THE KING’S DESK
In 1760 Louis XV ordered the creation of an exceptional piece of furniture, specifically a Secrétaire embodying both the latest fashions and engineering capabilities of the day. The commission was awarded to Jean-François Oeben who was both an ébéniste and a mécanicien specializing in luxurious pieces of furniture incorporating elaborate mechanisms. He presented his sketches and a wax model to Louis XV and in turn accommodated the king’s own modifications in his final design. When Oeben died three years later only the carcass had been finished with some of the marquetry executed and some of the bronzes cast. The desk was completed however under the direction of Oeben’s widow who employed, and then married, a former apprentice of her late husband, Jean-Henri Riesener.
The resulting secrétaire à cylindre, invoiced at the enormous cost of 62,775 livres, was delivered to Louis XV at Versailles in May 1769, and was instantly recognized as among the masterpieces of French art. Although the finished bureau bears Riesener’s signature, the true genius of its manifestation is in its synthesis of techniques of multiple master craftsmen: the perfection of Oeben’s roll-top mechanism, the three-dimensional realism of Riesener’s painterly marquetry and the magnificent sculptural gilt-bronze mounts by Duplessis and Hervieux.
Used first by Louis XV in his cabinet doré at Versaille, the grand bureau à cylindre earned its title Le bureau du Roi and saw sustained use by Louis XVI, when Riesener was called back no less than three times to re-polish the marquetry and clean the bronzes. This grand bureau remained at Versailles immediately following the revolution, and was miraculously not sold. However, in 1794 Riesener himself was asked to remove all the royal attributes before the bureau was sent to the Garde-Meuble in 1795 and then to the Tuileries Palace in 1796 for the use of the archives of the Corps législatif. By 1807 it was in the cabinet of the secretary of the Emperor and then returned to the Garde-Meuble in 1808. In 1833 it was used by the Duke of Orleans' aide-de-camp at Tuileries, before moving to the Grands Appartements in 1851. By 1855 it was in the study of the Empress Eugenie at the Saint-Cloud where it was removed before the devastation of the palace in 1870. Thereafter the Bureau du Roi was sent to the Musée des Souverains; was exhibited at the Louvre (for a time in the Apollo Gallery), and was finally returned to Versailles in 1957.
Peirre Verlet, as head curator of furniture at the Louvre in 1956 wrote ‘Il n’est probablement pas au monde de meuble plus célèbre que le grand secrètaire à cylindre, connue sous le nom de Bureau du Roi’ and the furniture historian F.-J.-B Watson called it the ‘chef-d’oeuvre de l’ébénisterie Française’. Indeed, from its inception, the lasting admiration for, and continued appreciation of, the Bureau du Roi has never ceased. One of the earliest connoisseurs to desire it was the fourth Marquess of Hertford who commissioned the first copy of the original, with the permission of Napoleon III. Made in Paris by Crozatier and Dreschler between 1853 and 1870 it remains today in the Wallace Collection, London (P. Hughes, The Wallace Collection, Vol. II., London, 204/F460 p. 1032-1043). Thereafter followed one made by Henry Dasson, which was shown at the 1878 Paris Expoistion universelle where it was bought by Lord Ashburton. Dasson was followed by Emmanuel and Julius Zwiener who made a copy for Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1884 and is still in position at Herrenchimsee. A second was made by Zwiener and shown at the 1889 Paris Exposition universelle – this version is signed and dated ‘Zwiener Paris 1889’ and was presented to Grand Duke Paul of Russia by French President Loubet, and sold Christie’s, London, 24 July 1937, lot 119. François Linke made several versions in 1901, 1910 and 1922 – with the last completed version sold to the King of Egypt and today in the King of the Belgians Suite at the Abdeen Palace, Cairo. The timber carcass and veneers for a forth were begun by Linke’s workshop in 1944, when Linke himself was 88 years old, but that version was not mounted with bronze (sold Property from a Private Collection, Volume II; Sohteby’s, New York, 19 April 2007, lot 72). A Bureau du Roi by Linke sold Sotheby’s, New York, 21 February 1976, lot 170 (for a discussion of the ‘Bureau du Roi and its variants by Linke see C. Payne, François Linke, 1855-1946 - The Belle Epoque of French Furniture, Woodbridge, 2003, pp. 218-227).
