Rare ivory casket adorned with medieval romantic scenes at risk of leaving UK

An “incredibly rare” French Gothic ivory casket is at risk of leaving the UK unless a buyer is found for the £1.5 million piece.

It is one of only nine 14th century French composite caskets depicting medieval romantic scenes, including illustrations of wild men and mythical creatures which symbolise people living outside ‘civilised’ society.

The casket shows them attacking a castle in a rare variation on the popular theme of the storming of the Castle of Love, which was a commonly depicted scene on ivories in the 14th century in which women and girls are shown defending a castle from knights.

The scene was so popular at the time that there are records of reenactments where castles were built and defended by women and girls of the town while men ‘attacked’ them with fruits and flowers.

On the lid of the casket, wild men and knights are shown engaged in a battle for the castle and its female occupants, while the back panel depicts the outcome of a victorious knight kneeling in front of a king with a procession of knights and ladies leading the captured wild men in chains.

A temporary export ban has been placed on the casket to allow time for a UK gallery or institution to acquire it for their collection. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said it is worth £1,506,000.

Arts minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said: “This incredibly rare French ivory casket shows romantic and chivalric scenes as fascinating today as they were seven centuries ago.

“I sincerely hope a buyer comes forward so that we might continue to learn more about this remarkable casket and its long history in the UK.”

A member of the reviewing committee, Stuart Lochhead, said: “This French 14th century carved ivory casket is adorned with scenes of chivalry and romance including depictions of wild men – ranging from the rescue of a lady from one such assailant to a procession of knights and ladies who lead the captured wild men in chains.

“Similar iconography exists on some of the other nine known medieval caskets of this type, but it is the present one that illustrates some of the earliest and rarest type of images.

“Furthermore, its provenance indicates that it was continuously owned by the same family in Scotland for about 400 years, which is a remarkable and significant provenance for a medieval object.

“The casket is an exciting addition to a rare group of secular medieval ivory carvings, and with a long history of Scottish ownership that needs further in-depth research, its loss to an overseas buyer would be very regrettable.“

The decision on the export licence application for the casket will be deferred for a period ending on March 1 2023.

This will be followed by a consideration period to analyse any offers, with the second deferral period of four months to start after the signing of an option agreement.