THE PRICE OF FURNITURE

T

he received notion that furniture was very expensive in the eighteenth century needs to be seriously reconsidered. First, new and second-hand furniture (called ’de hazard’ in the language of the time) should be distinguished. Second-hand fur­niture was considerably cheaper, except for collectors’ items such as Boulle furniture. At a time when the cost of the workmanship was a

less important factor than the price of raw materials, the price of a piece of furniture depended on the richness of its gilt-bronze mounts or the application of precious materials such as panels of pictra-dura, oriental lacquer or porcelain. Only this type of fur­niture fetched high prices, especially when the mounts were made to a new design. In fact, very little furniture had bronze decoration, besides the escutcheons and sabots, and usually bronze was var­nished not gilded, and known as ‘en couleur d’or’. The fashion for rich gilt mounts began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and led to a great increase in the price of furniture. Everyday furniture, with simple marquetry or veneering, always remained cheap.

There is no real standard by which to translate the livre of the Ancien Regime into modem francs. On the one hand, the monetary fluctuations (the livre contained 8.3 gm of silver during the seven­teenth century and only 4.5 gm after 1726) and the constant increase in prices during the eighteenth century meant that on the eve of the Revolution the livre was worth only about half its pre-1690 value. On the other hand, average personal wealth during the period was much lower than it is today. Increase in personal wealth only got under way after 1830. This means that to translate old prices into modern francs at fixed rates would lead to absurd results. We could use. as the economists suggest, a worker’s daily or annual salary as a comparison. During the seventeenth century the daily rate for a worker was about 15 sols (the livre had 20 sols), the annual salary about 300 livres. For example, that was the salary Boulle used to pay his sister and brother-in-law. Poitou, in 1674. During the eighteenth century daily wages varied between 1 and 3 livres. which amounted to an annual salary of about 500 livres. However, in a society such as that of the Ancien Regime, where there was an enormous differential between the resources of the rich and the poor, this is a yardstick of very limited use. At a time when labour was very poorly paid and when a large section of society did not have the means to acquire anything more than the basic necessi­ties. this amounts to measuring luxury by poverty. It is better to diversify the means of comparison.

For the seventeenth century we have some interesting details in the Livre commode des adresses de Paris, published in 1692 by Abra­ham du Pradel. who gives, for example, the price of meals: ‘You eat at an inn table (. . .). for 20. 30 or 40 sols (. . .) People who can afford only a very small sum can find small inns in any quarter of Paris where they can have soup. meat, bread and beer in plenty for five sols.’ According to d’Argenson, it was possible to stay the night in these inns for one sou. At the same time, the salary of a captain in the King’s army was 900 livres. while a grand lady such as the Prin – cesse des Ursins lived on an allowance of 30.000 livres granted to her by Louis XIV. In 1700 the income and allowances of the Prin – cesse Palatine amounted to 450,000 livres. which enabled her to pay the wages of250 persons in her household. According to Annik Par-

dailhe-Galabrun (La Naissance de I’intime) the personal wealth revealed by probate inventories during the eighteenth century was less than 1.000 livres in 55 per cent of cases, between 1.000 and

3.0 livres in 24 per cent and above 3.000 livres in only 21 per cent of cases; and 35 per cent had less than 500 livres. Abraham du Pra – del gives several prices for lodgings in Paris: ‘A house [. . .) in the quarter of Saint-Andre-des-Arts. with three apartments, large poul­try yard, coach-house, valued at about 40.000 livres. let at 1800 livres (. . .)’ and ‘a large house for sale with three apartments, two shops. 14 or 15 fireplaces, four stables for 30 horses, three cellars and a courtyard for 20,000 livres. rue Mouffctard’.

The current rate for furniture, as far as one can judge from Cole’s inventory of 1684 (see pp. 50-51). ranged from 10 livres for tables in walnut or cedar and about 80 livres for walnut bureaux. Desks with marquetry of brass and pewter, which we now call ‘bureaux Mazarin’, fetched about 200 livres each and the most lavish furni­ture was priced at less than l.(XX) livres. Boulle’s prices were com­parable. as recorded in the accounts of the Batiments du Roi. The coffer made for the Grand Dauphin in 1684 cost 700 livres. The seven tables supplied to the Menagerie at Versailles in 1701 cost 6.400 livres in all. The famous commodes which he supplied for the King’s Bedchamber at Trianon in 1708 cost 1,500 livres each and the other commodes which he supplied for the bedchamber of the King at Marly and Fontainebleau were valued at between 1.250 and 1.600 livres. By comparison with these prices the cost of furniture made by Cucci at the Gobelins was enormous: 30.500 livres for the cabinets of Apollo and Diana. 27,568 livres for lapis cabinets and

