Friday, January 30, 2009


Both marquetry and parquetry are types of veneering.

One comment about veneered antiques generally: most people think of veneering as something cheap or done to save money over wood solids. And this is true if you're talking about the 1960's paneling in your rumpus room. But antique decorative veneering was actually an art form perfected in the 18th century (by ebenistes--see below) and a characteristic that added tremendous value to a fine piece of furniture. It was not done to cut corners. It was done to add beauty and value to the best pieces of luxury furniture.

Ok, so the basic concept to understanding marquetry and parquetry is that they are both veneers. Veneers are thin sheets of material that are affixed to the surface of the furniture carcass. Typically, these veneers would be in materials such as ivory, mother of pearl, rosewood, satinwood, purpleheart, ebony, and other exotic woods.

What distinguishes marquetry from parquetry is that marquetry is veneers that create a figural pattern (e.g., people, scenery, flowers, etc.). Parquetry is veneers that create geometric (that is, non-figural) patterns. Simple dimple.

Here is wood and bone marquetry:

Here is wood parquetry:

More parquetry-here in mother-of-pearl:

And here: Ivory and ebony parquetry:

And more marquetry, here in exotic and tinted woods:


Sometimes I think that antiquarians purposely speak in a language that bears no resemblance to English.

My suspicion is that they're actually extra-terrestrials (that is, not of this world)-and being aliens, they can't master our earthling vocabulary.....except for the one phrase: "TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER". All aliens know that one.

But back to our story: Here's a great example of antique mis-speak: When an antique is painted as opposed to stained, it's called "polychrome". Ok, fair enough since polychrome means many colors. But what do we call furniture that's painted in only one color? Monochrome, right? Wrong. It's still called "polychrome". Why? Dunno. Probably because even the most sophisticated alien beings can't collect painted antiques (painted finishes burn up in Pluto's atmosphere). 

Shown below: An 18th Century "Polychrome" and Parcel Gilt Settee and pair of Arm Chairs en suite:

List price: $75,000 USD

Here's more proof that antiquarians are from outer space. In their "antique speak", the 19th Century doesn't include 1800-1830.

Yep, even the top auction houses agree that the first quarter of the 19th century is not really part of the 19th century at all. To illustrate my point, here's a recent quote from Sotheby's: "The 19th Century Furniture Department at Sotheby's deals with items produced after 1835." Strange but true: aliens have taken over Sotheby's (that explains those phony English accents...)

Ok, so what do you call antiques made in the 19th century prior to 1835? Well, in France, you call them Empire (the period under Napolean from 1800-1815), Second Empire or Louis XVIII (1815-1824) and after that Charles X (1824-1830). In England, it's called Late Georgian (1760-1820) and then Regency (under George IV from 1820-1830). In Italy, you can just call this period Italian Empire or Neoclassical.

Shown below: A pair of Polychrome and Parcel Gilt 1815 Empire Benches with later upholstery embroidered with the symbol of Napoleon, the bee centering a laurel wreath.
List price: $64,500 USD

The reason the first quarter of the 19th century is often separated from the balance of the 1800's is that the furniture styles that emerged between 1800-1830 were new and unique (like those of the 18th century). And so they got fancy period names.

But after 1835, styles were really just revivals or reinterpretations of earlier designs. Examples would be Neo-Gothic Style in England, Neo-Grecque Style in Paris during the 1860's and 70's and Louis XV/XVI revivals throughout the latter part of the century. 

Boring side note: The furnishings from post 1835 are perhaps best encapsulated by the series of Great International Exhibitions. Although the idea of exhibitions of this type developed in France in 1798, the first truly International Exhibition did not take place until 1851 in London.

These exhibitions became popular throughout the world, although the most important were in London and Paris. They were intended to follow an eleven-year cycle (another alien concept aimed at confusing us earthlings), with Exhibitions in Paris in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900. London had another exhibition in 1862 but due to financial losses at the time the idea was never really followed through in England in the same way as in France.

How can you spot an ALIEN antique dealer? Easy. They all look like either gassy babies or (quite curiously), Elizabeth Taylor.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Word of the Day: "MENUISIER"

I always thought this was pronounced like "menudo"--so I would say "men oo see yay". Doy!

But the correct way to say it is "mun we ZAY".

A menuisier was a skilled carpenter (also called a joiner) who built carcass furniture. You'll see this term mainly used in reference to 18th c. French furniture. Compare menuisier to "ebeniste" (eh bay NEEST), a master cabinet maker specializing in veneering fine furniture (as opposed to building it).

Shown below: An Exceptional Pair of 18th Century Parquetry Commodes (the carcasses were built by a menuisier and the veneers were applied by an ebeniste):

List price: $678,000 USD

Monday, January 26, 2009

Words of the Day: "GRISAILLE" and "EN CAMAIEU"

Pronounced: "gree ZYE" or "griz ZYE"
From the French, a monochromatic (typically shades of grey) painting aimed at creating the look of carved marble. 

En camaieu
Pronounced: "ahn ka mah YUR"
Also from the French, when a painting is in just two tones of color and not trying to imitate marble, it is called "en camaieu".

