The Most Valuable Antique Armoires: Masterpieces of Craftsmanship and History

For centuries, the armoire has served as a essential piece of furniture in homes around the world. Much more than just a place to store clothes, the armoire represents the pinnacle of the cabinetmaker‘s art. The finest antique armoires are marvels of design and craftsmanship, featuring intricate carvings, inlaid woods, hand-painted decoration, and ingenious mechanisms. Today, these magnificent pieces are highly prized by collectors and can command truly astonishing prices.

In this article, we‘ll take an in-depth look at some of the most valuable antique armoires in the world. We‘ll explore what sets these extraordinary pieces apart and makes them so desirable to collectors. You‘ll also learn how to evaluate an antique armoire to determine its value and authenticity. Finally, we‘ll share some tips on where you can acquire an antique armoire of your own.

The Fascinating History of the Armoire

The word "armoire" comes from the Latin word "armorium," which referred to a chest for storing armor. In medieval times, that was the armoire‘s primary purpose. These early armoires, crafted from thick slabs of oak, were designed to safely house a knight‘s armor and weapons when not in use.

Over time, armoires evolved to meet the changing needs of society. By the Renaissance era, they had transformed into cabinets with shelves and drawers for storing all manner of household goods, from linens to valuables. In grand estates, armoires became status symbols, elaborately decorated to reflect the wealth and refined taste of their owners.

It was in 18th century France that the armoire reached its zenith as a form of functional art. The highly skilled ébénistes (cabinetmakers) of Paris created astonishingly intricate armoires, featuring rich veneers, gilt bronze mounts, and panels inlaid with exotic woods, mother-of-pearl, and Sevres porcelain. The most famous cabinetmakers, such as André-Charles Boulle and Jean-Henri Riesener, produced masterpieces for the royal family and aristocracy that are now museum pieces.

During the 19th century, mass production techniques made armoires more affordable for the middle class. While these later pieces generally lack the lavish decoration of their 18th century predecessors, many are still very well-made, with solid wood construction and attractive carved or inlaid details. Today, armoires from the 1800s are a popular choice for collectors.

What Makes an Antique Armoire Valuable?

Age, rarity, and condition are the three main factors that determine an antique armoire‘s value. Generally speaking, the older a piece is, the more sought-after it will be by collectors. Armoires from the 18th century or earlier are especially rare and command the highest prices.

However, age alone does not guarantee value. The quality of an armoire‘s craftsmanship and materials is equally important. Pieces made by renowned cabinetmakers using the finest woods, veneers, and embellishments will always be worth more than simpler, mass-produced examples. Signs of exceptional craftsmanship to look for include:

  • Tight-fitting drawers and doors
  • Dovetailed joints
  • Flawless, book-matched veneers
  • Detailed carvings and inlays
  • Original locks and keys in working order

An armoire with a documented history of notable ownership, known as its provenance, will also be more valuable. Pieces that formerly graced the homes of royalty, famous historical figures, or celebrated interior designers have an added cachet for collectors.

Of course, condition also plays a major role in an antique armoire‘s value. Pieces that have survived in near-original condition, with minimal restoration, will bring the highest prices. Some minor imperfections such as scratches, dings, or fading are to be expected in a centuries-old piece and will not significantly impact value as long as they don‘t detract from the overall appearance. However, serious damage such as broken drawers, missing hardware, or large veneer losses can dramatically reduce an armoire‘s worth.

Most Valuable Antique Armoires Sold at Auction

Now let‘s look at some real-world examples of highly valuable antique armoires and the prices they have achieved at auction:

Louis XV Gilt-Bronze Mounted Kingwood, Tulipwood and Marquetry Armoire – €1,449,000 ($1,586,053)

This spectacular armoire was created by the legendary Parisian cabinetmaker Jean-Pierre Latz in the mid-18th century. Veneered with kingwood and tulipwood and lavishly mounted with gilt bronze, it features a central panel inlaid with a vibrant floral marquetry design. It was once owned by Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic fashion designer. In 2021, it sold at Christie‘s Paris for a remarkable €1,449,000, setting a new auction record for Latz.

Louis XVI Gilt-Bronze Mounted Mahogany Armoire – €1,217,000 ($1,332,365)

Dating to circa 1780, this magnificent armoire is a superb example of the Transitional style between the Louis XV and Louis XVI periods. It is veneered with matched Cuban mahogany and features exquisitely chased gilt bronze mounts depicting laurel garlands and rosettes. Stamped by the esteemed cabinetmaker François Rubestuck, it achieved €1,217,000 at a 2019 Christie‘s sale in Paris.

