Sometimes, working in the antiques business can feel more like we’re living in a thrilling detective story! Here at Butchoff Antiques in London’s Kensington Church Street, we are surrounded by beautiful objects which all have individual fascinating tales – some are still mysterious and have yet to be fully discovered!
Take, for example, this 19th-century secretaire, or writing cabinet. The decoration features extensive marquetry inlay, illustrating architectural scenes of Classical Roman inspiration, and interlaced with bouquets and garlands of flowers. It embodies the exuberance and prestige of the Louis XVI taste, being dressed in elaborate gilt bronze mounts. Its design thoughtfully interweaves the motifs of the marquetry work and ormolu mounts, joining together the imagery of past and present stories.
Masterful Intricacy of Details
The central mount is eye-catching, with its masterful intricacy of details and intercut composition. The human eye can see its dimensionality. However striking its design, it was in the end designed to be used. It is practical, with two cupboards for storage. The front fall comes down, creating a writing surface and exposing its internal shelves and drawer – and there is even a secret compartment.
18th Century and 19th Century Pieces, Nearly Identical
Our research has revealed that this piece is an almost identical copy of an original secretaire made in France, 100 years earlier by Pierre- Antoine Foullet, circa 1777. This earlier piece is now at the Wallace Collection, London, home to one of Europe’s finest collections of works of art, paintings, furniture, arms and armour, and porcelain. From April to August 2014, our secretaire exhibited at an exclusive Wallace Collection event, Reproducing the 18th Century: Copying French Furniture, alongside the 1777 model by Foullet. This display provided viewers with a rare opportunity to compare and contrast the original 18th century model with a 19th century piece.
Exceptional Quality, Differences in the Slightest Detail
It’s not easy to distinguish the 18th century from the 19th century model, as they both are of exceptional quality. Two cabinet doors were removed from both pieces and laid side by side for very close inspection. There are slight differences in the gilt bronze mounts, especially in the small details and proportions. However, the two pieces are constructed differently, and in fact the later piece is of much better quality, as this one has dovetail joints in the corners of the back.
Mystery of How it May Have Been Copied
The mystery is how and when was the 1777 model copied? In the latter half of the 19th century, there was a vogue for good copies of 18th century French furniture produced by cabinetmakers in both Paris and London. Our secretaire was likely copied by thorough eye and hand-drawn analysis. The 18th century model has a hand engraved signature ‘foulet’ in the wood drop front panel, near the armoured figures, and the inscriptions of ‘foulet’ and ‘F. Feser Hall Barn 1943’ and an engraved label of printed letterhead with the arms of d’Hane-Steenhuyse. By contrast, the 19th century example is mysteriously signed ‘rogie’ on the backside of one of the bronze mounts. The 18th century model displays a family coat of arms on the front central oval bronze mount, whereas the 19th century model does not copy this — the intention was simply for someone to own a piece of quality furniture.
Provenance Resurrects the Past
Tracing the history of the 1777 secretaire establishes that it was once in the collection of the d’Hane-Steenhuyse family of Ghent, Belgium, in the early nineteenth century, and then was purchased by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in around 1870 for his magnificent art collection, as it appeared in the Rue Lafitte inventory of 1871. It was then exhibited to the public in east London from 1872 to 1875 at Bethnal Green, to provide awareness of Britain’s cultural heritage and the predominance of French 18th century decorative art. Bethnal Green was a collaboration of private collections, including Hertford’s collection (now the Wallace Collection), to display part of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. We can presume that during this period, someone was able to carefully study the secretaire and was perhaps granted special access from Lord Hertford to prepare drawings for the 19th century version.
Provenance brings to life the history and information on the origins of a piece of antique art. In this case, before we obtained the secretaire, a noble family from the Loire Valley, France, had owned it from approximately 1910. Family tradition discloses that the secretaire was reportedly purchased by their grandfather, who had purchased from the estate of the Parisian apartment of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who had originally purchased it from a ‘Maison Rogié’.
Quest for the Unique and Exquisite Continues
Here we come back to the name found on the reverse of the ormulu mount during our analysis and conservation of the secretaire! Rogié is an unfamiliar name to the furniture world. Our research has suggested that Rogié was either the maker or the bronzer, and that another talented 19th French cabinetmaker completed the woodwork. Alternatively, Rogié could have been a Parisian furniture dealer, and his named was signed for inventory.
Our quest for insight on this unique and exquisite secretaire will continue. The quality craftsmanship and luxurious decoration that this secretaire employs is exemplary, and the special rarity of this piece of furniture is that it is available on the art market, whereas the 18th century model is in a museum. In our 52 years of experience, we have not found another secretaire that compares, and therefore conclude it is one of a kind.