Mechanical Table

Paris, mid-18th century

Accession year 1992

72 x 70 x 46 cm

Radical alterations in the front section of the inner compartment.

Stamped: “J. F. Oeben”, without “Jme”, 4.8 x 4.1 cm, on the inner rear side of the apron, accessible only by dismantling the item; authenticity uncertain. A small fleur-de-lis is stamped on the front crosspiece of the apron. The lining bears two round stamps in ink, “Douanes Françaises- Paris BatignollesA.T”, and the handwritten number “15869” in black ink. The number “8907” is written by hand on two small paper labels in the inner compartment.

Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte

Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Inv. no. CC.17.M.A254

Provenance: sale of the Akram Ojjeh Collection, Sotheby’s Parke Bernet, Monte Carlo, 25-26 June 1979, lot 191.

Bibliography: The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 54, ill.

The item comes under the category of tables à écrire mécanique or à transformation or à la Bourgogne. Fitted with an ingenious mechanism enabling them to take different forms, these small tables enjoyed great success as multifunctional articles both easy to move and elegant.

Pressure on the rear section of the Cerruti table automatically raises a small chest of six drawers with a pull-out shelf and a small lectern.

The framework is made of oak. The top, wavy in shape and bordered with brass like a tray, is horizontally divided in two along a wavy line that does not impair the continuity of the inlaid decoration. It is completely occupied by the representation in coloured woods of a fantastic palace entered by means of two flights of steps with a fountain in the middle. A military trophy appears at the top of the staircase and a series of distorted trellises on either side. Clumps of flowers peep out here and there. The dream-like setting is in the Chinese style.

The apron is densely inlaid with polychromatic flowers in a Rococo frame and has a trophy on each side. The one on the front is a composition of instruments of the arts and sciences including palette, paintbrush, flute, compasses, set squares and armillary sphere. The left side bears a quiver, torch, bow and shield; the rear a lyre, tambourine, cello and mask; and the right bagpipes, dove, rifle and arrow. Gilt-bronze decorations in the form of leaves and rushes run all the way around the apron and all the way down the outer edges of the legs to join up with the sabots, or gilt-bronze feet.

The item comes under the category of tables à écrire mécanique or à transformation or à la Bourgogne. Fitted with an ingenious mechanism enabling them to take different forms, these small tables enjoyed great success as multifunctional articles both easy to move and elegant. They were a speciality of Oeben as well as other craftsmen and various examples can be found in museums.1 The piece discussed here is a table à transformation with drawers that can be mechanically raised like the one with simple but elegant marquetry attributed to Oeben in the Louvre (inv. no. OA 7625) and another by Roger Lacroix Vandercruse in the Musée Nissim de Camondo (inv. no. CAM 345). There are also two in the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor, one of which by Jean-Pierre Latz and the other not stamped but particularly sophisticated with figurative decorations taken from De Machy,2 and one in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, bearing the estampille R. Dubois and formerly owned by Jack and Belle Linsky.3 The latter, which has floral decoration in the Chinese style, presents bronze elements on the apron and legs identical to those of the Cerruti table.

Pressure on the rear section of the Cerruti table automatically raises a small chest of six drawers with a pull-out shelf and a small lectern. The back and sides of the chest are decorated with flowery sprigs and there is a lyre between crossed torches on each of the rounded corners at the rear. The front is inlaid with sprigs of blossom arranged continuously over the six drawers. When the table is completely open, it becomes a small bureau à gradin (writing table).

The concealed mechanism that raises the chest of drawers is a leaf-spring system with two metal rods opening out in a V shape at the top and ending in bronze wheels. It is stopped and started by pushing buttons that cause two pins to slide into or out of metal sockets set in the sides of the apron. The front section of the top tilts forwards to reveal a lid covering a compartment containing two boxes lined with pink moiré and an empty space in the middle.

Now clumsily lined with wooden panels of recent manufacture, this space originally contained a small cupboard raised by means of a spring, as in the Versailles table discussed below. Removal of the panels reveals the grooves of the original metal springs in the bottom.