Seymour Tall-Case Clock With Japanned Armoire – $135,000

Created circa 1815-1820 by the renowned Boston furniture maker Thomas Seymour, this remarkable piece combines a mahogany tall clock with a japanned (lacquered and gilt) armoire cabinet in the Chinoiserie taste. The case features landscape panels and figurative medallions in gold and polychrome against a glossy black ground. In untouched condition, retaining its original surface, works, and finial, this rare form achieved $135,000 at a 2020 Sotheby‘s New York sale.

George III Mahogany Breakfront Library Bookcase – £87,500 ($119,788)

This stately George III breakfront library bookcase, composed of a central armoire with flanking glazed cabinets, was crafted in England circa 1760. Constructed primarily of dense, richly figured Cuban mahogany, it features bold rococo carving and retains its original brass hardware and glass. At over 10 feet wide and 8.5 feet tall, it is a truly impressive piece. It realized £87,500 at Christie‘s London in 2021.

Identifying an Authentic Antique Armoire

With such high values at stake, it‘s essential to be able to distinguish a genuine antique armoire from a reproduction or married piece (assembled from various old and new parts). Here are some key things to look for:

Construction Techniques

Until the mid-19th century, armoires were built entirely by hand, using techniques like mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joints. Circular saw marks, Phillips-head screws, and perfectly symmetrical machine-cut dovetails are all red flags that a piece may be a reproduction.

Secondary Woods

Antique armoires will have secondary woods (used for the back and bottom) appropriate to their age and place of origin. For example, 18th century French pieces typically used oak, while mahogany was favored in 19th century England. Newer, cheaper woods like plywood didn‘t come into use until the 20th century.

Patina

Authentic antique armoires will have a patina commensurate with their age – an overall softening of sharp edges and a rich, warm color that comes from centuries of polishing and waxing. Beware of pieces that appear artificially distressed.

Hardware

The original hardware on an antique armoire will show signs of wear, oxidation, and patina. Shiny new brass or perfect replicas of period hardware are other potential signs of a married piece or reproduction.

If you‘re considering a major purchase, it‘s always wise to consult with a professional appraiser who specializes in antique furniture. They can provide an expert assessment of a piece‘s age, origin, and value.

Where to Find Antique Armoires For Sale

If you‘re in the market for an antique armoire, there are a variety of places to look:

Auction Houses

Major auction houses like Sotheby‘s, Christie‘s, and Bonhams regularly offer antique armoires in their decorative arts sales. Prices can range from a few thousand dollars for a nice 19th century piece to millions for museum-quality 18th century examples.

Antiques Dealers

Reputable antiques dealers are an excellent source for high-quality armoires. They carefully vet the pieces they offer and can provide expert advice. Well-known dealers like Mallett and Ronald Phillips in London, and Maison Gerard and Newel in New York, often have a selection of fine armoires.

Antique Shows and Fairs

Attending a high-end antique show like the Winter Show in New York or TEFAF Maastricht is a great way to see a variety of top-notch armoires offered by leading dealers worldwide. Smaller regional antique fairs can also yield treasures at more affordable prices.

Online Marketplaces

Today, you can also shop for antique armoires from the comfort of home through online marketplaces like 1stDibs, Chairish, and The Highboy. These sites connect you with professional dealers around the globe. However, it‘s crucial to buy only from well-vetted sellers and to review all photos and condition reports carefully.

Caring For Your Antique Armoire

An antique armoire is an investment that can provide pleasure for generations if properly looked after. Take these key steps to preserve your piece:

  • Display your armoire in a room with stable temperature and humidity to prevent cracks and splits in the wood.
  • Avoid placing the piece in direct sunlight, which can fade finishes and veneers.
  • Dust regularly with a soft, lint-free cloth. Occasionally use a quality beeswax polish to nourish the wood.
  • Never use modern cleaning products or polishes, which can damage the finish.
  • Take care when placing objects on the surface of the armoire to avoid scratches.

If any major restoration work is needed, always hire a professional specializing in antique furniture. Improper repairs by a general contractor can permanently reduce a piece‘s value.

Conclusion

An exceptional antique armoire is far more than just a functional piece of furniture. It is a portal into the past, a testament to the extraordinary skill of the artisans who crafted it, and a reflection of the taste of those who owned it over the centuries. The most valuable examples, with their precious materials, ingenious construction, and rich histories, have truly transcended their utilitarian origins to become timeless works of art.

For the passionate collector, there is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a long-lost treasure and knowing that you are now part of its story. Whether you have the resources to acquire a rarefied museum piece or simply aspire to own a charming 19th century example, an antique armoire will imbue your home with a sense of beauty, history, and romance that no modern piece can match. With proper care, it will endure as a beloved heirloom for future generations to cherish.

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