Expert Consultancy

Attribution and dating of furniture and gilt bronzes is an extremely problematic task. In view of the thousands or millions of pounds invested by private collectors every year, it is somewhat surprising that only a minority of collectors seek independent expert opinion or scientific analysis before buying. Many rely on the auction house or the dealer’s description. Reputable auction houses will often seek external expertise for major lots but they will only offer their best opinion and will not guarantee authenticity. Even in disputed cases, buyer’s premium is generally not reimbursed. So while buying at auction is an attractive option price-wise, it is not possible to be certain of what is for sale. With regard to dealers, there is no vetting in place. Modern industry standards are very strict against counterfeited luxury goods but for antiques, only the reputation of a dealer stands as any guarantee. Many of the best dealers will brave the strict vetting of the most exacting antique fairs and come out with flying colours. However, many will avoid exposure. One easy test by which to judge the honesty of a dealer is to request a conservation report showing the piece before conservation / restoration. Reports with photos taken before any work will highlight any major additions or modifications. These may, however, be hard to come by. Instead buyers are, all too often, lured into a false sense of security by the reputation and good quality stock of each individual dealer. This has proven to be an expensive mistake for many collectors. Examples like Bernard Tapie, who lost millions after acquiring most of his collection from one of the biggest dealers in Paris in the mid 1990s (a dealer who is still in business), or more recently the hundreds of collectors and decorators who bought “antiques” from John Hobbs which were being made in Kent by Denis Buggins (revealed in the press in May 2012). These are only a few of the publicised contemporary examples. However, the making of fakes and forgeries has been common practice for hundreds of years. We may be confident we can determine a modern fake or an artificial patina, but how about the natural old patina acquired by a 19th century fake? The couple of illustrations below show some pieces that are documented fakes or transformations. As you will see from these pieces, even the most experienced eye can struggle to distinguish good from bad.



The desk on the top image was sold for £2,500 at an auction in the south of England in May 2010. It was described as 19th century and was clearly a desk created from older elements including individual marquetry elements, stretcher and drawers, no elements of this desk originated from one piece only, they were not born together and were reused. The desk was an assemblage, with no other gilded bronze mounts than the escutcheons. In 2010, the same desk was on show at the Biennale des Antiquaires, remodelled in less than three months, with new marquetry panels, new elements, new bronze mounts and a new provenance. The new bronzes were carefully copied from known Boulle examples and were carefully placed to hide the awkward 19th century assemblages. The desk was offered for sale for over 1 million Euros. It was described as “by A.C. Boulle” with “bronzes previously gilded “ implying the bronzes were old and original. In my mind there is no doubt that the desk was the same and that the claimed provenance was false. The turtleshell marking was distinctive and clearly established the link between the two pieces. Redecorating or reworking an old piece to make it more attractive is a common practice that can often be very difficult to distinguish; indeed almost impossible without prior knowledge or access to scientific analysis. The modifications of marquetry, colour of the new turtleshell marquetry and new bronze are not easy to distinguish and require fine observation skills and a trained eye.

With 20 years experience as a conservator (and an original training as a maker), I am in a position to advise potential buyers on the condition and the probable origin of a piece of furniture before large sums of money are invested. I am currently part of the vetting committees at Masterpiece, London and the Maastricht TEFAF. Besides private collectors and stately homes, my client list includes public institutions such as the National Trust, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Lewis Walpole Library (Yale University) in Farmington (USA). I have been contracted by the Jean-Paul Getty Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum to help with the study of their Marquetry furniture in preparation of their forthcoming furniture catalogue. I am a known expert in the history of continental furniture and have published a book and articles on many aspects of French marquetry furniture and the history of techniques and materials. I am also a keen follower of the furniture art market with an eye and memory for detail. My approach to expertise is technical, based on fact and I avoid speculation as much as possible. I will only give my opinion on an object to which I have full access and have, if possible, partly dismantled. I have seen experts confidently tell whether a bronze was originally varnished despite the bronze now being gilded using a 400 degree process! No sign and no evidence of varnish would survive and I do not endorse such speculation. My opinion will make use of the best available resources and expertise and, in addition to my own knowledge, I work in collaboration with many laboratories and scientists to carry out analyses of composition of materials, pigments, wood identification, metal alloys and dendrochronology. I will be very happy to help with any piece of furniture or gilt bronze but I will also know when to say if it is not my area of expertise.

If the cost of independent analysis or study may seem a lot of money to spend out on an object that is not even yours, and that you are only looking to buy, in reality the cost is little compared to the price of a costly mistake the like of which is seen again and again in the press or in court.


The cabinet on the top image recently came up for auction. It had a very important attribution and a large estimate. It is only after my careful study and research that the same cabinet was traced back to the 1930s. The 1930s cabinet (seen here illustrated in 1916) was almost certainly a genuine 18th century cabinet of a not very commercial shape, design and attribution. Between the 1916 and 2000 it was heavily modified to increase its value. The careful comparison of the early photos was conclusive in showing the relation.



Spot the difference: one was made for Marie-Antoinette for Versailles and the other is a copy made in England during the second half of the 19th century. These corner cupboards are exhibited at the Wallace Collection. The quality of the copy is extremely good in almost all respects, including the colour and patina. The two are only distinguishable when shown together. If the pair were separated, the copy would almost certainly be confused for an original or a “restored original”. Careful study also shows that some of the bronzes may have been swapped between the copy and the original. Swapping elements between original and copy is a common practice. There is a pair of commodes at Waddesdon manor, one with 18th century carcase and 19th century bronzes, the second with a 19th century carcase and 18th century bronze. Distinguishing the two requires fine observation skills and a trained eye.