Two hundred years ago a man's wealth and social status were judged by the number of houses he owned and how many elaborate boiseries he had in those houses. Boiseries are the painted wood paneling decorated with wood carvings of musical instruments, foliage and other designs that usually were gilded, and that type of paneling was all the rage in 18th- and 19th-century Europe. It appears that expensive boiseries are the rage again, judging by the experience of one of Europe's largest suppliers and installers of antique paneling.
Guillaume Feau says he has more than 140 boiseries in his inventory and notes that sales of the 125-year-old company he inherited from his father have jumped from $1 million to $10 million in the past decade, thanks in part to strong interest from New York designers Peter Marino and Anthony Ingrao, Alberto Pinto in Paris and San Francisco's Paul Wiseman. Noteworthy past clients include Henry Ford II and the Wrightsman family, which donated a Louis XVI boiserie purchased from Feau's company to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Feau recently had some of the best boiseries on view at the Biennale des Antiquaires, the world-class antiques spectacular put on by the French every other fall. The Biennale is the one antiques show where dealers go to great lengths to design creative displays of precious antiques they've been hoarding for months in anticipation of the 9-day event.
Feau, and his father before him, generously supply and install the paneling, doors and other architectural elements that make the backdrop of several dealers' displays. The booth of Francois Leage, the dealer who specializes in antique furniture from France's gilded age, looked palatial: Two rooms were paneled with rich boiseries, courtesy Feau, and furnished with gleaming museum-quality antiques. One room (top), which received accolades, was paneled in 17th-century oak boiseries carved with hundreds of leaves cascading down from the cornice and entwined with a band of gold. Interspersed among the leaves are gilded nuts that gleam in the light. When he bought the boiseries at auction earlier this year they were a mess, recounts Feau, with all kinds of disparate elements added in the 19th century and pieces missing. "One of the things our company has been doing for more than a century is carefully taking down the boiseries, restoring them to their original state and installing them," he says, describing his team of 100 restorers and woodworkers. "Sometimes there are designs that have been added or important parts that are missing. The 17th-century boiseries had no cornice, and we had to make a new one so that they are accurate to the period and style."
The other room of Leage (lower left) was just as precious. Dating back to about 1760, the "old French white boiserie," as Feau calls it, had come from a hotel on the Place Vendome and was in the inventory of Jansen, the famous firm of decorators which counts among its design credits the White House. It had been auctioned to a man in Texas, who sold it to Feau. His asking price for the two rooms of boiseries in Leage's showspace: about a half a million dollars each.