BEURDELEY’S BUREAU DU ROI
Beurdeley is recorded to have made a copy of the Bureau du Roi for the 1889 Paris Exposition universelle the same year as Zwiener (C. Mestdagh and P. Lécoules, L'Ameublement d'art français: 1850-1900, Paris, 2010, p.171). The 1889 Beurdeley bureau is inscribed ‘Fait par Riesener à l’Arsenal en 1769, reproduit par Beurdeley en 1889. Paris.’ It was sold in the 6-9 May 1895 Beurdeley sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, lot 277 and bought back by the family, as it is visible in the photograph of the picture gallery at the Beurdeley residence 79, rue de Clichy in circa 1910. This 1889 dated bureau was subsequently bought by 'Salar Jung III' (d. 1949) and is today in the Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India. The present version, also executed with the exquisite quality associated with Beurdeley’s workshops and marked with the Beurdeley incised cypher ‘BY’ to the reverse of the bronzes, is a previously unidentified second version of the Bureau du Roi by Beurdeley. It has long been known that Beurdeley exhibited a Bureau du Roi at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Given the provenance of this bureau to the Chicago area, it is probably it was the present example shown.
Beurdeley received substantial commissions for the American titans of the Gilded Age and his increasing popularity with America's industrialists was underscored by his participation in the Chicago World's Fair, where the Bureau du Roi was displayed in prime position, centerstage among a large and impressive selection of wares. Beurdeley supplied various objects and furnishings for the renovation of The Cornelius Vanderbilt II Mansion, described as an 'early French Renaissance style château', at the northwest corner of West 57th Street and 5th Avenue in New York, including a bronze-mounted marble fire surround exhibited, like the bureau, in Chicago in 1893 (sold Property from the Cornwall Collection, Christie’s, New York, 9 June 2014, lot 18, $185,000). Probably under the direction of interior decorator Jules Allard & Fils, Beurdeley executed numerous bronze and marble objects for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Newport 'cottage', The Breakers (see in C. Mestdagh, op. cit., pp. 128-123). It is entirely possible that the present bureau was also bought by the Vanderbilt family at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
THE BEURDELEY DYNASTY
Jean Beurdeley (1772-1853) founded a celebrated shop in Paris at the pavilion de Hanovre on the corner of rue Louis-Legrand and boulevard des Italians, establishing the family's reputation as a purveyor of fine furniture in the French capital. In 1840, Louis-Auguste-Alfred (dit Alfred I) Beurdeley (1808-1882) officially succeeded his father and established workshops at 20 & 24 rue Dautancourt to create a wide variety of furniture and objects which both reprised the work of 18th century masters and were extremely original in their own right. Louis-Auguste-Alfred. Louis-Auguste-Alfred's son, Emmanuel-Alfred (dit Alfred II) Beurdeley (1847-1919) succeeded his father in 1875.
Beurdeley was referred to as ‘a favourite of the aristocracy’, providing furnishings for the duc d'Aumale at the Chateau de Chantilly and for Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie at the Tuileries Palace. In addition to the French nobility, Beurdeley’s patrons incuded the Rothschild family. In 1872 the firm sold a variety of objects, including an important marquetry cabinet now attributed to André-Charles Boulle, to the newly knighted Sir Richard Wallace for a total of 260,000 francs (C. Payne, Paris Furniture: The luxury market of the 19th century, 2018, p. 270). The Beurdeleys were thus not only making new furniture, but evidently selling and restoring earlier pieces as well. Alfred Beurdeley visited the Wallace Collection on the 21 June 1882, his signature ‘A Beurdeley’ is entered in the Visitor’s Book in his own handwriting, interestingly on the same day as Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild. It would be logical to assume that this was Alfred Emmanuel, and not Alfred père who died in November 1883.
