Collecting guide: 18th-century French cabinet-makers

Will Strafford, Senior International Specialist for European Furniture and Works of Art at Christie’s in New York, talks us through some of the key names of the period, from Boulle to Riesener, Carlin, Cressent and Vandercruse


A commode by Riesener supplied to Madame Adelaïde, aunt of Louis XVI, sold privately in 2018 by Christie’s on behalf of the family of Juan de Besteigui, acquired by the Société des Amis de Versailles for the Château de Versailles

With the rise of the guild and the master craftsman, 18th-century Paris became a hub for cabinet-making and the production of luxury objets d’art. Style and fashions evolved throughout this period, with a constant thirst for new forms and ideas, which were often created by the celebrated tastemakers of the time — the marchands-merciers. These purveyors of luxury goods commissioned some of the most innovative pieces of the period, with imports from China and Japan bringing a new Eastern influence as well as fame to those who adapted them for daring new designs.


The stamps of Martin Carlin (circa 1730-1785), top, and Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820), above

The guild system

‘Stamped furniture’ refers to pieces that have been stamped by a specific maker working within the traditional guild system. ‘Artisans working in all areas of the decorative arts had very strict rules in terms of what they could and couldn’t do,’ explains Will Strafford, Senior International Specialist in European Furniture at Christie’s.

By dividing the process of making a piece of furniture into its constituent parts, the guilds created jobs for as many different craftsmen as possible. ‘If you were a cabinet-maker you stuck to cabinet-making,’ says Strafford. ‘If you were a bronze-caster you stuck to bronze-casting. Even for gilt bronzes, the process was broken down into different craftsmen who would be responsible for different parts, such as gilding and chasing.’



Top, the stamp of Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806); above, the stamp of Roger Vandercruse (1728-1799), who was also known as Lacroix

Ebénistes & the stamp of approval

Members of the cabinet-making guild were referred to as ébénistes, which derives from the word for ebony — originally the main type of wood used in the 17th century. The ébénistes  were a separate group to the carvers and joiners, who were referred to as menuisiers, although they were both members of the same guild.

In 1751 a parliamentary rule was passed that required all cabinet-makers and joiners to be granted a stamp by their respective guilds in order to be able to practice their craft. The stamp with the maker’s name is often accompanied by the initials ‘JME’ which stands for ‘Jurande Menuisiers Ebénistes’, the cabinet-makers and joiners guild, further proof that he had been officially accepted into the guild. ‘This doesn’t mean to say that you don’t see stamped pieces earlier than this,’ explains Strafford, ‘but it only became a structured legal requirement in the mid-18th century.’

French royal workshops produced all manner of luxury items in the 18th century, with Louis XV overseeing royal manufacturers of tapestries and carpets, and establishing a royal workshop to make fine dishes at the Sèvres porcelain manufactory between 1753 and 1757. In 1759, the Sèvres manufactory became his personal property.

The original tastemakers — the marchands-merciers

These privileged dealers played a key role throughout the 18th century as propagators of taste. As well as selling a wide range of luxury goods, they devised unexpected types of objects, unusual combinations of materials, and unprecedented models and forms. ‘Their equivalent today would be a combination of luxury retailer and tastemaker,’ explains Strafford.

The marchands-merciers  negotiated between the client — usually aristocratic or royal — and the craftsmen, and their power lay in the monopolies they held over certain luxury materials that were crucial to the production of these goods, such as lacquerwares and porcelain from China and Japan, and Sèvres porcelain, which was under the patronage of the king.

‘Without the marchands-merciers  French taste would not have advanced as rapidly and luxuriously as it did in the 18th century,’ says Strafford. ‘They came up with the idea of taking lacquer screens and adapting them into pieces of furniture, or taking a Chinese vase and adding luxurious gilt bronze mounts to make a wonderful mélange  of Eastern and Western crafts.’

The reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715)

André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732)

As Louis XIV’s favourite cabinet-maker André-Charles Boulle was granted special privileges by the Sun King, enabling him to establish workshops in the Louvre and thereby avoid the strict regulation and control imposed by the guilds.

