Decorative Wood Veneers
Marquetry and parquetry are two forms of inlay on solid wood surfaces or in connection with veneer on furniture. “Marquetry and inlay were inspired by the ancient craft of intarsia; that is, the creation of decorative or pictorial mosaics by the inlaying of precious and exotic materials into or onto a groundwork of wood," according to Marquetry and Inlay by Alan and Gill Bridgewater. There is much more collectors can learn about this fascinating art form.
Parquetry varies from marquetry in that it is a decorative form of geometrical veneers variously cut and worked in jigs, leaving linear patterns, sometimes repeats, with the pattern using assorted colored light, medium and dark color woods to emphasize the design.
A brief history tells us that these creative techniques can be traced back about 3,000 years to when the Egyptians decorated their wood with inlay. Examples have been found in tombs with coffers and furniture covered with precious stones, glazed tiles and small pieces of wood, gold and ivory. Through the centuries this type of work was used in Persia, 8-century Japan and 16-century Italy and Germany as well as other areas.
The early process was expensive in terms of importing the exotic woods, hiring craftsmen who did the carving and trenching by hand, and then sawing and slicing the difficult-to-cut small pieces, starting out in linear pieces, which were easier to fit, one piece at a time. Then an anonymous German clockmaker invented the jigsaw blade near the end of the 16-century. This was a fast-moving hand-held blade and made it possible to cut curves and double, triple and even quadruple production by repeatedly cutting the slabs of wood into thinner and thinner sheets. It was also possible to “sandwich” stacks of veneer together and cut six or more identical designs at the same time.
Tools improved, techniques were expanded and more refined. Sometimes an added feature was a light hand painting of color to highlight the wood designs and burning tools were used to employ shadows to give more dimension to the designs.
Woods used for these techniques were usually close-grained woods including boxwood (crème color), burbinga (reddish brown with dark stripes from West Africa), holly (white-creme color, from the United States), kingwood from Brazil (deep brown with black shading) and purpleheart (from Central America, a medium to dark purple that darkens with age) to name a few.
Boulle work is one of the exquisite examples of marquetry with compositions created by the use of brilliantly colored woods plus brass, pewter, ivory and tortoise shell. Another example of intricate marquetry is seaweed marquetry with the ground covered by trailing designs of contrasting veneers.
England, the Netherlands and the Low Countries, Italy and France all produced outstanding marquetry and parquetry items, many of them with the added touch of gilt ormolu or with glazed ceramic medallions.
We are aware of the fine and even exquisite examples of 17-century through 19-century marquetry and parquetry furniture that have survived and often come to the marketplace. Many of the early pieces are identified as the work of certain makers and those bring the highest prices. For example, an Abraham and David Roentgen (German) games table (1765-68) recently sold in a United Kingdom auction for $196,000, a bit above the estimated price. A George III burr yew wood, rosewood marquetry dressing table, attributed to Mayhew and Ince, circa 1775, sold for $50,000 in a New York auction sale, much above the estimated prices.
It appears that parquetry decorated pieces, both early examples and 19th-century reproductions, bring lower prices in the marketplace, but much depends on provenance and condition, so this is not a general rule. On the other hand marquetry furniture tended to be larger case pieces, often with marquetry on the interior (as in a bookcase secretary) as well as the ornate curvilinear body shapes. Assuming many factors, larger, more ornate marquetry case pieces are more in demand by collectors and prices are higher. Be aware that these decorations can be imitated with lithographic transfers. Since the techniques can be very sophisticated, run a hand over the surface to feel texture, and if in doubt, use a magnifying glass.
An excellent glossary of marquetry and parquetry terms is available online from www.artmarquetry.com/glossary.htm.
Barbara Shanley, ASA, is a full-time independent fee appraiser of antiques and decorative arts, with accreditation in antique furniture, antiques and decorative arts and textiles-general. She has published and lectured on the subject of identifying, valuing and restoring antiques.