This cabinet is an example of a type produced in great numbers in Augsburg at the end of the 16th century. Originally provided with a fall-front, it served as a writing desk that could at the same time be used to store precious belongings and confidential papers; the contemporary term for it was schreibtisch (writing table). The carrying handles at the sides allowed it to be taken on travels. The intricate and elaborate marquetry with which the cabinet is decorated on all sides, immediately marked it as a fashionable luxury item, reflecting on the taste and the status of its owner wherever he took it. Indeed, cabinets of this kind may be said to be the earliest kind of international luxury furniture made in large quantities anywhere in Europe.
From the middle of the 16th Century, Augsburg had witnessed an extraordinary ascendancy as a centre of furniture production for the international market, a new phenomenon at the time. In particular, the development of marquetry contributed to this prominent position, favoured by the ready availability of a large variety of indigenous woods and the invention of improved kinds of saws and other equipment. Augsburg marquetry of the time almost invariably depicts ruins, as is the case on the present cabinet. Already in 1567, a collection of prints by Lorenz Stöer with perspective views of ruins combined with strapwork was published in this city, especially den Schreiner in eingelegter Arbeit dienstlich (useful for the furniture-makers in inlaid work). These ruins may have had a significance as vanitas-symbols, but seem mainly to have been favoured for the display of virtuosity. On the present cabinet the marquetry is particularly accomplished, although it is distinguished by not showing any human figures or animals; these may have been restricted to the fall-front. The cabinet shares its proportions and interior disposition with a great many similar pieces. This, together with the highly skilled marquetry, points to these pieces all being made at a great centre of production, and the suggestion expressed in the early literature that many of these pieces originated in lesser centres in Southern Germany and the Tirol (see Möller 1956), has in recent years given way to the opinion that the large majority were actually produced in Augsburg itself.
Sixteenth-Century marquetry of this kind remained popular in later ages and was frequently adapted to new uses. Thus, in Holland one such cabinet was encased as early as the second half of the seventeenth Century in a fashionable, new piece of furniture (Baarsen 2000, figs. 9-10) and panels taken from another such piece were re-employed on a chest of drawers probably made in Turin in the middle of the 18th Century, now at Waddesdon Manor (Geoffrey de Bellaigue, The James A. de Rothschild collection at Waddesdon Manor, Furniture, Clocks and Gilt Bronzes, Fribourg 1974, No. 119). The fall-front of the present piece was probably also removed by a dealer or cabinet-maker to be put to other use. Intriguingly, the replacement corner mounts and the carved borders added to the drawer fronts, suggest that this may have happened in England at a rather early date. The stand was obviously added only in the 19th century; originally the Augsburg schreibtische were normally not provided with stands, as they were intended to be moved about.
A remarkably similar Augsburg cabinet, also lacking its flap, is in the Abegg Stiftung, Riggisberg, Bern, Switzerland.