As a result Boulle was able to combine the various disciplines in order to oversee the whole process from start to finish, producing a a succession of pieces characterised by their harmonious design.

‘Boulle’s pieces are some of the most holistically successful artistic achievements of the craft,’ says Strafford. ‘There is a wonderful harmony between the bronzes, the form of the cabinet-making and the marquetry because he had complete artistic control over every aspect of the production.’

Charles Cressent (1685-1768)

After Boulle, the next most famous cabinet-maker of the early part of the 18th century was Charles Cressent. Hailing from a family of sculptors, Cressent became a master sculptor in 1719, and worked as both ébéniste  and sculptor to the duc d’Orléans. He was particularly acclaimed for the highly sculptural gilt bronze mounts on his furniture.

In order to supervise production and guarantee quality, Cressent employed master casters and gilders in his workshop, which broke the rules of the French guild system. He was prosecuted for practising the two professions of cabinet-making and gilding in the same workshop, and was forced to sell his stock to pay the resulting fines. The catalogues from these auctions provide important information for identifying his works, because Cressent’s furniture was always unsigned.

The reign of Louis XV (1715-1774)

Bernard II van Risenburgh (after 1696-circa 1766)

While Boulle and Cressent dominated the first half of the 18th century, the Rococo period during the reign of Louis XV brought new makers to the fore. One of these was known only by the stamp BVRB.

‘Nobody knew who BVRB was or what the letters stood for, and his identity remained a mystery up until the 1950s,’ says Strafford. ‘It was thought BVRB might have been the name of a client or château, but in fact this stamp referred to a Dutch-born cabinet-maker named Bernard van Risenburgh, who was perhaps the finest craftsman in this field in the Louis XV period.’

During every phase of Van Risenburgh’s illustrious career he executed small series of highly luxurious and precious items of furniture, aimed at only the wealthiest and most discerning clientele.

Having been received as a master by the guild, he appears to have worked almost exclusively for the most illustrious marchands-merciers, initially collaborating regularly with Thomas-Joachim Hébert and Lazare Duvaux, who was a key figure in Madame de Pompadour’s collecting.


A Louis XV ormolou-mounted tulipwood and amaranth jewel coffer on stand, by Bernard II van Risenburgh, and almost certainly supplied by the marchand-mercier Simon Philippe Poirier, circa 1750. Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in A Love Affair with France: The Collection of Elizabeth Stafford on 1 November at Christie’s in New york

Furniture mounted with precious Japanese and Chinese lacquer was one of his main specialities, which he developed to full fruition in the early 1730s. Little is known about his workshop, explains Strafford, but it is assumed that he was able to retain a permanent bronzier  because the chasing and the design in his work is so consistent and of a uniformly high quality.

The reign of Louis XVI (1774-1789)

Jean-Henri Riesener (1734-1806)

During the reign of Louis XVI the most famous name in cabinet-making was Jean-Henri Riesener, who was the main ébéniste  to the royal court, and a favourite of Marie-Antoinette.

Born in Germany, Riesener entered the atelier of Jean-François Oeben and became his successor after marrying Oeben’s widow in 1767, and taking over the workshop of the ébéniste du roi  at the Arsenal. He became maître  in 1768.

A commode by Riesener supplied to Madame Adelaïde, aunt of Louis XVI, sold privately in 2018 by Christie’s on behalf of the family of Juan de Besteigui, acquired by the Société des Amis de Versailles for the Château de Versailles

His work is characterised by superb naturalistic marquetry and finely chased mounts. He delivered a famous series of commodes to the royal court in the 1770s, each with a distinctive panel to the front of trapezoidal shape, the perfect canvas to show off his mastery of pictorial marquetry.

