By Helen Costantino Fioratti
An Introduction to
Collecting French Furniture
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
Very few commodes were made in pairs in France during the eighteenth century, so their appearance in the market should immediately arouse suspicion and warrant most careful examination. One, if not both, is very likely to be a copy. Until as recently as ten years ago, when some low quality but genuine commodes could still be purchased very cheaply, clever cabinetmakers bought them for the old material they contained. If the shapes were good they were either redecorated with new marquetry or covered with old Chinese lacquer panels, most skillfully applied to the original carcasses. A real master of this fraudulent practice died around thirty years ago, leaving a great number of such pieces in the market.
There are natural areas of wear on every piece. Edges of tables grow smooth and slightly rounded from constant dusting and use over the years; the place were the hand rests on an armchair shows worn carving or old paint. The great humidity in which many pieces have stood for generations has rotted away the feet of cupboards and the hoofs of chairs. These are frequently repaired and replaced, but an extremely meticulous amateur or expert shuns such pieces unless they happen to be of such unsurpassed beauty and excellence that he prefers to overlook the defect rather than deprive himself of an outstanding example. One can forgive a defect in a piece of furniture one loves, as one does in a human being, provided the other qualities and charm outweigh it. And one must never insist on the sort of perfection that is to be found only in furniture straight from the factory.
As I mentioned before, there have always been inexpert repairers who have done more harm than good. Chairs originally made for caning have often been upholstered and the upholstery tacks driven right into the wood frame. With the present craze for low tables, legs have been cut down, aprons eliminated, and many painful surgical operations undertaken that have always resulted in the death of the victims. It would be well to assume that each piece was thoughtfully designed and its proportions carefully studied at the time it was lovingly made by hand.
If bursting with creative fancies, I strongly recommend that the budding would-be artist start from scratch and order a new piece in accordance with his views of how it should be made, rather than mutilate the relatively few existing authentic pieces. This includes the horrors in the form of lamps which one sees wherever one goes, and all types of adaptations to whatever we consider necessary to our comfort.
Period faience and porcelains are very difficult to know because old patterns have been copied over and over again. It is difficult for the amateur to distinguish an original piece made at the time the type first appeared from an exact copy of later date. Were it possible to see the genuine piece and the copy side by side, the student would be amazed at the lifelessness and dullness of the copy as compared to the original. But since it is almost impossible to find the two to examine at the same time, one must look for spontaneity and life in the painting of a plate, for example, and the right texture and color of the "paste" of the porcelain or faience itself. The outstanding characteristic of authentic pieces is their brilliance and life.
If carefully observed, one notes that antique silver is slightly different in color from modern, and the silver of different countries varies according to the alloy used in is composition.