Saturday, November 22, 2003

Carvings, curls define rococo style

Antiques detective

By Anne Gilbert
Enquirer contributor

For newly rich mid-century Victorians, when it came to furnishing their huge homes not only was bigger better, but pieces with ornate carving were a must. Sculptures of animals, flowers and fruit adorned drawers, tops and arms of wood pieces.

John Henry Belter is recognized as the best-known American mid-century cabinetmaker. But there were others now recognized for quality craftsmanship. Among them are Alexander Roux, Charles Baudouine, Francois Seignouret and Prudent Mallard.

When their pieces make a rare auction appearance, prices can zoom.

The rococo revival became popular in America around 1845. It was the perfect fit for the gigantic homes being built.

The style combined naturalistic floral, fruit and animal carvings with pierced and often laminated wood. However, it kept the characteristic cabriole legs and S- and C-scrolls from European rococo. The wood of choice was rosewood, though walnut was used, too.

Belter, who had come from Germany in 1844, not only created the rococo-revival style but he also received patents utilizing his laminating process. He did not originate the techniques, but he refined them to relieve the often heavy look of the furniture.

With his process, the wood was pressed in steam molds to create curves. Then the ornamental carved work was glued on after a pierced backing was made.

Belter's elaborately carved, laminated rosewood furniture was shipped from his New York factory to the wealthy and famous around the country. Mary Todd Lincoln, who moved to Chicago after President Lincoln's assassination, ordered a rosewood parlor suite with frames made by Belter.

Since these flamboyant rococo pieces were shipped around the country, they still turn up everywhere. But because so many craftsmen copied the style, be sure to get written authentication for any piece before spending too much. The words "attributed to" aren't good enough.


I have a British biscuit tin with a picture of Winston Churchill on the lid. What could it be worth?

It could sell in a collectibles shop for about $75.

Contact Anne Gilbert by mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Photos cannot be returned.

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