Compare these 18th Century Italian grisaille panels with the 16th century Italian en camaieu panel below them:

List price: $105,000 USD

En camaieu:
List price for a pair: $324,000 USD

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Molly at the inauguration

Molly attended the Inauguration in Washington. I think it's great that all creeds and breeds were invited. Maybe you saw her on TV:

And below is a photo of the whole family: clockwise-Molly, Jim, Buzz and Sally.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why I love my job so much

At C. Mariani, we not only sell the world's finest antiques, we also have an old world workshop that has 30 artisans hand-crafting the best custom furniture.

Most of our clients are professional interior designers, architects, and collectors. But a few are just normal people who we call "private clients". Here's an email I got today from one of those clients....
"Dear Buzz,
"We couldn't be happier with the custom TV lift cabinet you created for us. It is fabulously constructed, beautifully finished, and it was completed on time!!!
"Please thank all involved for their fabulous work. Feel free to use me as a reference if you ever have any fence-sitters about ordering custom-made furniture from you.
"Thanks so much and happy 2009!
Nanette Gartrell, MD"
And I didn't even add the exclamation points(!) This is what makes my job so fun.

Shown below: An Unusual 18th Century Polychrome Armoire and many thanks to the lovely Mynxie Curran for selecting this design for her residence:

List price: $250,000 USD

Hey Buzz, what word can I drop at parties to wow my friends?

You have friends? That wasn't funny, sorry.

My far and away most favorite antique term is "psyche". No one, even most experts, know what this is, so it's really fun.

You'd think you'd pronounce it "SYKE!" but it's actually pronounced "psee SHAY". Weird, huh?

A psyche is a dressing mirror from the Empire (pronounced 'om PEER') period in France-around 1800-1815. If you see an antique dressing mirror that is not French Empire, it's just called a cheval (pronounced "shuh VAHL").

Here is an early psyche that lists for $54,000 USD:

Word of the Day: "SEMAINIER"


Pronounced: "suh men YAY"

To pronounce this correctly, remember what they say on Fire Island: "some men--YAY!". Compare this to Staten Island: "most men...NOT SO YAY."

A semainier is a tall narrow chest of drawers with 7 drawers, one for each day of the week. The one shown above is an 18th century French cherry wood semainier in the private collection of one of my clients. If you're reading this and you are that client (yes Debby that means you!), I miss this piece a lot and wish you'd sell it back to me.

Words of the day: "ORMOLU" and "VERMEIL"

Pronounced: "OR muh loo"

Ormolu is from the French (meaning ground gold) and is a term used to describe gilded brass or bronze. In recent times, it's been used to describe even ungilded brass or bronze, but technically it should be gilded. Ormolu mounts on furniture were very popular in the Louis XIV and XV periods.

A similar word that you will often here in this category is ''Vermeil", pronounced "VER may (yuh)" and is the French term for any gilded metal.

Here are some illustrations of ormolu or vermeil mounts from both 18th and 19th century pieces in our galleries:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How can you recognize DESIGN STYLES of antiques?

Actually it's pretty simple.

The thing to remember is that the European design periods from the Renaissance through the early 19th century vary slightly from each other from country to country. For example, the Baroque period in Italy lasted longer than it did in France. See the chart from my last post below.

But the general look and feel of each Style is recognizable and here they are:

The RENAISSANCE lasted from around 1400-1650

The BAROQUE period lasted from around 1620-1700

The ROCOCO lasted from around 1700-1760

The NEOCLASSICAL period lasted from around 1760-1830

Chart of Antique Periods and Styles

If you click on this chart, it'll be easier to read:

What's the difference between Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI antiques?

Louis (pronounced "LOO-ee") XIV is in the baroque style (1620-1715) and is generally grand, heavy, and symmetrical. 

In between Louis XIV and Louis XV is the Regence style (1715-1723), when Louis XV was the dauphin but not yet king and hence a “Regent” temporarily ruled in his name. Regence is a transitional style from baroque to rococo, where furniture becomes lighter and more fluid. The Regence period is followed by the Louis XV period.

Louis XV is full blown rococo (1723-1774), more feminized than baroque, asymmetrical, and more refined. Louis XVI is neoclassical, inspired by the mid-century discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Sometimes people confuse the three royal "Louie's" of France with Louie, Dewey and Huey, the nephews of Donald Duck. Care should be taken not to make this error.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Are antiques a good investment?

There's no guarantee that any particular antique will appreciate over time since value is determined by changing tastes, styles, trends, economic conditions, fluctuating demand, etc.

But generally speaking, fine antiques as a group have appreciated dramatically over the years.

The reason is simple: in the previous millennium, the world’s population was significantly smaller and wasn’t industrially mechanized. As such, only a very limited number of first quality pieces were made, and many of them have not survived.

This limited (and constantly contracting) supply coupled with a generally growing demand have driven prices higher.

This demand is fueled by different types of buyers including collectors, investors looking for a tangible asset alternative to stocks and bonds, institutions, and people who simply enjoy being surrounded by fine antiques in their homes.

