During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, a deluge of furniture was
produced by Parisian and Provincialébénistes
(artisans specializing in veneered furniture) and menuisiers
(artisans specializing in carved furniture). Ever since, these ornate
works have been highly prized; today, a privileged few private collectors
and museums from around the globe vie for premium pieces at premium prices.
A Louis XV slant-front bureau, circa 1760.
French furniture never goes out of style. There's always been a market for this
furniture, and there always will be. It's harder to sell in a recession,
but in general, it remains highly sought after. Provenance is clearly very
important, with celebrity and historic factors adding to market value.
Obviously the intrigue of owning a piece that belonged to Marie Antoinette
is not only the celebrity value but the fact that it is the highest possible quality.
MARKET As for value, in 1998 a previously unknown Martin Carlin porcelain-mounted
writing table — reputed to have been found in an attic — was sold by
Sotheby's for $2.9.
A Louis XVI gilt-bronze mounted
mahogany console desserte, late 18th-century.
In Monaco in April, 2000, Christie's held a
single-owner sale of Karl Lagerfeld's collection of French furniture and
art garnering $21,654,181 — the second highest result ever achieved for a sale of this type.
Lagerfeld's top lots went for:
Louis XVI mahogany Armoire by Jean-Henri Riesener — $494,492
Louis XV Savonnerie Carpet — $861,452
Louis XVI Gueridon by Martin Carlin — $1,075,512
Louis XV Vase — $1,121,382
Back on earth, a simpler piece of servants' quarters furniture, even with
a palace stamp, might go as for as little as a few thousand dollars, and a
single small Provincial chair or miniature commode can be found for under
A Louis XVI beechwood
fauteuil, late 18th-century.
Beds, tables and pairs of chairs can be found for under $5,000;
armoires range around $10,000. A stamped piece would bring up to 10
percent to 25 percent above these values.
MARKS OF DISTINCTION While often unmarked, pieces from this era can boast a variety of known
stamps. We recommend scrutinizing photographs of these stamps —
including lettering and the way each is branded into the wood. You
have to be very careful — there are a lot of fakes out there.
Worn stamps can be illegible. Often more detail will be revealed if you
take a pencil-on-paper rubbing of the area.
Stamps often go unnoticed; it's not unheard of for a stamp to be
discovered during an auction preview, even on important pieces.
To look for marks:
Shine a flashlight on it at an angle; if the light hits it in the right way, the stamp pops out.
On commodes, look under the marble or on the upper corners of the back framework.
On Parisian chairs, stamps are often on the rear seat
rail, underneath the webbing and upholstery (and often worn away by upholstery tacks).
On small tables, look on the underside of small drawers.
On Provincial pieces, look on the rear seat rail or on the leg.
GOING TO THE SOURCE Aside from auctions and reputable dealers, passionate collectors may
choose to go to the source. Hotel
Drouot, the famed Parisian auction house, conducts a variety of
A Louis XV provincial walnut
commode, mid-18th century
Visit their online Gazette
for a schedule of upcoming auctions (currently, the site is offered only in French).
Shops and local auctions in the Paris environs may produce results and a surprising number of pieces can be found
in England, having been avidly purchased at steep discounts after the Revolution.
FURNITURE CONDITiON AND RESTORATION It's better to restore than not to restore — if the piece warrants
the investment. Some of the best dealers will have something restored
within an inch of its life — and that's okay. They're selling a look that's very pristine, glossy and high-end.
Restorers should be accustomed to handling high caliber, highly-valued
property. Get references from museums or auction houses on area restorers.
It's important that he or she be able to speak knowledgably about the furniture and the related techniques.
The more owners a piece has had, the higher the probability of damage.
recommend feeling along a veneered piece with one's hands
seeking signs of bubbling and warping. Only if damage is heavy can
you spot it with the eye, and this kind of restoration can be very
involved. Be careful when cleaning that you don't tear it more with a rag.
On the other hand, it's not a big deal to
have a little bit of loss on the veneer, especially in a less visible
area. We also suggest removing drawers to examine the quality of
the dovetailing, and examine the bases of legs or feet for splicing.
Feet and legs should also be checked for worming.
If a piece is missing an ormolu mount, such as a little sabot
on the foot, replacement parts can be made. We recommend gilt bronze
replacement mounts, using a 24k gold electroplating process as mercury
gilding is toxic and causes mercury poisoning.
With rips in tapestry, a specialist must remove and reweave the area using
the exact same color and consistency of threads.
Heavy pieces of broken marble must be bracketed with supports across the break; smaller pieces may be glued.
Gilt is often worn and chipped away due to air pockets between the wood
and gesso, caused by natural shrinkage over time. Depending on the extent
of damage, a good restorer specializing in gilding and painting can either
fill in the areas of loss or completely re-gild or re-paint a piece.
Linker, an American ébéniste trained in Holland and France,
uses the same restoration techniques that have been used for centuries.
is also the American contact for another market, small but worthy of note:
a team of devoted French artisans is toiling away, making new furniture
using the same tools and techniques passed down through the generations
since the 18th-century. These time-consuming works preserve a valuable
tradition, yet demand is small. Not only do they cost nearly as much as an
original Louis XV or XVI piece, but they lack that certain je ne sais quoi that only time and history can bestow.