In March 2011, nearly 225 years after the French Revolution, a desk made by royal cabinetmaker ‘Jean-Henri Riesener’ was returned to the Versailles Palace after being acquired by the French state for 6.75 million euros ($9.4 million) from the ‘Rothschilds’ family.
Another source claims the desk was bought from a major art dealer in Paris (who may have been representing the Rothschilds) with the help of Bernard Arnault, the head of LMVH Paris who controls almost all luxury brands (Louis Vuitton for one) in the world. Whatever the case, the desk was turned over to the French culture minister ‘Frederic Mitterand’. (The nephew of Francois Mitterand, the ex-President of France)
The very happy ‘Mitterrand’ turned the desk over to the Versailles palace and the elegant piece was classified as “a work of major cultural value”.
The desk was composed of an apron with four drawers decorated with the four gilt-bronze low reliefs – a trademark of the celebrated German cabinetmaker Reisener.
The purplewood, sycamore, and rosewood veneer is decorated with gilt bronze ornaments including the four low reliefs depicting allegories (Music twice, Painting, and Sculpture) and two escutcheons representing baskets of flowers.
According to Jean-Henri Riesener’s account ledger for May 28, 1784, this table was ordered for Queen Marie Antoinette’s private apartments in the Tuileries Palace, Paris. Detailed descriptions and measurements, as well as a court inventory number inked underneath the tabletop, confirm its identity. After the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the royal family was held for three years in the Tuileries. Marie Antoinette must have used this piece during that imprisonment before she was guillotined in 1793.
(The desk is currently displayed in the private apartment where Queen Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), wife of King Louis XVI, used to entertain her children and friends.)
At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the Versailles Palace’s furniture was auctioned and more than 17,000 pieces were scattered around the world.
Many are now found in royal residences, particularly in Britain, or in major foreign museums, notably in the United States. Some are owned by private collectors or antiquarians who depending on when they bought these piece may have acquired them for a song.
The favourite cabinet-maker of Marie-Antoinette, Riesener was the uncontested master of Louis XV and XVI furniture. Before Marie Antoinette was ever on the Versailles scene, Reisener made one of the most fabulous pieces of furniture in the world: the desk for King Louis XV inner study in Versailles.(shown below)
Riesener however, produced his most graceful and innovative pieces for Marie-Antoinette: for the Salon des Nobles in Versailles, he supplied two corner pieces and a chest-of-drawers for which he replaced marquetry by a simple veneer of mahogany. The bronze details were reduced and lightened. For her boudoir at Fontainebleau, he produced fragile furniture decorated with mother-of-pearl that was unique in its genre. For the Petit Trianon, he provided a series of original pieces: a writing table with rounded corners, an identical dessert console table in mahogany and bronze, etc.
In fact, Reisener became the exclusive cabinetmaker for the Queen of France as his prices skyrocketed out of reach for even the most wealthy clientele of France.
With the French Revolution, Riesener was retained by the ‘Directory’, and sent in 1794 to Versailles to remove the “insignia of feudality” from furniture he had recently made: royal cyphers and fleurs-de-lys were replaced with innocuous panels. During the French revolutionary sales he ruined himself by buying back furniture that was being sold at derisory prices. When he attempted to resell his accumulated stock, tastes had changed and the old clientel was either dispersed or dead. He retired in 1801 and died in comparative poverty in Paris.
As a result of the French Revolutionary Sales in the early-19th century, UK collectors had bought, for the decoration of their stately homes and palaces, significant numbers of French royal furniture (mobilier royale), which today forms the basis of the great collections that still remain in the UK.
Towards the end of the industrial age until the agricultural depression of the 1920s, large numbers of works, predominately in UK collections were auctioned off and made their passage to American collectors. Still to this date UK collections are especially rich in the works of French furniture and decorative arts, particularly of Royal provenance, and the UK continues to enjoy perhaps the greatest repository of Riesener’s works outside Paris.
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