Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shellac: A Greener Approach to Wood Finishing

Prior to the 1800’s, the traditional means of finishing furniture to a high gloss was accomplished by applying beeswax in thin layers with a cloth and then polishing it up to the desired gloss. These wax finishes did not always wear well over time and were easily damaged.

The introduction of shellac as a furniture finish started gaining popularity in France around 1810-1820, particularly via a technique called “French Polish”, a technique of applying shellac in layers by rubbing it laboriously on the furniture with a cloth pad. It was the favored finish for most exotic woods, fine furniture, antiques and musical instuments, spreading quickly to Britain and the rest of Europe, and finally to America. To this day some of the finest museum pieces still have their original shellac finish.

French Polish technique in action.

What Is Shellac?
Shellac, as the word is commonly used, refers to all forms of purified lac – a natural resin secreted by a tiny insect called Laccifera Lacca. This insect, native to certain forests in India and Thailand, feeds off sap in the twigs of the trees. The insects secrete a cocoon type “shell”, which is harvested from the bark of the tree branches and, when processed, takes the form of small, light-brown or orange flakes.

Laccifera Lacca

The flakes are mixed with alcohol to form liquid shellac. Shellac comes in many warm colors, ranging from a very light blond (“platina”) to a very dark brown (“garnet”), with all shades of brown, yellow, orange and red in between. The color is influenced by the sap of the tree the lac bug is living on, as well as the time of harvest.

Shellac flakes.

Why Use Shellac?

Shellac beautifies wood surfaces like no other finish. It brings out the rich warmth of the wood grain so that finished surfaces look soft and natural, not plastic-coated like polyurethane finishes. It’s a totally natural, environmentally friendly, renewable material. It’s non toxic and hypoallergenic (even US FDA certified as a protective glaze for candy and pharmaceuticals!). It can be brought to a high gloss or rubbed to a beautiful satin. It’s easy to use, dries quickly and, unlike oil-base finishes, won’t darken or yellow with age.

The Rise of Lacquers and Polyurethane
At the turn of the 20th century, development of synthetic resin compounds along with advances in varnish formulation heralded the end of shellac’s industrial and architectural dominance. After World War II alkyd varnishes were developed and by the 1950’s the first oil-base polyurethanes were introduced. From the 1960’s until the early 1990’s shellac seemed forgotten by everyone except those who manufactured it and the artisans who used it.

A Greener Approach
Today shellac is making something of a comeback, in part due to the global focus on saving the planet and using natural, organic products. But consumers too are becoming savvy to the differences in wood finishes and the natural beauty a shellac finish offers, particularly for antique furniture. Here are just a few examples of beautiful shellac finishes:

Posted by Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques at 06:32:00 PM
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

At Chanel, happiness is in the meadow.

Once again, Chanel Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld reclaimed Paris’ extravagant Grand Palais as the backdrop to present his 2010 spring-summer pret-a-porter collection. Despite the presence of celebrities like Prince and Lily Allen (Lagerfeld’s latest muse), the true star of the runway this season was Wheat.

Lily Allen performing.


Symbol of prosperity, bounty and fertility (not to mention a French idiom for money), wheat has always been a source of inspiration. Initially associated with the farming, peasant class, wheat was oft embraced by artists and designers alike and Coco Chanel was no exception. The unassuming sheaf of wheat became her personal lucky charm, symbolizing “creativity that never ends”, and she used it frequently in both her clothing designs and her home decor.

Les Glaneuses” (The Gleaners), by Jean-Francois Millet. 1857

In Mademoiselle Chanel’s Paris apartment, rue Cambon, the fetish sheaf can be found in numerous places: a brass bouquet, a gold-leafed adornment for a fireplace mantle, a magnificent Regency style table with a gilded wheat table footer and glass top, or a simple ear of wheat painted specially by Dali for Gabrielle (Coco’s real name).