I should also mention that the better the antique, the better the return. Mediocre antiques will always be mediocre and really shouldn't be purchased as an investment. But I think the best way to approach antique investing is to buy what you love and look at the increased value as an added perq.

Shown below: An Incomparable 18th Century Venetian Chinoiserie Secretaire
List price: $360,000 USD

Is this amazing, or what? Makes you want to cry it's so beautiful.

What about bargains or under-market pricing on antiques?

If the price of an antique seems too good to be true, that’s probably because it is.

There are no great bargains in antiques and those who don’t learn this lesson purchase at their peril. Although rare “discoveries” of unappreciated (and therefore under-priced) antiques do on occasion occur, they are more often reproductions, marriages, or forgeries.

Shown below: A Pair of Chinese Export Lacquered Trunks, inlaid with mother of pearl
List price: $67,900 USD

Should clients consider reproduction furniture?

Many of our clients have us create reproductions of antique originals. Most typically, this is because:

1. They like “the look of a piece” but need custom dimensions or features; and/or
2. The cost of a reproduction is typically for less than a fine authentic antique; and/or
3. Their client needs multiple copies for a contract project.

The trade-off, of course, is that a reproduction will never appreciate like a genuine antique. 

Shown below: Our Reproduction of an 18th Century French Trumeau Mirror
List price: For the original, $31,500; for the reproduction, $8,000

How do you care for a fine antique?

There is a common misconception that all fine antiques need to be “babied” when used or shouldn’t be used at all. The truth is that most antiques were made to be functional and fine antiques have survived to this day despite and because of daily wear and tear. In fact, if it weren’t for the dirt, polish, waxes, and marks of thousands of days of use, a piece wouldn’t have the patina that is so sought after today.

Having said that, since color and condition are factors in determining the value of antiques, taking proper care of them is important.

If possible, a piece should not be exposed to direct sunlight and/or heating vents on a regular basis since this will lead to fading. Although fading can be corrected by a skilled restorer, it’s expensive and should only be a last resort. Also room temperature and humidity levels should be relatively consistent, since dramatic fluctuations can cause warping, splitting and lifting of inlays. Also, polished wood needs “feeding” which means using a paste wax polish and a soft dry cloth periodically; silicone based polishes (such as Pledge) should be avoided since they will dull and destabilize fine finishes over time.

Antique furniture should also be moved with care. For instance, a chair should be carried by the seat rail and not the arms or splats. Don’t carry furniture by its handles since often these are decorative only. Worm or insect holes add character to a piece and are not cause for alarm unless they make the piece structurally unsound or you see tiny piles of dust under the piece (these are signs of active woodworm and should be treated by an expert antique fumigator).

Shown below: A Pair of 18th Century Polychrome and Parcel Gilt Italian Arm Chairs
List price: $171,500 USD

What factors help to determine the age of a piece of furniture?

Age can be determined by examining the construction, materials used, the color and oxidation of the materials (the “patina”) as well as its shape, style and design.

Shown below: A Very Rare Late 18th Century Turin Rosewood and Satinwood Parquetry Demilune Commode signed by the eboniste Giuseppe Viglione
List price: $250,000

What types of "alterations" are inappropriate?

Resizing an antique by cutting portions of it down is the most common and inappropriate alteration made to furniture. This has happened with many sideboards, bookcases, and side tables. Replacing key elements (like replacing Marlborough legs with cabriole legs) to “improve” the appearance of a piece is also not an honest restoration. A marriage of antique furniture (making up a piece by putting together similar looking but otherwise unrelated pieces) is also inappropriate. Of course, intentional fakes made from new timber made to look old is not only inappropriate, it is fraudulent.

Shown below: A Rare Pair of 16th Century Roman Metal Cartouche Appliqués (pronounced "ap luh KAYS")
List price: $60,750 USD

What kind of restoration is appropriate?

Most items of antique furniture are functional, so a certain degree of marking, staining, scratching and/or other damage is inevitable (and fine!) over time. Honest restorations done properly such as replacement veneer and/or banding, or handles, locks, and feet, are not only acceptable but desirable to most collectors as a sign of genuine age and character.

Shown below: A 17th Century Italian Olivewood Palazzo Credenza
List price: $265,000 USD. What's a credenza? An Italian sideboard. What's a sideboard? An English buffet. What's a buffet? An all you can eat chuck-wagon smorgasbord.

Does restoring an antique enhance or detract from its value?

The restoration of an antique, if done properly, will enhance its value. If not, the value will be negatively impacted.

Shown below: A Whimsical Cloisonné Dog:
List price: $46,450 USD.

Shown below: A real dog. This is Molly. She belongs to Buzz and Jim and is sometimes mistaken for a tick. She's 9 years old and will be an antique in 91 years.

What elements do you look for in determining the value of a piece?

The five most important criteria are: quality, condition, rarity, color, and provenance (any known history of the piece including prior owners). Quality is based upon a piece’s particular style, form, proportions, construction technique, and craftsmanship.

Shown below: An Impressive 18th Century Dutch Black Chinoiserie Cabinet:
List price: $140,000 USD