Thoughts On Furniture Attributions & CDWA

by John Werry on April 24, 2009

assessments Thoughts On Furniture Attributions & CDWA

You’ve often heard me rant about furniture attributions being applied to furniture in a flippant manner – “heavily carved + Rosewood” = Belter or Meeks.  R. J. Horner is probably the most abused name next to George Hunzinger.

I would propose that we dust of some of the qualifiers that are listed below.  Based on the Categories for the Description of Works of Art (CDWA) by the Art Information Task Force (AITF), I’ve reorganized their “Creator Qualifiers” into three lists of what I believe to be most useful to least useful (but still possibly relevant) when used to describe a “creator” of a piece of furniture.

I’m not saying I’m personally going to flip a switch and start heavily leveraging these.  I’m just blowing the dust off of them and putting them in a convenient place for discussion and reference.

Most Applicable

  • No attribution qualifier: Using no attribution qualifier indicates that the repository and most or all scholars believe that the attribution to the named artist is certain.
  • attributed to: Use to express minor to moderate uncertainty regarding the attribution to a known artist, architect, or corporate body, as when the work’s provenance, style, or physical characteristics strongly suggest a given creator, but the attribution cannot be validated with absolute certainty (e.g., attributed to Frans Hals (Dutch painter, ca. 1581-1666)).
  • probably by: Use to express minor uncertainty regarding the attribution, generally indicating a slightly stronger probability than attributed to.
  • possibly by: Use to express significant uncertainty regarding attribution, indicating notably greater uncertainty than attributed to.
  • formerly attributed to: Use to refer to an attribution that had been accepted in the past, but is no longer generally held to be valid (e.g., formerly attributed to Yan Wengui (Chinese, active ca. 970-1030)).
  • manufactory of: Use for a work by an unknown artist working for a named manufactory or factory, which is typically larger than a studio or workshop, and typically produces porcelain, tapestries, furniture, and occasionally fine art.
  • style of: Use for a work by an unknown artist whose style is strongly under the influence of the style of the named master (e.g., style of Raphael [e.g. Belter]).
  • manner of: Use for a work by an unknown artist whose style or elements of whose style are somewhat close to the style of the named artist, but whose work does not seem to be a deliberate copy of the named artist, and who generally lived in a period after the named artist.
  • school of: Use for a work by an artist or architect whose style is influenced by the named artist or architect or by the associates of the named artist, who is living at the same time or shortly after the named artist, but is not known to be a pupil or direct follower of the named artist (e.g., school of Rembrandt).

Sometimes Applicable:

  • follower of: Use for a work by an unknown artist or architect whose style is strongly influenced by the named artist or architect, and who is living at the same time as or shortly after the named artist, but is not necessarily his or her pupil (e.g., follower of Hokusai).
  • circle of: Use for a work by an unknown artist who appears to be associated with the named artist, he or she is living at the same time as the named artist, and probably had some contact with him or her, but not is necessarily his or her pupil.

Least Applicable:

  • workshop of: Use for a work by an unknown artist or architect working under a master’s name, generally in a system of apprenticeship common from ancient times through the mid-17th century (workshop of Gislebertus).
  • studio of: Use for a work by an unknown artist working for a named artist in a system common after the 16th century, when master artists took on pupils who were learning to be artists rather than apprentices who were learning a trade.
  • office of: Use for a work by an unknown architect working for a named architect in the 18th century through the present, when the group of people working for the architect calls itself an office (e.g., office of ChristopherWren).
  • atelier of: Use for a work by an unknown artist working for a named studio that called itself an atelier, generally reserved for those studios located in France, or in Britain after the 18th century.
  • assistant to: Use for a work by an unknown artist or architect working as an assistant to a named artist or architect whose staff is relatively small in number and do not call themselves a studio or an office. Also use for an assistant who worked in a studio or office, but in a special, close relationship to the named artist or architect.
  • pupil of: Use for a work by an unknown artist working under a named artist, where the relationship is apparently close, probably a student/teacher relationship; implies the unknown artist is probably younger or less experienced than the named artist; synonymous with student of.
  • associate of: Use for a work by an unknown artist working with a named artist, where the relationship is between two peers rather than between a student and teacher.
  • after: Use for a work by an unknown artist who has created a copy of a known work of the named artist.
  • copyist of: Use for a work by an unknown artist whose style seems to be a deliberate copy of the style of the named artist, but when the work at hand is not a direct copy of a known work by the named artist (e.g., copyist of Rodin).