In the catalogue of the auction at which the table was purchased (Sotheby’s, 25-26 June 1979, Monte Carlo4) and the other important pieces of French furniture belonging to the Syrian-born Saudi Arabian billionaire Akram Ojjeh (1918-91) were sold off, its provenance is indicated as the collection of Count von Harrach in Vienna. While no assertions are made regarding attribution, attention is drawn to the attribution to Oeben put forward by the historian André Boutemy,5 which has been challenged more recently by Rose-Marie Stratmann-Döhler, an expert on the work of the great Parisian master.6

The estampille discovered inside when the table was dismantled for restoration (performed by the Laboratorio Gherardo Franchino, Turin) cannot be regarded as definitive proof. A similar table was illustrated in 1956, over twenty years before the sale in Monte Carlo, by Charles Packer in his book on the French master cabinetmakers.7 This was described as belonging to the collection of Barbara Hutton (1912-79), the American millionaire and member of New York high society known for her eccentric life and seven marriages. Though imperfect, the photographic documentation is sufficient to rule out any possibility of the Hutton table being identified as the Carrach-Ojeeh-Cerruti table discussed here. It can, instead, probably be identified as the table now in the bed chamber of Madame de Pompadour in Versailles, where it arrived in 1986 as a gift from Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor (inv. no. V 4956, measurements 72.4 x 71.5 x 48.9 cm).8

Attributed by the museum to an unknown cabinetmaker and dated in the middle of the 18th century, this item constitutes the term of reference for the Cerruti table in virtue of its fully intact state of preservation, which makes it possible to develop a reconstruction of the latter as it was before the alterations made at some unknown time. In particular, the Versailles table still retains the lid of the compartment revealed by tilting forwards the front section of the top, a continuous surface with splendid floral marquetry. This is divided into three sections: a hinged panel on either side of a small central compartment that can be raised by means of a mechanism involving two metal shafts. The marks left by these shafts can be seen in the Cerruti table, as illustrated above, while the hinged side panels have been lost.

Another point worthy of attention is the inlaid floral composition that becomes visible on the front of the larger compartment when it is raised. While this continues uninterruptedly over the six sections (corresponding to six drawers, two of which are secret) in the Versailles table, vertical discontinuities can be seen in the Cerruti table due to alterations also involving the linings of the drawers, which are no longer original. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the table published in 1956 by Packer is the one now in Versailles. While we do not know when it left the collection of Barbara Hutton, it was certainly donated to the museum in 1973 by the Duchess of Windsor in memory of the Duke, who had died the previous year. As the Duchess retained possession of the gift during her lifetime, it did not enter the collection in Versailles physically until May 1986, shortly after her death.

Regardless of whether this exquisite and much discussed table à écrire is the work of Oeben, there is still another chapter in its history. Its architecture and decoration evidently provided the model for a number of items produced in the late 19th century, which are very similar in terms of structure and marquetry, while the top is, instead, a single piece that can be raised to reveal one empty space. Given the absence of any mechanically-moved parts, these cannot be classified as tables mécaniques. These 19th-century copies, all of which have tops in one piece and no internal mechanism, have appeared in the following auctions: Franco Semenzato, Venice, 23-24 May 1987, lot 182, attributed to Oeben (but with no grounds put forward), 72 x 68 x 47 cm; Sotheby’s, London, 20 September 2011, lot 103, “after a model by Oeben in Louis XV style, 19th century”, 72.5 x 69 x 52 cm, measurements practically identical to the Cerruti table in height and width but 6 cm greater in depth; Christie’s, London, 10 September 2013, lot 101, “signed on the lockplates E.O. SCHMIDT/WIEN” (it should be recalled in this connection that the Harrach Collection, to which the original belonged, was located in Vienna), 72.5 x 69 x 52 cm; Christie’s, London, 18 September 2014, lot 63, 72.5 x 67 x 48.2 cm; Sotheby’s, London, 2 May 2017, lot 206, with signature “J.F. Oeben JME” regarded as apocryphal, 72 x 70 x 49 cm; Antiques market, London, table of the same type described as “in the manner of J-F Oeben” and dated c. 1880, 72 x 70 x 49 cm.