CHRISTOPHER PAYNE: A ROYAL REDISCOVERY?
A most interesting part of the history of the Bureau du Roi is that it was not disposed of in the revolutionary sales. This is presumably because its obvious magnificence as such a great work of art was irreproachable. However, as such a poignant symbol of the divinity of kingship it was, as previously mentioned, substantially modified in 1794 to remove all the royal attributes (‘tous ses attributs de feodalité’) and replace them with others (Archives nationales (O2 473, 13 floréal an 2e). The Bureau du Roi was again sent to Riesener in 1796 ‘pour être démonté et rémonté’. (Verlet, Le meuble plus célèbre du monde, Jardin des arts, No. 19, Mai 1956, p. 405). One aspect of this work, the changes to the royal monogram on the sides of the desk, the interlaced ‘L’s for Louis XV, are well known. Riesener also substituted the Sèvres porcelain plaques that are in place now, for the feudal monogram.
However, Christopher Payne’s research discovers that Riesener may also have altered the central gilt-bronze plaque to the back of the bureau at the same time as changing the marquetry. The plaque on the original bureau at Versailles has a medallion profile portrait of Minerva surround by putti personifying the Cardinal Virtues. There is substantial period evidence indicating that originally it had a portrait of Louis XV and therefore the head of Louis XV was substituted with the head of Minerva after the Revolution.
In recent years scholars have relied on the work of Pierre Verlet in his ground breaking Le mobilier royal franc¸ais: meubles de la couronne conserve´s en France, Editions d'art et d'histoire, 1945, vol. II, pp.65-75 for their understanding of the manufacture of the desk. Based on archival evidence, Verlet stated that he had no reason to believe that the plaque had been changed at some later stage and thus the popular view is that the desk at Versailles has the original plaque. However, academics in the nineteenth century were quite clear that there had been some alteration to it, and sources substantiate that the plaque originally on the Bureau du Roi contained the bust of Louis XV and not Minerva. According to a transcript, the Inventaire général des Meubles de la Couronne Tome Deuxième, 1775 (Archives Nationales, O13343, folio 285, transcript in the Wallace Collection file F460) notes: ‘... au dessous de la dite Pendule par derrière est un groupe d’enfants représentant les arts et Les Vertus Cardinales, Portant le medaillon de Louis Quinze.” A second inventory (Archives Nationales 013344, folio 343), has the same information. However, the version of the inventory used by Verlet and others has these words missing (see Verlet, 1945, p. 66, Archives Nationales 01 3457). The discrepancy can be readily explained by a clerk copying an entry into another version of the inventory and missing out a line.
Emile Molinier, curator of the newly created objets d’art department at the Louvre in the 19th century, was convinced that the plaque had been altered during the Revolution. In Le Mobilier au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle (1898) he singled out some modifications: ‘…Au portrait de Louis XV, que supportaient des enfants, sur le bas-relief de bronze qui décore le revers du meuble, a été substitué un buste de Minerve, d’une bonne exécution mais d’un style assez niais’ (Le Mobilier au XVIIe et au XVIIIe siècle, p. 155). The art historian Lady Emilia Dilke, writing in 1901 that ‘the helmeted head of Minerva was substituted for that of Louis XV., the clock and the vases of the balustrade have been rehandled, and the biscuit plaques now at the sides are supposed to have replaced the initials of the King’ (E. F. Strong, Lady Dilke, French furniture and decoration in the XVIIIth Century, London, 1901, p. 169).
With the pending closure of the Beurdeley workshops in 1895, Le Figaro enthuses about the loss of this great workshop, unique in continuing the traditions and practices of l'ébénisterie du Roi: ‘Parmi ces reproductions, on connaît son grand Bureau du Roi Louis XV, de Riesener, le chef d'œuvre qui fut tant admiré à l'Exposition de 1889 […] M. Beurdeley a même restitué […], comme il a remis, dans le bureau, le médaillon de Louis XV’ (L. Roger-Miles, Le Figaro, 2 May 1895).
