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Collectors' focus: the market for French 18th-century furniture has declined in recent years following a shift in taste, but that could be about to change. Elaborately decorated items from this golden age are being recast as elegant showpieces in contemporary interiors.

For over two centuries French 18th-century furniture represented the height of princely taste. Wherever you went in the Western world, from St Petersburg to New York, wherever you found great wealth and cultural aspiration, you found Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture. It was Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun King, who created the conditions that made furniture of such ultimate magnificence possible. His minister of finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, gathered the foremost artists and artisans of the 17th century together at the Manufacture Royale des Meubles de la Couronne at the Gobelins. Immense financial resources were provided, and a tightly controlled guild system was revived. The Corporation des Menuisiers-Ebenistes, for example, was a prestigious association of craftsmen that built and adorned furniture (several of them, as it happens, hailing originally from Germany).

Laurent Kraemer of Paris dealers Kraemer & Cie avers: 'Generally people think only painting and sculpture are art. But furniture from the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI is a major art.' Once Louis XIV had pioneered the style, encouraging star craftsmen such as Andre-Charles Boulle (1642 -1732), 'all the leading people of Europe wanted a room in this style,' says M. Kraemer. Catherine the Great and George IV of England, the Marquesses of Hertford and dozens of Rothschilds, J.P. Morgan and Henry Clay Frick, even, latterly, the Beirut-born philanthropist Edmond Safra and the late Tony Ryan of Ryanair, at his Irish Georgian mansion, Lyons Demesne, have all perpetuated the status of French 18th-century furniture.

Today, however, the market has been blown apart. As all dealers report, the lesser items once bought in bulk to furnish a house fetch a few hundred pounds or dollars at most, as taste in interior decoration has turned its back on the 18th century. As Mario Tavella, chairman of Sotheby's furniture and decorative arts division in Europe, explains: 'Eighteenth-century French furniture has suffered from the change of taste--old restaurants, shops and hotels are minimal nowadays.'

However, the star items, demonstrating the highest levels of craftsmanship and with impeccable provenance, continue to make record prices. Sig. Tavella cites the sale Property from the Collections of Lily & Edmond J. Safra, at Sotheby's New York last October. A late Louis XVI Japanese black and gilt lacquer and ebony commode a vantaux and matching secretaire a abattant, formerly in the Hamilton Palace collection in Scotland and attributed to Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) and Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), sold for $6.9m (Fig. 2). Another significant piece in the same sale was the secretaire en cabinet dated 1778-80, stamped A. Weisweiler and encrusted with Sevres porcelain plaques, which sold for $1.4m. Once owned by Gustav de Rothschild, the piece reflects the continuing appeal of the very rarest highly decorated pieces by the greatest ebenistes--such as B.V.R.B. (Bernard Van Riesenburg), R.V.L.C. (Roger Vandercruse La Croix), Martin Carlin, Jean-Henri Riesener and Weisweiler. A third exceptional lot was indeed a Louis XV lacquer commode attributed to B.V.R.B. (after 1696-c. 1766), possibly the greatest of all French furniture makers of the Louis XV period, which achieved $3.4m.


Anne Qaimmaqami, Christie's London's specialist in European furniture and decorative objects, confirms: 'It is a collectors' market, rather than a furnishing market. The focus is on exceptional, museum-quality pieces. People buy for investment.' She cites Christie's Paris' sale in April this year of a pair of Louis XVI ormolu-mounted tall cabinets, dated c. 1780, also attributed to Adam Weisweiler and with Boulle marquetry, which went for 1.2m [euro] on an estimate of 500,000 [euro]-800,000 [euro]. Ms Qaimmaqami comments: 'This is the quintessential lot, not only for its superb craftsmanship--the revival of Boulle work which was so popular in the era of Louis XVI--but also for its provenance. The pieces had been bought by the French politician Leonce de Vogue [1805-77] in the 19th century and descended through the family to this year.'



These sales reflect broader aspects of the market. As Francois Leage, owner of the Parisian gallery of the same name sees it: 'The straight lines of neo-classical Louis XVI pieces fit very well with contemporary interiors. While the Boulle marquetry, whether from the Louis XIV era or the Boulle revival of the Louis XVI era, brings colour. I think clients are less interested in classic Louis XV.' M. Leage says that besides European and American collectors, there are also Russians and a few returning Chinese clients. He will bring a very rare Louis XVI two-tier bois de rose marquetry gueridon, or small round table, to the Biennale des Antiquaires (14-23 September; see preview on pp. 30-32). It is stamped by Martin Carlin (c. 1730-85), one of the leading ebenistes (price on application; Fig. 3). On 7 November, meanwhile, Christie's Paris offers a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted Japanese lacquer secretaire a abattant also by Martin Carlin, dated around 1780 (estimate 300,000 [euro]-500,000 [euro]). The piece is virtually identical to one sold in Sotheby's New York's Safra sale for $494,500.

Philippe Perrin of Galerie Perrin in Paris suggests: 'People are buying very decorative pieces, or else real masterpieces. These are hard to find as they are in private collections and the very wealthy do not currently want or need cash. Besides the very important pieces, people want something different --this is different from the old motive to have what everyone else has.' Maastricht this year 'was twice as good as any other year,' M. Perrin reports. 'Most of my clients are from the Middle East, then from Europe--Germany, France, Italy. There is still an appetite in America; there are also Australian collectors and Hong Kong Chinese. I haven't really seen the Russians since 2008.' He currently has a very elegant Louis XVI Adam Weisweiler table, veneered with ebony and tin, with a Spanish marble top and ormolu decoration (price on application).

Alfredo Reyes, director of Robbig Munchen, which specialises in Meissen porcelain and German and French 18th-century furniture, reports a declining market in Germany for furniture. However, the dealer was cheered by his visit to Masterpiece in London where he discovered a younger generation of collectors showing an interest. M. Kraemer too acknowledges that 'over the last three or four years our clients are younger than in the past--they buy Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, which they mix with 18th-century furniture.' As a consequence he has opened three display rooms with plain white walls, to show how well the furniture looks in contemporary interiors. He currently has a Louis XV lacquered commode from around 1745 by Jacques Dubois (1694-1763; Fig. 1), priced at 650,000 [euro]. At the Biennale des Antiquaires M. Kraemer will create an entire display devoted to the late 18thcentury ebeniste Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806).

Leon Dalva, of Dalva Brothers, Inc. in New York reports: 'We have had a definite small flurry of interest over the last three or four months, and the top five per cent of pieces continue to go up in price. They are very hard to replace. The decorators give the illusion that taste has changed but that is only because it is easier to find 1950s decor. We do have younger people coming in--after all, it is the best way to live [to be surrounded by these outstanding French pieces]. And there is a known hierarchy of beauty. The problem for dealers is that the people who want masterpieces want to buy at auction.' As Sotheby's and Christie's continue to enflame interest at the top through their Exceptional Sales, records will continue to be broken.
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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