16.0 livres for the cabinets at Alnwick Castle (7). These prices can be explained by the nature of the workmanship, but above all by the intrinsic value of the materials involved: lapis, jasper, agate, etc.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century prices rose con­siderably. Although the average annual salary was between 300 and 500 livres. it was also often lower. Amongst the domestic staff in the service of the Marquis de Marigny in Paris in 1778. the flunkeys and floor-polishers were paid 216 livres. whereas the chef d’offices’ was paid the same as the concierge. 800 livres. and the chef 1.000 livres. The total annual wage bill for his Parisian household cost the Mar­quis de Marigny 4,800 livres. He also had to pay an annual allow­ance of 12.000 livres to his estranged wife. The annual income of a person of quality would have been in the region of 10.000 livres. Arthur Young puts the annual cost of living for a household with four servants, three horses and one carriage living in a country manor-house at 7.000 livres. In 1768 Marigny paid 700 livres for two paintings by Watteau. L’lndifferent and La Finette (Louvre), while two marine paintings by Vernet were bought by M. de la Bordc for 5,000 livres at the La Live de Jully sale in 1770; Dutch paintings, then very fashionable, reached 20,000 livres in sales of the end of the century. The price of a bottle of Bordeaux was about 1’/2 livres.

Accommodation at this time was not a major expense for Pari­sians. However, if the rental for modest accommodation was about 100 livres, it reached 1,000 livres for a desirable place to live. In 1757 Joubert rented a whole house in the rue Saint-Anne for 1,250 livres and Necker paid the same amount in 1765 for a huge apartment in the Hotel d’Haiwyll in rue Michel-le-Comte. The range of dis­posable income was as wide as ever. If the lowest salaries were about 200 livres, the highest were several hundreds of thousands of livres. In 1772 the assets of Necker. one of the principal bankers in Paris, were estimated at seven million livres. When he became Comp­troller General of Finance in 1786, his annual emolument was 220,(XX) livres. The range of salaries at the time was therefore at least a thousandfold. That of incomes was even wider. The income of the Court banker the Marquis de Laborde was 1,600,000 livre> and that of the Due d’Orl&ms 2,400.000 livres, according to Gou verneur Morris’s Diary (2 October 1789). Choiseul, before his fall lived on an income of one million, and the richest man in the coun­try. the Prince de Conti, had an income of 3.700.000 livres in 1789.

Compared to these figures, prices of furniture in the 1770s and ’80s look low: some tens of livres for walnut furniture and about 100 to 200 livres for veneered or marquetry furniture. In 1788 Birckle invoiced the Garde-Meuble Royal for his walnut secretaires at 60 livres. the tulipwood commodes at 96 livres. those in walnut at 125 livres. and those in bois satin£ at 216 livres. These were simple pieces without mounts. The presence of gilt mounts could drasti­cally increase the price. This is shown by the rates submitted by Rie – sener to the Garde-Meuble Royal in 1786. The same commodes were worth between 300 and 600 livres according to whether the mouldings were in mahogany or gilt-bronze (see p. 379). The sump­tuous pieces were worth several thousand livres at that time, particularly pieces in Japanese lacquer, in pietra-dura or with por­celain plaques. We know the prices paid by Mmc du Barry to the dealer Poirier for a series of pieces of furniture with porcelain plaques made by Carlin: 1.440 livres for a bonheur-du-jour in 1768, 1.800 livres for a jewel-cabinet in 1770 [423]. 1.500 livres for a tric­trac table in 1771; in the following year she paid 9.750 livres for a commode with porcelain plaques decorated with scenes after Wat­teau and Lancret. 5.5(X) livres for a small table decorated with a scene after Leprince (401). 2,400 livres for a small secretaire and 2.640 livres in 1773 for another secretaire, the plaques with a green ground of the same type (407]. Also in 1773 she bought a jardiniere for 600 livres and a small table en chiffonntere of a popular type for 840 livres (428).

For certain finely detailed porcelain plaques the price could be very high: in 1780 the Comte d’Artois spent 6.000 livres on a gueri – don which he gave to the Comtesse Grabowska in Warsaw. Lacquer furniture was sold for comparable prices: in 1766 Marigny bought a commode in a new style by Joseph Baumhaucr from Poirier (240). The price of 4,000 livres was high and Marigny took three years to pay. The furniture that the Damault brothers sold in 1785 to Madame Victoire for her Cirand Cabinet at Bellevue was even more expensive: the commode made by Carlin (420] cost 6,500 livres and the pair of encoignures 5.4CK) livres. Marquetry furniture could, in certain instances, reach these price levels. Leleu’s invoice for furni­ture made in 1772 and 1773 (see p. 338) includes some sumptuous commodes at between 2,500 and 10.000 livres. If we seek a compari­son with modern prices, a commode by Leleu of a quality equal to those bought by the Prince de Conde sold in the late 1980s for 12,000.000 francs, which is the equivalent of at least ten times its price at the time when it was made. The difference between original prices and today’s sale prices is not as extreme in the case of every­day furniture. In sum. the original range of prices was much nar­rower than today’s range of antique furniture prices.