Follow the Stories | Reno, Nevada (2005)
A True Roux?
When a furniture piece — or any antique for that matter — shows up at an ANTIQUES ROADSHOW event, the first question an appraiser usually asks is: Is this what it seems to be? In Reno, Nevada, appraiser Brian Witherell asked that question when a sideboard that looked like it had been made by the famous 19th-century cabinetmaker Alexander Roux (pronounced "Roo") was wheeled onto the floor.
All clues — the remarkable quality of the cabinetry; the sideboard's shape; its extraordinary carvings; and the use of walnut wood — suggested it was made by Roux.
Was the $50,000 sideboard that Brian Witherell saw in Reno really made by cabinetmaker Alexander Roux?
Brian also recognized it immediately as a piece that resembled another Roux sideboard that he had seen in a 2000 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, called Art and the Empire City, 1825-1861. Another version of the sideboard also was exhibited in 1853 at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, a world's fair in New York City. So Brian phoned a friend who had a book called The World of Science, Art and Industry: Illustrated from Examples in the New York Exhibition that had drawings from the Exhibition . Brian's friend described the drawing. As he did, Brian thought, "This is it."
It was an exciting find because only five such Roux sideboards are known to exist. "Most cabinetmakers would not make just one of a design," says Brian, co-owner of Witherell's, a family-owned antiques business in Sacramento that specializes in 19th- and early 20th-century Americana. "They'd make the same form and design with variations."
Roux was an immigrant from France, where he received his training as a cabinetmaker specializing in the Rococo Revival style. In 1837, he opened his own shop in New York, trading on his knowledge of French styles and craftsmanship to attract high-end customers such as William B. Astor. Roux was tremendously prolific — he had 120 craftsmen working to make furniture in his factory in the 1850s — and also worked in a myriad of different styles through the 1870s, when he sold half a million dollars of furniture, quite a sum in its day. Brian suspects that as Roux becomes better known and more closely studied, more and more unidentified or misidentified pieces will be attributed to him.
"He was one of the top three cabinetmakers working in America in the second half of the 19th century," Brian notes. "You have this highly skilled, guild-trained cabinetmaker coming to America, with all its new wealth and technology, and the two fused to make some of the best examples of American furniture ever produced." Roux took advantage of steam-powered saws and routers to quickly shape his wood, giving him more time to spend on carving the incredible ornamentation in his furniture.
The sideboard in Reno, like the other four Roux sideboards, was done in what was known as the Rococo Revival style, based on the Rococo Style popular in 17th-century England. Brian, though, prefers to call it the American Naturalistic Style, because he likes to emphasize how American cabinetmakers made the style their own by squeezing in more carvings and also adding American figurines, such as the lobster on the Reno sideboard.
To confirm his belief that the piece was by Roux, Brian hoped to find a signature, something that buyers in the market like to have to confirm that their purchase is what it is sold as. It is known that Roux would sometimes put his signature on a piece of paper and tuck it in a drawer or sometimes stencil his mark on some of the interior wood. Brian searched the piece, even looking underneath its marble top, but he found no signature.
He wasn't surprised. "We wouldn't expect it to be signed," he said. That's because cabinetmakers constructing furniture before the 20th century rarely signed their pieces.
The lack of a signature and the piece's lack of a patina — a previous owner had refinished it — hurt its value somewhat. With the patina and a signature, the piece would be worth about $80,000 — the price that one of the five sideboards sold for soon after Brian saw this one in the summer of 2004. Without those, however, Brian put its worth, conservatively, at about $50,000. Still, the owner was pleased: she had bought it for $18,000 several years ago.
"You'd be hard pressed to find something like this today," Brian told her. "The market's really drying up for high-quality pieces like this."
See the Reno, Nevada (2005) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Much of the material for this piece came from the book Four Centuries of American Furniture by Oscar P. Fitzgerald by Krause Publications, Iola Wisconsin, 1995.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Furniture category:
A Match Made in Heaven (Or at Least New York) (Milwaukee, 2007)
Elk Antler ... and a Little Bit of Moose (Omaha, 2005)
Getting Your Furniture on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (Providence, 2006)
Honestly Abe's Chairs? (Mobile, 2007)
A Cabinet Full of Eggs? (Philadelphia, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.