Gabrielle Chanel in her apartment rue Cambon.
Brass wheat bouquet in Coco Chanel’s apartment.
At the show in the Grand Palais, a pastoral atmosphere imbues the place. On a wheat covered floor, Lagerfeld nymphs scroll at a leisurely pace. The “gleaners” swap their wooden shoes for Chanel’s “5’ O’ Clog” mules in leather or canvas – definite must-haves for spring this year.
The Barn.

Chanel’s “5 O’ Clog” mules.
There was a subtle mix of materials – linen and jute coexisting with crepe and mousseline. Transparent mousseline blouses were playfully embroidered with ears of wheat while jackets in tweed and pantsuits were garnished with gilded wheat embroidery. Accessories were also adorned with wheat motifs – hand bags, bracelets, hair clips, even glass frames. Finally, a nod to Mademoiselle’s poppy collection (introduced in the 30’s), with red and blue poppy embroidered dresses ending the show to resounding applause.

Sunglasses from the Chanel Spring/Summer collection 2010.
Lily Allen with a wheat hair clip from the Chanel Spring/Summer collection 2010.
The Poppy collection.
Once again, master Karl Lagerfeld orchestrated the event with a confidant yet delicate hand. Spring looks like the countryside this year at Chanel. Summer will be sweet and blossoming under a sign of softness, prosperity and shafts of wheat…

Karl Lagerfeld

Posted by Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques at 06:11:00 PM
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Ancient Art of Lost Wax Bronze Casting

by Lauren Stewart-Ebert

A foundry operating in 1901…

…and in 2009

The lost-wax method of casting metal, “cire perdue” in French, is thousands of years old and has changed very little in all that time. From small pieces of decorative hardware to statues of mammoth scale, the technique has been used the world over since as early as the 5th century BC.

The Berlin Foundry Cup depicts the process of casting bronze, 5th century BC.

The process begins with a model of the finished product, usually made of wax.

A plaster or clay mold is then made around that wax model.

Using that mold, a hollow wax casting is made.

That casting is encased in a fireproof mold of clay or plaster and fitted with sprues – tubes which will allow the melted wax to flow out of the mold when heated and the molten metal to be poured in.

Then the final cast is made and, once cooled, removed from the mold. Then the piece is “chased,” meaning the sprues are cut off and piece is filed, buffed and polished to its final finish.

This painstaking process allows the most minute details to be rendered perfectly in solid metal, creating beautiful works of art and functional hardware.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, 1902, is a large scale cast bronze measuring over six feet tall.

The Chatsworth Head was found on the island of Cyprus in 1836 and dates to 460 BC, a remarkable early example of the “cire perdue” technique.

The Todai Daibutsu statue in Nara, Japan is a monumental cast bronze. Measuring 52 foot high and weighing 500 tons, the statue was constructed in eight castings over a three year period.

Bronze cat, Ptolemaic Period in Egypt, 305-30 B.C.

Many notable French cast bronze pieces, such as the King’s Clock at the Palace of Versailles, are also gilded.

The Clock Room at Versailles

The King’s Clock

The traditional method for this involves mixing a mercury amalgam with finely ground, high karat gold, applying this mixture to a cast bronze object, and then firing the object in a kiln. Due to the toxicity of working with mercury, this process is no longer employed.

The Rococo and Neoclassic pieces we prize today beautifully display this technique.

Neoclassic secretary by Jean-Henri Riesener, circa 1783

Rococo bronzes line the walls in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles

From sconces to andirons, chandeliers to dressers, the possibilities are endless… and beautiful!

