An exquisitely ornamented 18th-century French court sword and scabbard will be among objects exhibited in a section of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries devoted to the French alliance that was crucial to the winning of American independence. The galleries are planned to open in late 2016.
The set was acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation at the sale of a rare antique arms collection from Geneva, Switzerland. Its design and decoration reflects the quality of craftsmanship for which French luxury goods of the period were renowned. The sword’s gold-gilded steel hilt is chiseled with scenes, framed in scrollwork reliefs, of birds and beasts engaged in combat. Three fleurs-de-lis on an azure ground, representing the royal emblem of the kingdom of France, and exotic birds are chiseled on the scabbard mount.
The covering on the wooden scabbard – the skin of brown spotted sand boa – prompted special arrangements for importation into the United States; the snakeskin had to be certified as antique and in original condition, in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
The sword, which likely belonged to a French courtier because of the heraldic emblem on the scabbard mount, has the classic form of a functional smallsword of the third quarter of the 18th century. Wearing such a weapon was an indication of a gentleman’s status or an officer’s rank as well as accomplishment in fencing, a fighting exercise described and popularized by the publication of L’Ecole des Armes in Paris in 1763.