The craftsmanship, materials and ingenuity of this extraordinary secretaire cabinet place it firmly among the class of a meisterstück, or masterpiece of German cabinet-making. Though its maker is currently unknown, this secretaire reflects the continuation of a unique tradition of training and expertise that could only originate from workshops of the renowned German cabinet-maker, David Roentgen (1743-1807).
The secretaire's stringent architectural form and decoration reflects the Neoclassical or goût Grec style which prevailed in Europe from the 1770's until the early part of the 19th century. Roentgen first encountered Neoclassical design on a 1765 trip to London and became one of its most influential proponents. Roentgen was unique among his contemporaries in that he developed a stock series of forms which could be customized to each client's taste and budget, thus creating an immediately identifiable product with a distinct aesthetic. However, what made Roentgen's furniture so prized were the ingenious hidden mechanics; in the most extravagant pieces commissioned for Royal patrons a single touch could cause a cascade of drawers, compartments and devices to appear. By the 1780's, Roentgen's patrons included Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Prince Frederick William of Prussia and Charles Alexandre, Duke of Lorraine and Governor of the Austrian Netherlands. At its height, the annual income of the Roentgen workshop often equaled that of the Meissen porcelain manufactory (W. Koeppe, Extravagant Inventions: The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens, New York 2012, p. 3).
Roentgen's longest and closest relationship was with Crown Prince (later Emperor) Frederick William II, and it provides the clearest connection to the secretaire's possible maker. In 1791, Roentgen, who had been awarded the title of Royal Prussian Privy Councillor, lent his influence and financial assistance to his foreman, David Hacker, so that he could establish his own workshop. Hacker supplied furniture to the Prussian Royal palaces and though he is probably not the secretaire's maker, two of his former apprentices, Johan Georg Stein and Johannes Andreas Beo, are very strong candidates. Hacker clearly trained them in the Roentgen system of using an easily adaptable stock form, as Stein and Beo each produced a secretaire whose form is virtually identical to each other as well as to the offered secretaire (A.Stiegel, Berliner Möbelkunst, Berlin 2003, p. 95, figs 28-29). Further, all three secretaires share identical decorative elements and display mechanics such as secret compartments housed in a separately built architectural central section: all continuations of Roentgen's method of customizing pieces for each client. Stein's secretaire was recorded in the private dressing room of Empress Luise (1776-1810), wife of Friederich III, in the 1800 Charlottenburg Palace inventory. Interestingly, the Beo secretaire, which is now in the collection of the Getty Museum (84.DA.87), once housed a complicated clock mechanism: another replication of the traditions of the Roentgen workshop.
Roentgen also helped another one of his cabinet-makers, Johann Cristian Härder, establish his own workshop in Brunswick around 1800. He named it the Braunschweigische Priviligierte Kunst-Meuble-Fabrik von Neuweid, a clear reference to his famous former employer. A secretaire attributed to Härder, now in the collection of the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, is a fourth version of this same stock form with common decorative elements but has the further distinction of containing mechanical elements on par with the most sophisticated products from the Roentgen workshop (Koeppe, ed. Extravagant Inventions, The Princely Furniture of the Roentgens, New York, 2012, p.234, app. 3.1.).
Though Stein, Beo or Härder could certainly have made this extraordinary secretaire, what is so striking is that without documentation, it would be almost impossible to determine who made any of them. This incredible consistency underlines the decades long influence of Roentgen's workshop which passed from his former cabinet-makers, to their disciples and then on to others, all of whom strove to emulate the work of the most innovative cabinet maker of 18th century Europe.
Examples of comparable quality are largely in public collections and rarely appear at auction. A related secretaire with less embellishments attributed to the Berlin cabinet-maker Georg Ruppert and commissioned by the Prussian General Carl Freidrich Henrich, Graf von Wylich und Lottum (1767-1841) was sold at Christie's Amsterdam, 24-25 June 2008, lot 751.
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A GERMAN ORMOLU-MOUNTED WHITE MARBLE, MAHOGANY AND FRUITWOOD MARQUETRY SECRETAIRE A ABATTANT
PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF ELIZABETH FONDARAS (LOT 439)
late 18th Century, secretaire, Furniture & Lighting, bookcases/shelves, cabinets/cupboards, gold ground / ormolu, mahogany, marble, Germany
Clocks, Marine Chronometers & Barometers
80 in. (203 cm.) high, 43½ in. (110 cm.) wide, 20½ in. (52 cm.) deep
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