Martin Carlin (circa 1730-1785), Adam Weisweiler (1744-1820) and the taste of Dominique Daguerre

Martin Carlin and Adam Weiseiler produced some of the most luxurious furniture of the Louis XVI period, often incorporating precious materials such as lacquer and Sèvres porcelain. They were part of a group of celebrated German ébénistes  who had immigrated to Paris, including Riesener and Jean-François Oeben, who was Carlin’s brother-in-law.

Carlin and Weisweiler worked almost exclusively for the marchands-merciers, initially for Simon Poirier (in the case of Carlin), and then his partner, Dominique Daguerre, who took over the business and was the most important dealer in Paris of the 1780s, as well as being a tastemaker and international entrepreneur. ‘There are a number of styles that you can directly relate to Daguerre’s taste and innovations,’ notes Strafford.

As well as the French Royal court, Daguerre’s illustrious array of client included the future George IV of England and the future Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, Paul and Maria Feodorovna.

Roger Vandercruse (1728-1799)

Another refined cabinet-maker in the Louis XVI period who worked both for the marchands-merciers and independently was Roger Vandercruse, also known as Lacroix, who stamped his furniture with his initials RVLC.


A Louis XVI ormolu-mounted bois citronnier, tulipwood and amaranth bonheur du jour, by Roger Vandercruse, circa 1780. Estimate: $60,000-80,000. Offered in A Love Affair with France: The Collection of Elizabeth Stafford on 1 November at Christie's in New York

From 1769, the Flemish-born cabinet-maker provided furniture for the royal houses through his colleague, Gilles Joubert, who was responsible for all orders from the court. Vandercruse was a witness at Martin Carlin’s wedding, and the brother-in-law of Jean-François Oeben and then Jean-Henri Riesener.

Vandercruse’s work is characterised by the use of attractive pale woods such as citronnier, or lemon wood, in combination with delicate geometric parquetry patterns.

An evolution in style — from baroque to neoclassical

‘At the beginning of the 18th century the influence of the baroque is seen in grand-scale, sculptural forms,’ says Strafford. ‘The rococo pieces of the Louis XV period, by contrast, tend to be more delicate and organic.’

Later, the introduction of the neoclassical style witnessed an emphasis on straight lines inspired by antiquity, although there was still an underlying naturalism. ‘You still see incredibly lifelike depictions of flowers in gilt bronzes, but in a much more rigorous scheme,’ the specialist explains.

Starting a collection

Get good advice

If you’re new to the category it’s always best to talk to a specialist. ‘This is a very complex field,’ confirms Strafford, ‘so it’s important to get good advice. There are so many different technical aspects of craftsmanship — if you’re looking at a chest of drawers, for example, you’ve got to have knowledge of interior cabinet-making to determine that the piece is essentially unmodified. Then you’ve got to have a good sense of veneers, gilt bronze mounts, and so on. The makers’ stamps tend to be found on the strongest structural members, such as the top of the uprights at each corner or the reverse of the uprights, in the case of commodes (chests-of-drawers), or in the case of smaller tables and bureaux, on the underside of the frame.’

Buy the best you can afford

As with any field, prospective collectors should try to learn as much as they can about the piece they are interested in and, most importantly, buy the best they can afford. The key determinant of value, of course, is the quality of the piece.

‘With this in mind, don't get too concerned about having to buy stamped pieces, or pieces by a certain maker,’ advises our specialist. ‘Certain makers are more desirable than others, but the best-quality piece by a lesser maker can often be more valuable than a medium-quality piece by one of the more important makers.’

Another important thing to remember is the part that provenance can play in the value of a piece. ‘If you can prove that something was made for an important member of the royal family, that will definitely add significant value,’ notes Strafford.

Why it’s a good time to invest

The market for 18th-century French furniture has declined quite significantly in the past 10 to 15 years, which means it is a great time to buy. Although there has been what Strafford describes as a ‘sea change’ in taste, these remarkable pieces can work in modern interiors. ‘People have definitely moved away from creating a completely period interior, which was so popular from the 1950s through to the 1980s, but that doesn’t take away from the extraordinary craftsmanship and sense of history that these pieces still possess.’

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