By Helen Costantino Fioratti
An Introduction to
Collecting French Furniture
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
Many people in America are under the erroneous impression that "French provincial" means furniture of the Louis XV period. Actually, it describes any furniture made in the provinces, in any period. Provincial furniture is readily distinguishable from the sophisticated Paris type by its simplicity of design and material. It was made of solid wood such as walnut, oak, fruitwood and, under Louis XVI, of mahogany. Except when produced by such outstanding cabinetmakers as Hache of Grenoble, Demoulin and his sons of Dijon, veneers and marquetry were not usually employed for provincial furniture. Most Parisian chairs were made of beech wood during the Louis XV period, but Nogaret of Lyon, who was one of the best menuisiers outside of the capital, often used walnut.
Provincial furniture is often very charming in line and finish, especially when based on Paris models. But when made by a carpenter instead of a cabinetmaker it is relatively coarse and clumsy. Because of its great popularity, provincial Louis XV furniture has been reproduced in great quantity, both here and abroad. There are also many reproductions of the more elegant Paris furniture on the market, some of which, of excellent workmanship but of questionable taste, were made in France in the nineteenth century.
Spurious antiques flood the market. If one could explain in a few lines or even within the covers of one book how to distinguish between a genuine piece and a copy, there would be no need for an expert to devote most of his life to learning and observing. However, there are a few hints which might be helpful in avoiding some of the pitfalls. A copy almost always varies from the original in some way, as each generation produces things according to its own conception. A Louis XV chair or table made in the Victorian era looks Victorian to a trained eye, while a reproduction made today shows the modern influence. In the nineteenth century, reproductions were made very painstakingly and without regard for the number of hours expended. True, plaster ornamentation frequently replaced that which would have been carved in the eighteenth century, but generally the well-made pieces came much closer to the originals than do modern copies, made by machine with a minimum of expense in labor and materials.
It has always amazed me that, with all the fine furniture to be seen in museums and even available in the open market, so many pieces are copied from very poorly designed models. Aside from the all-important goal of cutting costs, this is due partly to the present-day liking for things that look quaint, and their modification to suit the demands of the public. Louis XV and Louis XVI commodes now appear as double commodes with the "hers" and "his" motif much in evidence. Bedside tables are enlarged and distorted to accommodate radios, telephones and all the paraphernalia which make for present-day comfort. Meanwhile the original style is completely lost in the process.
The presence of nails and screws in antique French furniture should immediately around suspicion, as none were used in the construction of the period. Furniture at that time was doweled and edges dovetailed. Nails or screws are a sign that the piece is either spurious or that it has been inexpertly repaired. Unfortunately, many beautiful things have been mutilated by rough and inexperienced repairers through the ages.
Wormholes, which many people look for and expect to find, are not an indispensable sign of age. Some very fine furniture has come down through the centuries without any sign of the ravages of worms. Wormholes, unless man-made, are always pinheads of varying sizes, rather than uniform as when made by a shotgun.