I purchased this desk at auction from Aguttes at Neuilly-sur-Seine this summer. It is not a period piece but it is fun and decorative. But I basically bought it because I needed a larger desk at my flat in Passy and it was not expensive. It also interested me because it could not easily be dated.
My goals for this article are to discuss a) The cleaning and analysis of the bronze mounts; b) The construction and veneer; and, C) Draw some conclusions on the desk's age.
First, I'll remove the bronzes and inspect them - how they were made, how they were gilded and if they are replacements. I'll be cleaning the bronzes using the method described on my page "Cleaning Gilt Bronze."
Here, the left side of the keyhole mount has been cleaned
I use a flathead scewdriver made for glasses repair for initially prying up the bronzes. If any of my readers have other suggestions, I'd love to hear them. You must pry them up slowly, working along the length of the mount to ensure that it does not bend and break between mounting points. Once it has lifted a little, slide in a flat metal bade underneath until it hits the pins (note - the pins/nails are fixed to the mount, they cannot be removed). Then slowly pry it up. When it has lifted a bit more, move to another adhesion point. Slow and gentle is key. Once you have the mount off, much can be determined.
First, judge how dirty the space between the wood and the mount is. Does it look like 200 years of accumulation? Once you wipe away the dust, look at the shadow the mounts left in the wood. After two centuries, the finish of the desk will fade, but the finish of the wood under the mount will retain most of its original color.
Next, do the mount pins match all the pin holes in the wood? If there are additional pin holes in the wood then it is likely the mount is a replacement.
The first images shows that that mount has not been removed for some time. Considering how tightly it was pressed into the veneer, I was surprised by the amount of dust. Pin holes match the mounts with no evidence of previous mounts. The next picture shows the fading that has occurred. This is not sun fading, which typically destroys the finish as it fades, but 100+ years of steady color loss. The third photo shows the back of the bronze mount. Note the gilding confined to the edges, as opposed to the total coverage of more modern electroplating. Also, the presence of green corrosion shows exposure to excessive moisture/humidity.
And then, the bad news! After removing a few mounts it was time to inspect the nails. Mounts like these are fixed to the wood using one of three methods. The first is small screws, Interestingly, these were rarely if ever gilded to match the mounts. The second method is nails are used to fix the mount to the wood. The third is that nails are fixed to the back of the mount and it is pressed into the wood as a single unit. I have seen all three methods used on period furniture. In this case, they used the third technique, with the nails firmly pressed into the underside of the mount. But they were the wrong type nails for a period piece!
Early 19th century nails were cut nails and have crude rectangular cross sections. As you can see from the picture, the nails on these mounts are circular and braided wire that has been cut This type nail did not exist until the end of the 19th century. So, either these mounts were placed on an earlier piece of furniture, or the whole thing is a later revival.
Use of this type nail places manufacture of this mount at least 100 years after the Empire
But it was after this disappointment that I gained one last clue from the ormolu. Every mount I removed proved to be original, except one. The keyhole mount or escutcheon on the cylinder top was a replacement. At the same time, the replacement mount was clearly identical to the other keyhole mounts on the desk. The only logical conclusion is that the desk originally had only the one escutcheon mount on the cylinder, the other keyholes were exposed.
Next, I discuss what can be learned from the construction.
The varnish-filled holes from earlier mounts can clearly be seen in this photo.
More to come!