, Nollekens always felt he was chronically short of funds. He soon found a novel way to supplement his income. He became a smuggler. During the 1760s, Italian silk goods were in great demand in Britain, but the duties charged on them were very high. Nollekens devised a fool-proof way to smuggle silk gloves, stockings and fine laces into Britain. In fact, his method was so successful that he was never caught. His smuggling activities only came to light many years later, when he revealed them to a close friend, who made a record of Nollekens’ youthful exploits.

Nollekens executed all of his plaster busts so that they were hollow. With those he used for smuggling, he left the back open, filled the hollow cavity inside with a packet stuffed with a large quantity of Italian silk stockings, gloves or lace. Once the bust was filled, he then spread a thick coating of plaster over the shoulders and back. When the coating had dried, the bust appeared to be a solid sculpture. Nollekens then shipped these silk-filled busts to England, where his partner received the shipments of busts, liberated the silk goods and quietly sold them to eager customers. It is likely this unknown partner also repaired the busts with a new coating of plaster over the back and shoulders, then also sold them as well. Thus, the partners made money on both the smuggled goods and the containers they used to smuggle them.

When Joseph Nollekens returned to London in 1770, he seems to have given up his smuggling activities. In 1771, he was made an associate of the Royal Academy and became a full member the following year. Soon thereafter, he married and settled down to the life of a respectable and prosperous sculptor. Though he preferred carving sculptures with mythological themes in the Neo-classical style, he was very popular for his portrait busts. Nollekens enjoyed the patronage of George III, as well as many among the British nobility and the gentry. Joseph Nollekens continued working as a sculptor right though the Regency period and died a wealthy man in 1823.

Joseph Nollekens’ smuggling technique was so effective because no customs inspector ever tumbled to what was inside all those shipments of plaster busts when they arrived from Italy. It would be unknown even today, if Nollekens had not shared his exploits in Italy with a friend in his old age. Nevertheless, if one man, or woman, can conceive of something, it is likely that at least a few others will do the same. Therefore, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Nollekens’ smuggling technique was employed by others who were also never caught. Certainly, silk goods were an excellent commodity for this type of smuggling. But other small and valuable items could be smuggled in the same way just as easily. Something hard, like gems or gold coins would have to be padded well so they would make no sound when the bust which contained them was joggled. But done carefully, a plaster bust could be used to smuggle just about anything that would fit inside it. Yet once again, we find that truth is stranger than fiction.

Dear Regency Authors, the next time you need something precious smuggled, or even just hidden well, might the technique used by the real-life historical figure, Joseph Nollekens, serve your plot? Plaster busts were made from molds, so the actual smuggler need not have artistic talent. A mold could be commissioned from an artist in need of funds who would not reveal the sale and used to make the bust which would serve as the container for the smuggled goods. With a little practice, it would be relatively simple to make a plaster cast from a mold. Such a bust need not be smuggled in the dark of night into the country since its perfectly innocent appearance would allow it to be brought in on any ship and then sail right through a customs inspection with no questions asked. Or, such a bust could sit on a pedestal in the library of a great house for decades, with no one the wiser as to its "contents" until its secret is exposed in some dramatic manner. Will the hero of a Regency romance be the one doing the smuggling, or the one trying to stop it? Could the heroine of a Regency romance be the artist who made the mold? Might she also be the smuggler, doing her best to stave off poverty to support her family? Or, will the secret of what is hidden in the plaster bust on the transom above the door of the book room be found in some old family papers? Mayhap that bust will contain just what is need to restore the family fortunes. Then again, could Joseph Nollekens himself, an elderly man during the Regency, make an appearance in a Regency romance, advising other characters in the story how to smuggle items of value using plaster busts? How else might Joseph Nollekens and/or his smuggling activities help to shape an upcoming romance?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Long Before The Six Napoleons

  1. the plot bunny that springs to mind here involves the ‘wrong’ person having bought a bust, perhaps on the dock, from an enthusiastic clerk overseeing the unloading and transport, who knows the price they go for, eager to make a sale. The purchaser of the bust is of course unconscious of its value, and displays his acquisition proudly. And then wonders why he has so many break-ins; and why another, similar bust of his is broken to smithereens during such a break in. This looks like a case for Jane and Caleb!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      An intriguing idea. For there was certainly much plunder of goods coming into the docks during unloading, particularly in London. Or, it could be the customs house official liked to supplement his income by selling goods on the sly. Following the trail should lead Jane and Caleb a merry dance.


  2. I’m actually wondering about Indian elephants and emeralds

  3. Kalinya Parker-Pryce says:

    I cannot believe it, Kat – I was using Nollekens as the means of solving two puzzling murders for the hero in my WIP – one involving the smuggling of payments from Europe to a traitor within the social circle in which my main characters move! Nollekens provides the clue to what was going on as soon as he hears the name of another sculptor mentioned in connection with one of the victims.

  4. chasbaz says:

    Never knew that about Nollekens’ shady past so an interesting post. Thanks!

  5. Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    This is a modern plot, using the “wrong people get the real and not the fake artefact” … caused by the confusion between the way English and Spanish pronounce vowels A and E.


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