Posted by Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques at 11:23:00 PM
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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Most Expensive Work of Art Ever Sold At Auction: Giacometti’s “Walking Man” Breaks The Record

Alberto Giacometti’s life size bronze, “L’Homme Qui Marche I” (Walking Man) made history last month becoming the most expensive work of art ever to sell at auction; it sold for £65, 001,250 ($100.3 million) at Sotheby’s of London on February 3, 2010. The final sale price just beat the previously held record, set in 2004 by Pablo Picasso’s “Garcon a la Pipe” (Boy With A Pipe) at $100.1 million, but stunned bidders and bidding wannabes from all over the world anticipating a sale price closer to the estimated £12–18 million. Kind of ironic for a bronze sculpture with existentialist themes…

“L’Homme Qui Marche I” at auction at Sotheby’s London.

Working the phones at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Auction.

What’s even more ironic is that this record-breaking sale comes at a time of historic, worldwide economic crisis and recession. Obviously there are those who are not feeling the pinch – ten to be exact (ten buyers were involved in the eight minute bidding, narrowing down to two after the bid hit 50 million). According to two London based art dealers, the piece was purchased by Lily Safra, the Brazilian-born widow of Lebanese banker Edmond J. Safra, who died in a fire in his Monaco apartment in 1999. (Forbes says her net worth is $1 billion). The seller, Commerzbank AG, a German bank that inherited the work when it took over Dresdner Bank last year (also a result of the economic crisis), says it plans to use the proceeds to fund philanthropic endeavors…

Giacometti’s “Walking Man”.

There are two versions of “Walking Man,” I and II, each in editions of six plus artist proofs. The six-foot-high bronze was initially acquired in 1961 by New York art dealer Sidney Janis, who bought it from Galerie Maeght in Paris, according to the auction catalogue. But interestingly enough, these world renowned figures came to be thanks to a New York achitect by the name of Gordon Bunshaft who commissioned Giacometti to create a large group of figures for the outdoor plaza of Chase Manhattan Bank in New York in 1956. The public art project was never completed but it was the American connection that encouraged Giacometti to create larger-scaled works.

Alberto Giacometti.

So just how do works of art fetch such phenomenal prices in today’s economy? Apparently, it’s simple economics – supply and demand. According to Georgina Adam, editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper, the price was so high because there are so few Giacometti sculptures and it was very rare for them to be put up for auction. The Giacometti sale was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. In fact one of the bidders said he had waited 40 years for this work to come up for auction. The sculpture is considered to be one of the most important by the 20th-century Swiss artist.

Alberto Giacometti.

Melanie Clore, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s, says the answer is five-fold: condition, rarity, reputation of the artist, competition, and confidence that the piece will at least hold its value. “The competition which generated these exceptional results demonstrates the continued quest for quality that compels today’s collectors,” says Clore.

Giacometti at work.

It makes sense that in times of economic crisis and financial bailouts, investors would be keen to move their moneys towards more tangible investments such as art, antiques, precious metals and stones. And as the returns continue to grow, so will the art market. And if Sotheby’s Impressionest and Modernist auction last mon this is any indication, “la tendance” seems to be moving in an upward direction for now. Investing never looked so good!

Sotheby’s employees move works for the Impressionist and Modern Art auction in London.
The large painting is by Gustav Klimt, the still life is by Paul Cezanne.

But you don’t have to be a billionaire to get a glimpse of and appreciate truly fine works of art such as Giacometti’s “Walking Man”. Fortunately for the rest of us, it can be seen in several museums around the world: Carnegie Institute Museum of Art (Pittsburgh, PA), Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY), National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kröller-Müller Museum (Otterlo, Netherlands), Fondation Beyeler (Basel, Switzerland ), Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebaek, Denmark), Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL), Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, (Ithaca, NY) and Fondation Maeght (St. Paul-de-Vence, France).

I’ve seen the one in St. Paul de Vence, along with several other works by Giacometti – it’s definitely worth the trip!

Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence, France.
Bronze by Giacometti at Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence, France.
Giacometti figures in courtyard at Fondation Maeght.
Giacometti’s “Dog” at Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence.

Giacometti’s “Cat” at Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence.
Posted by Jean-Marc Fray French Antiques at 06:30:00 PM
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