Sunday, March 29, 2009

Word of the Day: CONSOLE

Console is a funny word. Makes you want to hug some random cry-baby and say "There, there now."

Or better yet, throw on that sassy red wig of yours and belt out a rowsing rendition of "The sun'll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be sun..."

But that's "con-SOLE" and we're interested in the antique term pronounced "CON-sole".

Ok, so here's an antique riddle: what kind of table can have four legs, three legs, two legs, or no legs at all?

This calls for a hilarious punch line--so if you think of one let me know. But since I can't think of anything I'll just tell you the answer: it's a CONSOLE table defined as a shallow table that fits up against a wall that can have elaborate ornamental struts or one to 4 legs and can even just be mounted to the wall with small brackets and no feet at all. Here's a handsome 18th c. Italian console (note the four legs):

List price: $53,500 USD

I think a console is best thought of as a narrow table that stands against a wall or, in the current vernacular, many will call it a sofa table meaning a shallow four legged console that stands behind a sofa; technically that's a misnomer (a real "sofa table" has drop leaves on each side) but let's not split hairs (since I only have about 12 left).

Here's a console with a matching mirror; this console really stands on only one elaborately carved leg:
List price (for the suite): $264,000 USD

And finally here is a solid marble console measuring over 10 feet long and having only brackets mounted to the wall for support (i.e., "Look ma, no legs!):
List price: $254,400 USD

Monday, March 16, 2009

Word of the Day: BUREAU

You'd think the word bureau would be pretty straightforward, right? But alas, no my pet. That would make life much too enjoyable. In antique jargon, bureau means different things depending on what continent you're on. And then when you figure out where you are and what you need to say, then you've got to figure out all the variations of bureaus that have additional names. Ugh, an antique dealer's job is never done.

Let's start with just the word BUREAU, pronounced "byoo ROE". In Europe and England, a bureau is a writing table or a desk. But in the U.S., many people (but not us antique folk) say bureau to mean a chest of drawers (which we now know from the prior post that we call this a commode).

But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that there are many different kinds of bureaus. Here are the most important ones:

Bureau à Cylindre, pronounced "..ah see LAN druh", from the French meaning a cylinder front desk (Gramps probably called it a roll top desk). Here's one:Bureau à Dos d'Ane, pronounced "...ah doe, a dear, a female dear"-sorry, I have tourette's syndrome but only when it comes to show tunes; this desk is really pronounced "...ah doe DON" and comes from the French meaning literally a "donkey back bureau", which is a small desk designed for ladies, usually with a slant top front that folds down for the writing surface. Here's a Chinoiserie example:List price: this piece is currently in a private collection and unavailable for sale.

Bureau à Pente, (also less frquently called a bureau de pente), pronounced "ah PAHNT, from the French and meaning any slant front desk, like this one: List price: $24,350 USD

Bureau Ministre, pronounced "...mee NEES struh" and meaning a large kneehole desk. Here is a truly crummy copy of an antique Bureau Ministre (I don't have any in inventory right now):
List price: You couldn't pay me to take this piece.

Bureau Plat, pronounced "...PLAH". It is the predecessor of all modern desks, created by Andre Charles Boulle during the reign of Louis XV (Boulle outlived Louis XIV) and is basically a large flat writing surface desk with one drawer below the top and one or two drawers flanking it and raised on four legs. Here's a bureau plat:
List price: $92,800 USD

But hey Buzz! What were the desks called BEFORE the Bureau Plat was invented? Well, bureaus is the simple answer but specifically the 17th c. Baroque Bureau Mazarin (pronounced "MA zuh RAN") named after Cardinal Mazarin in the mid 17th c.) and having 8 legs and mutiple drawers. Here's a jaw dropping bureau mazarin inlaid with ivory and pewter:

List price: $250,000 USD

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Word of the Day: COMMODE

This is an essential and commonly misused word in antiques.

A COMMODE (pronounced "kuh MODE") is a low "chest of drawers" that typically has two or three drawers, and may or may not have a marble top.

A commode is not a toilet. Trust me, I once rushed into an antique shop and whispered : "I REALLY need to use your commode NOW". It all got very ugly.

This is a commode (18th c. Italian polychrome):

List price: $62,350 USD

A commode is also not a "dresser" or a "bureau" (those mean something else and I'll get to those in my next post).

Sidenote: OK, so if commode is a low chest of drawers, then what's a high chest of drawers called? That's called a highboy (in the U.S,) or a tallboy (in England). It's complicated and gets more so because it's also called a "chest on a chest" or a "chest on a stand" but let's cover that another time.

Hey Buzz, I'm confused (well join the club). If there's a different word for a tall commode, then is there a different word for a mini-me commode? Actually yes, in the antique trade, people call a small commode a bedside cabinet, night stand, bedside table, or, if it's a small Italian commode, then it's termed a "commodino."