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Tucker April 26, 2009 at 4:23 pm

I agree that use of these categories would be a great plus for furniture historians like us. But I wonder how you get the antique dealers that “know a Hunzinger when I see one” based on a lifetime of misidentification. There are too many that really don’t care. It has been interesting to watch the identification of Merklen pieces since my Magazine Antiques article on the company came out in 2005. It is a great deal better now with most antique sellers listing pieces as Hunzinger/Merklen. But I’ve also seen pieces that are now identified as Merklen with no proof. The pendulum is swinging too far in the opposite direction! Possibly the small corrections and the power of the internet will improve the situation.

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zeke April 28, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Great analogy John and furniture is an art form. I would like to add though, some thoughts on attribution:

One often reads statements like “chair made by John Henry Belter” For sake of argument we’ll use Belter, although any of the major cabinet makers with a shop that employed multiple individuals would do. While it may be rock solid that this chair came from Belters shop, there is no way of determining if Mr Belter actually even touched the chair. Rather we should say “made in Belters shop under his auspices” or “Manufactured in Belters shop from an original design by Belter and produced on machinery invented or adapted by Belter” and so on and so on ad nauseum. In this and many similar cases Belter (or another maker) may or may not have actually made the piece in question, but it did come out of his shop. I don’t want to throw a monkey wrench into the works but the whole attribution thing is mind boggling.

All this aside, I think this website is doing so very much to thwart false attributions of Victorian furniture. This blog comes up so many times when i google Victorian furniture that I’m sure the good word is being spread across the net for all to see and read.

Excellent work John, I think you are way too modest to admit the far reaching effects of your efforts here!

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RareVictorian April 30, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Thanks, Zeke. I hope to have some positive effect somewhere with this blog. Worldwide domination of Victorian searches in Google would be nice ;-)

Notice I put “manufactory of” in the applicable list. I was thinking the same thing you were – e.g. a piece “by Mitchell & Rammelsberg” is highly likely to not have been executed in any significant percentage by the head honchos themselves.

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woodwright May 1, 2009 at 2:31 am

I agree that many/ most if not all pcs. attributed to the big name makers may indeed not have been touched by them at all. As with virtually all businesses, I’m sure they all probably started off small – and touched most or all of the work that was produced when they began and were small. But from reading – virtually all of the big name makers had large successful businesses that grew and employed many – often in the hundreds of employees. As their companies grew in size – I would suspect that the company owners (Belter, Roux, Henkel, etc) spent most their time managing the business and employess, finding work/ jobs, marketing their furniture, possibly creating or overseeing new designs, managing the money end, etc. and didn’t have the time to do a lot for hands on work once they were large. Something that could be left to a competent craftsman – while they managed the important things that kept their business going.
If you look at 2 of the same pieces of furniture from the same shop – odds are they were built months or even years apart – and probably by different employees. Yet it is hard to see a lot of difference between them. Because they were made of the same material, the same design, the same construction technique, etc. – probably all established by the owner/ designer of the first pieces like it when they were first designed and made. Which illustrates a philosophy I have that the design is the most important part of the process and that even mediocre workmanship can make a good design look good, but the best workmanship in the world can not make a bad design look good. woodwright

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james conrad May 2, 2009 at 4:42 am

The flip side of this is the reality that auction houses must compete against each other for clients and thats where most of attribution issues start.

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