5 minutes with... Two royal writing desks

Head of European Furniture Paul Gallois on two wildly different yet equally beautiful 18th-century desks — one made in France, the other in Germany — and the tantalising possibility that their royal owners may have written to each other from them

The Louis XVI ormolu-mounted writing desk shown below was conceived in around 1785 by Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806), arguably the most celebrated cabinet-maker of the 18th century. It was commissioned for Queen Marie-Antoinette of France for her personal use at the Petit Trianon, her private residence at the Château de Versailles.

A royal Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany, ebony and fruitwood writing table, by Jean-Henri Riesener, circa 1785. 30 in (76.2 cm) high; 31¾  in (80.6  cm) wide; 19  in (48.3 cm) deep. Sold for £1,091,250 in Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection  on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

A royal Louis XVI ormolu-mounted mahogany, ebony and fruitwood writing table, by Jean-Henri Riesener, circa 1785. 30 in (76.2 cm) high; 31¾ in (80.6 cm) wide; 19 in (48.3 cm) deep. Sold for £1,091,250 in Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

The circular mark ‘Garde-Meuble de la Reine’, with interlaced monogram ‘MA’ and a crowned ‘CT’, branded to the desk's underside, is evidence of this royal provenance. From 1784, the monogram 'MA' was branded or painted onto the queen’s personal furniture delivered to the Petit Trianon, then known as the château de Trianon. Approximately 25 pieces branded ‘CT’ and ‘Garde-Meuble de la Reine’ are known, of which seven are desks.

The sober architectural lines and elegant proportions of the desk, which is embellished with delicately chased and gilded ormolu mounts, are characteristic of Marie-Antoinette’s taste. They’re also emblematic of the Neoclassical style popular in Europe throughout the 1780s, the decade in which Riesener completed many of his most important commissions for his royal patron. The writing desk was offered in Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection on 4 July.

A rare German ormolu-mounted mother-of-pearl, green and gilt painted silver foil, rosewood and bois satine bureau de pente, Attributed to Franz Zeller, circa 1750-60. 37½ in (95.2 cm) high; 31 ¾  in (80.5  cm) wide; 17¾ in (45 cm) deep. Estimate £600,000-800,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale  on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

A rare German ormolu-mounted mother-of-pearl, green and gilt painted silver foil, rosewood and bois satine bureau de pente, Attributed to Franz Zeller, circa 1750-60. 37½ in (95.2 cm) high; 31 ¾ in (80.5 cm) wide; 17¾ in (45 cm) deep. Estimate: £600,000-800,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale  on 4 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

In contrast, this jewel-like German mother-of-pearl marquetry bureau with silver foils and ormolu mounts, offered in The Exceptional Sale on 4 July, is emblematic of the earlier, more opulent Rococo style. It was conceived in the mid 1750s in southern Germany and is attributed to Franz Zeller (1697-1780), the court cabinet-maker to Karl Philipp III (1661-1742), and his successor, Carl Theodor (1724-99).

The German tradition of incorporating mother-of-pearl inlay in cabinets dates to the late 17th century, and was probably developed in response to the widespread courtly interest in French ‘Boulle’ marquetry. According to our specialist, furniture inlaid with this extremely rare form of mother-of-pearl marquetry, for which Zeller is best known, is among the most intricate, rare and precious dating to this period.

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This bureau was probably acquired by William VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1682-1760), for his Schloss Wilhelmstahl in Calden. It forms part of a distinctive trio of similarly decorated pieces, all of which are today attributed to Zeller. This group, comprising the present bureau and two small commodes, is the only example of furniture of this type and date known to survive.

Although these desks were commissioned by different patrons in neighbouring countries around 30 years apart, Gallois speculates that ‘it is possible that a letter written on one desk was read on the other’. The surviving correspondence between Marie Antoinette and Princess Louise of Hesse-Darmstadt (1761-1829), a subsidiary branch of the House of Hesse, is evidence of this proposed royal link.