Medieval? Iron Chest

Identified! Armada Chest 17th Century Germany

Detail from prospectus (c) 2003 Jock Dempsey
I have an old iron chest my grandfather bought about 1900 in Egypt or Spain and I would like to try to find out more about it's origin, use, value, etc. The chest is very heavy and made of iron bands with a very elaborate sequence of tools and keys to open the lid...Two heavy padlocks secure two hasps but are not important to entry. A metal plate covers the springs and plungers fitted in the lid and this plate is painted with satyrs.

Do you have any idea of anyone I could contact who might nbe interested in helping me learn more about this chest?

Regards, John Coon


The decorative keyhole piece on the front is without a keyhole. The two padlocks also have no useful function in that the chest will not open without opening the top lid...but of course, if the lid were unlatched, it could not be opened without removing the padlocks.

Rather than a system of two or more separate keys, there is a sequence that must be followed. By moving aside a rivet head, one tool presses down a metal arm. By moving aside another rivet head or button, another tool moves a metal bar upward to release the keyhole cover. The keyhole cover can then be lifted fully and rotated to let the large key enter. This key pulls dogs away from under a heavy lip in the chest body edge so the lid will open...but only after yet another button is rotated so another tool may enter and permit the person opening the chest to withdraw a single dog which still keeps the lid shut. Almost a two person job. The dogs are all spring loaded.

Interior Screen with Satyrs
The decorative metal screen must be removed to manually "cock" or reset the keyhole access mechanisms...but maybe this was just the way it was done. I have not found a way to reset the keyhole with the lid closed.

Since it was purchased, nobody has painted the chest.  It is black and twice in my lifetime I have rubbed it with a mixture of boiled lindseed oil and turpentine...the same mixture I use on the porch of my house.  It dries quickly and is not tacky.  I live on the ocean and the chest is near a window and against a forced hot water heating pipe.  Sometimes the exterior sheds tiny bits like dandruff and then I apply this mixture.  It seems very well preserved and shows no sign of rust.  I suppose rusty is good in old items, but this piece is remarkably not rusty...even if only 100 or so years old this seems pretty good.
Original prospectus circa 1900
Original prospectus
Chest Locks and Keys
Open chest with locks and keys

Hidden Keyholes or Ports
Hidden Keyholes

Three years after posting this I purchased a book on an English lock manufacturer's collection and it had a nearly identical chest (images below).   It is probably as identical as they could be considering all the hand work.   The biggest difference is the decoration on the brass plate.   The small book titled Antique Locks * from the collection of Josiah Parkes & Sons Ltd. Willenhall Staffs England was published by the company in 1955. It is a catalog of the company collection of antique locks. Josiah Parkes & Sons made the famous UNION brand locks and had factories in England and South Africa.

It says, "Age of many of the items confirmed by the Victoria and Albert Museum."

Armada Chest, German 17th Century

THE large chest which measures "37½ long by 27" deep and 20" high . . . German manufacture, having been made probably in Nuremburg or Ausberg in the 17th Century."

From a web search.

armada chest

An iron-bound strongbox for storing valuables in the 16th and 17th centuries, often with a large, complicated lock on the underside of the lid. Some were for the use of officers at sea, and would have been bolted to the deck of the owner's cabin. Usually of German make, the chests could be anything from a few inches to 6ft (1.8m) long. the name itself was a fanciful Victorian invention recalling chests imagined to be used by the Spanish Armada.

From Antiques On-line reporting on a recent auction.

"An armada chest with an amazingly intricate working lock mechanism topped out at $5,175 "

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