The devil is in the detail

16th October 2020

In the ultimate gothic fairytale, the creator of a pair of life-size figures of devils met his own Maker while trying to show their likeness to the world at a major art fair in 1893. Now, almost 130 years after his death, the eerie creations of Francesco Toso have sold for £87,500 at auction just ten days before Hallowe’en.

Venetian-born Toso came from a family of glassmakers but found his own path in fantastical wooden carvings and elaborate mirrors, examples of which he took to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Contemporary reports state that he “died suddenly, while earnestly striving to make the entire exhibit worthy of Italian art and workmanship”.

“Very few examples of this type of figure are recorded today, and it seems likely that not many were produced before Toso’s somewhat untimely demise,” said Mark Yuan-Richards, Furniture and Works of Art specialist. “A similar pair are in the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Florida, and another pair from the collection of Elsa Schiaparelli were sold in Paris in 2018. Had Toso lived for a few more years it is likely that he would have produced more, so his death probably contributed to their rarity.”

The artist’s sudden death was not the only horror to emerge from the exhibition that unveiled the world’s first Ferris Wheel – the fair was rocked by the antics of serial killer, H. H. Holmes who is believed to have murdered up to 200 people, and then by the assassination of the city’s mayor, Carter Harrison, Snr., on the last day of the exhibition.

Standing at just over six feet tall, the spooky pine and fruitwood figures have cloven hooves, pointed ears and webbed fingers, but are dressed in typical 19th century costume. They would have been placed either side of a shop doorway with trade cards placed in their hands to catch the eye of passing tourists and customers.

“The late 19th century saw an increased interest in gothic horror and all things ‘other worldly’,” continued Yuan-Richards. “This was the time of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and the illustrations of Arthur Rackham; all fuelling a fascination with the macabre and mysterious. Toso’s Devil carvings exemplify that, but they are also wonderful examples of expert craftsmanship and an absolute must-see for anyone with a love of the quirky or unusual.”

The figures were bought by a private UK collector who chased them well beyond their starting price of £15,000 to a final cost of £87,500.


* Prices include buyer's premium.


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