King Louis XV of France, Emperor Napoleon III, the fourth Marquess of Hertford and American transport mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt II are just four of the illustrious names attached to this remarkable bureau from the 1890s. It was made by Emmanuel-Alfred Beurdeley, the last in a family line of eminent 19th-century furniture-makers.
Maison Beurdeley’s speciality was the reproduction of famous 18th-century pieces from before the French Revolution. Such was the quality of these works that often they were mistaken for the originals. On 20 April 2018 a leading example of a so-called ‘Bureau du Roi’ is offered in The Exceptional Sale in New York.
The original was made in 1769 for Louis XV by master craftsmen Jean-Francois Oeben and Jean-Henri Riesener, and delivered to him at the Palace of Versailles, where it again resides. It cost the hefty sum of 62,775 livres, and was kept by the king in his private apartments.
The bureau remained at Versailles after the French Revolution — unlike the majority of royal furniture, which was sold off — until in 1855 it was moved to the study of Empress Eugénie (Napoleon III’s wife) at the imperial residence, Château de Saint-Cloud.
The piece was much coveted, and — with Napoleon III’s permission — the first copy of it was commissioned by the emperor’s English friend, the Marquess of Hertford, which now resides in the Wallace Collection in London. A number of other copies followed by the great Parisian cabinetmakers, including Henry Dasson, Emmanuel Zwiener and Francois Linke. Among their patrons were King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Grand Duke Paul of Russia, the youngest son of Tsar Nicholas II.
The ormolu mounts are variously marked ‘BY’ (Beurdeley) to the reverse
According to Casey Rogers, Head of 19th Century Furniture & Sculpture at Christie’s in New York, one of the finest reproductions was made by Beurdeley: ‘The absolute beauty of its construction, the exquisite bronze with their precision chasing and gilding, the flourish of the marquetry decoration on a variety of exotic woods all put Beurdeley’s ‘Bureau du Roi’ head and shoulders above other versions. It’s an absolute feast for the eyes.’
The decoration of the case is a celebration of the Herculean labours, with every inch of the case drenched in mythological iconography. ‘Even now, after seeing it day-in, day-out,’ Rogers continues, ‘each time I inspect it new details seem to emerge: whether it’s the lion pelts on the legs or the laurel-festooned clubs of Hercules on the angles.’
‘Beurdeley is a name that resonates — loudly — in the world of furniture, and this is one of the maker’s standout works’
Beurdeley was popular in America, and received numerous commissions from Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose mansion on 57th Street in New York was in the style of a French Renaissance château.
In 1893 Beurdeley exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, where his Bureau du Roi was given pride of place. It has been suggested that a patron such as Vanderbilt may have purchased it there and then, although not until 1918 is the piece actually recorded in a collection — that of the silk baron, Oscar Heineman.
Beurdeley exhibited the Bureau du Roi exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893
‘Another interesting twist to this tale,’ says Rogers, ‘is that this replica Bureau du Roi features a portrait of Louis XV on a gilt-bronze plaque at the back. By contrast, a portrait of the goddess Minerva can be found on the equivalent plaque on the bureau at Versailles — recent research suggests that the original portrait and and other decorative attributes of the King were removed during the Revolution in an act of anti-royal sentiment.’
In other words, Beurdeley opted to wind the clock back to 1769 and restore the portrait of Louis XV on his reproduction. In this detail, it might therefore be said that Beurdeley’s bureau is truer to the original than the original now is itself.
‘The piece ticks every box as far as 19th-century furniture is concerned,’ confirms Rogers. ‘By this I mean quality; condition, which is excellent; provenance; and, of course, authorship. Beurdeley is a name that resonates — loudly — in the world of furniture, and this is one of the maker’s standout works.’