Seminars in the History of Collecting: Creating a market: dealers, auctioneers and the passion for Riesener furniture, 1800–1882
Speaker: Dr Helen Jacobsen (Curator of French 18th-Century Decorative Arts, The Wallace Collection)
Abstract: Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), cabinetmaker to Louis XVI, was one of the most celebrated cabinetmakers of the French eighteenth century. He was also a phenomenon in the history of British art collecting, becoming a byword in the nineteenth century for all that was admired in French furniture.
Before the French Revolution we have no evidence of a British patron, yet just fifty years later collectors like William Beckford, George IV and the 4th Marquess of Hertford had contributed to both his celebrity and the prices his furniture achieved. The nineteenth-century popularity of Riesener furniture was more than just an appreciation of the cabinetmaker’s designs and the quality of their execution; it was driven by a fascination for the ancien régime and romanticized views of the doomed Bourbon Court. It was also an indication of the resourcefulness of the innovative entrepreneurs and dealers in France and England who helped establish Riesener’s reputation in the decades following the Revolution. Through clever marketing techniques and a certain amount of ‘enhancement’, they educated a new generation of buyers and established Riesener’s name alongside that of André-Charles Boulle as being worthy of connoisseurs.
This paper will analyze the rise of Riesener’s celebrity and the dealers who made it happen. It will discuss the sales techniques of the early nineteenth-century auctioneers, the role played by connoisseurs such as Lord Hertford, and the democratization of Riesener furniture through the market for copies and reproductions. It will end with the Hamilton Palace sale of 1882, which opened up yet another new market for Riesener: the Americans.