Here's an 18th c. Italian commodino:
List price: $49,200 USD

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Simon Says vs. Louie Says

Shown below: A Pair of 18th c. Louis XV rococo Wall Appliquès

List price: $59,000 USD the pair

In an earlier post, I cautioned against embarrassing yourself by confusing Donald Duck's nephews (Louie, Dewey and Huey) with the three French Bourbon king styles known as Louis (yes pronounced Louie) XIV, XV and XVI.

The Fleur de Lys (pronounced flur DUH lee), shown below, was the emblem of the Bourbon kings:

But then I got this disturbing email:
Dear The Buzz on Antiques,

I attended a VERY important black tie gallery opening last night. 

And the cocktail chatter eventually turned to antiques. 

So I started using some of your esoteric French terms (I HAD to because I'd told everyone earlier that I spoke fluent French and graduated from L'Ècole des Beaux-Arts) [note to readers: this is pronounced "lay cole day boze AHR" and is a Parisian school of fine arts]. But the truth is I'm still working on my AA at Chico State and only speak "un poco" Espanol

Anyhow, so I said "The most très chic furniture period is Louis XVI (and I pronounced it like you told me "Louie the 16th"). 

And then Bettina Vanderlip (of the Newport Vanderlips) said "That's MOST interesting....but Louie says is too neoclassical and I much prefer the baroque." So I said, "Bettina dear, if you're broke, it's probably because you're listening to everything that Louie creature says." 

And then suddenly everyone looked at their watches, squeaked "Oh look at the time!!!" and ran for the exits. 

Did I do something wrong?


Myndi from (I'm embarrassed to say) Van Nuys, California
Dearest Myndi,

You did nothing wrong. What you did was something stupid, which is slightly different. But I'll get to that in a second.

My first piece of advice to you is just be yourself (this has nothing to do with antiques but I sense your email might be a cry for help).

Next time, start by saying "Hi, I'm Myndi and I'm a proud high school graduate from Van Nuys." You can also say "Did you know that Robert Redford, Paula Abdul, and Marilyn Monroe also went to Van Nuys High?" Not that it matters but it may come in handy if no one says"Hi" back (which is distinctly possible).

My second piece of advice is that if you absolutely cannot be yourself because you're in some Federal witness protection program, then go ahead and lie your head off and best of luck in high society. 

Besides, at art gallery openings everyone from Van Nuys is allowed to say "I'm originally from Manhattan, summered in the Hamptons, went to Miss Porter's and graduated from L'Ècole des Beaux-Arts." 

Where you went wrong at the party was using your Spanish training to decipher what was being said in FRENCH. Yes, Louis XVI is pronounced "Louie the Sixteenth" but it's also pronounced "Louie SEZ" because 16 is "seize" in French. And "baroque" is pronounced "buh ROKE", not "broke."

So Bettina was just saying that she thought Louis XVI neoclassical style was less appealing than the baroque (at which point you could have chimed in with, "Bettina, I agree, Louis XIV [which is baroque] is also MOST interesting to me" or some such other drivel that might score you points with this crowd).

And that brings up a good educational point for the rest of us: Just like Louis XVI is also called Louis Seize ("Louie SEZ"), Louis XIV is also called Louis Quatorze ("Louie kah TORZ") and Louis XV is also Louis Quinze (pronounced "Louie KANZ"). So now you know and vaya con dios.


The Buzz, another out and proud graduate of Van Nuys High

P.S. I never heard of the Vanderlips but I'm sure they're a perfectly lovely family.

Shown below: An 18th c. French Louis XVI neoclassical pier mirror:

List price: $60,750 USD

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Words of the Day: "FAUTEUIL" and "BERGERE"

These are two kinds of armchairs, one upholstered on the sides (the bergere) and one open on the sides (the fauteuil).

FAUTEUIL is pronounced "foe TUR" and is an open-sided armchair. Here are a pair of late 17th century Baroque Italian fauteuils upholstered in C. Mariani 22k gilded leather:
List price: $140,000 USD, the pair

Many antiquarians pronounce fauteuil "foe TOY (yuh)" and only use the term when discribing big, important armchairs that aren't upholstered on the sides. There's no right or wrong on this weird word, so don't sweat it. I just say "armchair" and skip the French but if you say "foe TUR", any antique freak will know what you mean. Wait. Wouldn't that be a great name for a new antique blog: Antique Freak. I love it!

Anyhow, here's another pair of fauteuils, these upholstered in C. Mariani's hand dyed and antiqued "Cinnabar" leather. This pair is 18th c. Italian Louis XVI (neoclassical style):

List price: $131,500 USD, the pair

And here's a third pair, again 18th c. Neoclassical Italian Louis XVI walnut and now upholstered in our 22k gold leafed leather:
List price: $107,000 USD, the pair

Now let's turn to the BERGERE.