Carle Dreyfus, a subsequent curator at the Louvre, confirmed an alteration to the plaque in a letter to the curator at the Wallace Collection in 1923 ‘Le remplacement du medaillon de Louis XV par celui de Minerve est très visible. Il semble que la substitution ait été faite rapidement et sans prendre soin de rendre l’opération invisible’ (7 March 1923). D.S. MacColl writing in The Burlington in 1923 also noted the error which had been perpetuated by the authors J-J. Guiffrey and E. Williamson, whom he believed had misread the inventory text and who had assumed that the two children above the clock had upheld the medallion portrait of Louis XV whereas in fact the reference to the medallion portrait of Louis XV was in the center of the gilt-bronze plaque, where Minerva now is (D. S. MacColl, ‘French Eighteenth-century Furniture in the Wallace Collection – part V’, Burlington Magazine, Vol 42, (no. 242), May 1923, pp. 222-224).
This evidence is especially relevant because, apparently uniquely among the copies made in the second half of the 19th century, the plaque to the back of the present lot has a ‘bas-relief de Louis XV’ and not a medallion of Minerva. All the other 19th century copies of the Bureau du Roi (by Dreschler/Crozatier in the Wallace Collection; the Henry Dasson bureau for Lord Ashburton and those by Zwiener and Linke) replicate the medallion of Minerva on the original Bureau du Roi at Versailles.
In the decades after Verlet published in 1945 there was unsubstantiated evidence that the whole plaque had been changed and that the original, eighteenth-century plaque from the Bureau du Roi, with the head of Louis XV, was re-used by - Beurdeley on the present lot. This was set out in a letter and a booklet privately printed in 1972 (copy on Wallace Collection object file, F460: the Marquess of Hertford’s copy of the Bureau du Roi). The first document, typewritten in English, dated Liestal, 1st September 1960 and addressed to Mr. Archie Amos in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is headed “CERTIFICATE OF RESEARCH FINDINGS”. The writer, Hans Bieder, claims that he has thoroughly examined the plaque on the back of the Bureau du Roi by Riesener and also ‘…the one on Bureau du Roi by Alfred Beurdeley, belonging to Mr. Archie Amos in Fort Wayne, Indiana’. Beider’s conclusion was that he was in no doubt that the plaque on the Beurdeley desk belonging to Amos was the original one from Riesener’s Bureau du Roi.
Interestingly, Hans (Jean) Bieder, was foreman to the great belle époque ébéniste François Linke in the late 1920s and 1930s and his father Oskar, was also one of the contremaîtres (foremen) at the Linke workshops in Paris, working with him between 1888 and 1893. Thus the family not only had a direct link to the François Linke workshops and methodology but also to the essential period of the 1890s when Beurdeley held his sales of fonds de commerce, including what may well be the plans and models of his copy of the Bureau du Roi, sold in the first Beurdeley sale ‘Modeles pour bronzes d'art’, 17 & 18 October 1897, lot 243. ‘Bureau Louis XVI a cylindre. Plan, maquette, dessins, calles, calibres. Par Riesener. Mobilier National’.
That the ‘bas-relief de Louis XV’ plaque to the reverse of the present Beurdeley Bureau du Roi could have been removed after the French revolution from the original desk by Riesener, would be a discovery of great magnitude. However, for the purposes of argument, one must also consider that the Louis XV portrait plaque to the present bureau could instead be a 19th century creation imagined by Beurdeley, believing it a closer replication of the original. Indeed on other known reproductions of the Bureau du Roi, other makers confuse details in their attempts to recreate it exactly as it was before the revolution. Although, if this was the case, it begs the question why did Beurdeley not replicate the other original details known at that time – namely replicating the marquetry monogram in place of the jasperware plaques.
The tantalizing possibility remains however that Beurdeley, established as pre-eminent among Parisian marchand-fondeurs since the early 19th century, would have been well placed to acquire the original ‘bas-relief de Louis XV’ plaque, and build around it the present bureau – creating a masterpiece showcasing La Gloire Du Roi - a desk worthy of Beurdeley’s new Gilded Age cliental: the robber baron ‘Kings of the New World’.