It is impossible to establish on the basis of the photographic documentation available for the above items whether they are all different or whether one or more has been auctioned more than once. Comparison of the tops reveals substantial differences as regards shape and details of the inlaid decoration. Two of the photographs present a reversed horizontal orientation with respect to the others. Minor variations in the measurements given can be regarded as normal within certain limits but not when the difference is a matter of centimetres. It should also be stated that the Cerruti table was examined in October 2019 by Peter Fuhring, who expressed serious doubts.

Jean-François Oeben (1721-63, maître 1761), born in Heinsberg nearAachen and therefore of German origin, is known to have been in Paris for a few years by 1749. He may have served an apprenticeship with Jean- Pierre Latz but it is not really known whether his training was German or French. Marriage to a member of the Vandercruse family gained him access to the world of luxury cabinetmaking. He spent a few years in the workshop of Boulle’s son Charles-Joseph in the Louvre, before obtaining premises at the Manufacture des Gobelins. Appointed cabinetmaker to the king in 1754, he was granted new premises at the Arsenal in 1756. He acquired great prestige and his fame spread outside France to reach London and Vienna, as well as the Tsar in Russia. He worked for Madame de Pompadour and the cream of French nobility. It was in 1760 that he started work on what is considered the world’s most famous piece of furniture, namely the rolltop Bureau du Roi for the study of Louis XV in Versailles, which was finished (and signed) nine years later by Riesener.

In his magnificent works, Oeben displayed the gifts that led the historian of French cabinetmaking Pierre Kjellberg to describe him as “un marqueteur incomparable” and “un mécanicien ingénieux”, as attested respectively by his extraordinary designs and virtuoso execution of marquetry and by his expertise in the invention and creation of mechanisms for his surprising multifunctional pieces, small masterpieces of technological ingenuity. Granted permission to forge the metal parts of these items himself in his workshop at the Arsenal, Oeben embarked on more complex projects for the disabled Duke of Burgundy, the nephew of Louis XV, including an invalid chair and a chest of five drawers that is also a bookcase, a prie-dieu, a desk and a bedside table (Musée du Louvre, inv. no. OA 10001). This is why these mechanical items of furniture are also known tables à la Bourgogne in France. Nor should it be forgotten that Oeben was also a teacher. The great cabinetmakers Riesener and Leleu were his pupils and competed with each other to take his place, following his death at the age of just forty-two.

[Roberto Antonetto]

1 The best-known are the one for Madame de Pompadour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. no. 1982.60.61), bearing the estampilles of Oeben and Roger Vandercruse Lacroix, and those of the Getty Museum in Malibu, the Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Residenzmuseum in Munich and the Victoria and Albert in London. Others are in the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Bowes Museum in Durham.

2 De Bellaigue 1974, vol. I, pp. 394-407, nos. 82 and 83.

3 Inv. no.1982.60.60. The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1984, p. 213. The literature on French cabinetmaking includes two figures by the name of René Dubois. One is the son of the famous Jacques, born in 1737, qualified as a ma tre in 1755 and deceased in 1798 or 1799. There is a great deal of information about him and his taste for chinoiserie and lacquered furniture is attested by a number of known works. He appears to have always used his father’s estampille, however, rather than one of his own. Instead, little is known about the other, maître in 1757, initially with a workshop on Rue de la Verrerie, and then a dealer in toys on Rue Saint-Honoré.

4 Sotheby’s, Monte Carlo, Magnifique ensemble de meubles et objets d’art français. Collection Monsieur Akram Ojjeh, 25-26 June 1979, pp. 258-260.

5 Boutemy 1964, p. 220, figs. 37-39. Boutemy did not, however, conceal a number of stylistic reservations. A reproduction of the table also appears in De Plas 1975, p. 32 (where it is indicated as belonging to the Daniel Wildenstein Collection).

6 Stratmann-Döhler 2002, pp. 83-113.

7 Packer 1956, fig. 61.

8 The Musée de Versailles is thanked for kindly making the photographic documentation available.