A bergere is another type of armchair, this one upholstered on the sides. It's pronounced "behr ZHAIR" and people also just call it a club chair.

Here is a late 18th century Directoire bergere (pronounced: "direct TWAHR"; the Directoire period in France was from 1793-1799 and in the Neoclassical style but very simplified):List price: $12,100 with losses and restorations

Here is another bergere, this one a 19th c. European ("French") walnut Austrian Biedermeier (pronounced "BEAD" uh mire" and this style lasted from 1815 to 1848):List price: $20,000 USD

And lastly, a third bergere, this one 19th c. French Burl Walnut Charles X (the period just after the Empire, 1815-1834 and still in the Neoclassical style) upholstered in C. Mariani glazed leather:
List price: $14,000 USD

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Stranger than Pulp Fiction: Balsa wood is a HARDWOOD

Woods used in antique furniture (or in anything else for that matter) are sadly misunderstood. 

They're misunderstood kind of like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Great movie. But our version would be all about the world of wood and called Rebel without a Butt-Joint. And it would star James Dean as the angst-ridden teenage Quince who smokes too much (so it can have a subplot about forest fire prevention). And then Natalie Wood would reprieve her role as a poor little Sapling prone to big talk, daddy issues, fast cars, and hopeless crushes on trees from the "wrong side of town." In wood terms, she'd be classified as a "Bad Seed" and thrown away with the rest of the trash.

But back to our topic: when it comes to fine wood antiques, everyone wants "hardwood" and no one wants that junky "softwood". Or so they think. 

In reality, hardwoods and softwoods have nothing whatsoever to do with how hard or soft they are. That misconception is just another staggering consumer fraud perpetuated by the sinister military/industrial/timber complex in D.C. or maybe someone else. I have no idea. It might even be the devil-work of AIG. I blame AIG for everything these days including my unnaturally high waist.

Shown below: An 18th Century Italian Walnut and Satinwood Parquetry Center Table
List price: $150,000 USD

FACT: Some of the hardest woods in the world are technically softwoods.

A great example is old growth American yellow pine. It's a softwood by definition (see below). But it's also incredibly dense and one of the hardest woods you can find. In fact, many "old yella" (I loved that movie) pine flitches (meaning planks from the same tree) are so dense they can bend nails.

And what's a hardwood that's really a namby pamby soft wood in disguise? Balsa wood. I kid you not. Balsa is a "hardwood" despite the fact that it's one of the lightest, softest and least dense woods there is.

So be careful when you ask if an antique farm table is hardwood. If the dealer says no that may be just fine because it may well be as hard as nails.

Shown here: An 18th Century Italian Commode of "French" walnut, rosewood, satinwood, and ebony:
List price: $136,000 USD

So how do you know if a wood is really a hardwood or a softwood? 

Simple dimple: Hardwoods are from trees that are deciduous (they drop their leaves every year like walnut, mahogany, and yes, balsa). And softwood comes from trees that are conifers and have needles (like pine trees). Softwood trees don't tend to drop their needles annually; that is, they are evergreens.

And shown below: An 18th Century Italian Marquetry and Parquetry Side Table:
List price: $53,500 USD

The thing to understand is that the world of wood is incredibly confusing in so many ways. So where do we start then to figure it out? 

Well, the basic thing to know (in addition to hardwood versus softwood as explained above), is that a lot of the confusion stems from the fact that most woods have multiple names. And sometimes the names make no sense. Take "Black Italian Poplar". It isn't black (it's white) and it doesn't grow in Italy (it grows in the UK). Hmmmmm.

But the confusion doesn't stop there. Even with a more simple wood like "walnut"--you'd think walnut would be pretty straightforward, right? But nooooo. Consider this: "African walnut" is not walnut at all nor is "Queensland walnut." True walnuts are from the Juglandaceae specie: African walnut is from the Meliaceae family and Queensland walnut is from the Lauraceae family. I'm sure that both these families are perfectly respectable but they're not walnut. Ugh. Too much information, too boring and you don't need to know all this baloney anyhow. So let's move on, OK? Well, no. 

I can't resist sharing just one more mind-twister with you on walnut (if you're thinking "Buzz, get a life" you're very insightful)....ok, so check this out: even for those who agree that a certain walnut is really a true walnut, there's a HUGE difference in the quality, look, and durability of different walnuts. For example, American domestic walnut (often called Black Walnut) is far less attractive, less expensive, and less durable than a European walnut (often called French Walnut). 

More on woods later. For today, let's just agree that: "hardwoods can be very soft and softwoods can be very hard." There, now wasn't that fun and easy? And better yet, it's true.