Friday, May 31, 2019

Celebrating 50 years in business!

Patrice Lejeune and I show our Treasure Boxes

When I started my business in June of 1969 it was because I needed furniture for my new house and it was obvious that old or antique furniture was a bargain.  You could find nice hardwood rockers, tables and chairs and other antiques in thrift stores and used furniture stores, which were nearly everywhere.

I remember the first "antique" I bought was from the used furniture store just two blocks from my house.  It was a very ornate oak parlor pump organ made around 1880.  I think I paid $125.  It did not work (as the bellows were damaged and the works were dirty).  I immediately took it apart to see how it was made.

(True fact: all my life I have taken everything apart as a first step to fix it.  Not all of these efforts proved successful...I'm thinking of carburetors in particular, where you always end up with extra parts and no place to put them.)

In any event, I was soon playing music on my pump organ, which was very loud.  The dealer who sold it to me was walking by my house and the door was open.  He was surprised to hear the organ working and made me an offer to buy it back.  I think the offer was $250.  I had doubled my money!

AND I had a lot of fun.  I thought this would be a good way to pay for college, since I was making only minimum wage working 20 hours a week in the Physics Department at UCSD.  I was able to make much more than that restoring antiques on the side.

As you may know from reading earlier posts on this blog, the physics thing did not work out and the antiques thing just kept getting more fun and more profitable. First I opened an antiques store and called it "Antique Wholesalers."  My motto was "Quality Pieces at People's Prices."  I went back and forth in my truck from San Diego to the Mid West and East Coast and bought nice things.

After about 6 months in business I lost the entire inventory to theft.  I don't want to talk about it...

I quickly opened another business and called it "Antique Refinishers."  My new motto was "Here We Save the Past for the Future."  Business was great and, after a few hurdles, my reputation started growing and I began working on finer and finer pieces of antique furniture.  I specialized in veneer and marquetry repair.

In 1991, when I met Dr. Pierre Ramond at the Getty Museum, I was ready to graduate to the next level.  He was so impressed with what I had learned on my own that he invited me to study with him at ecole Boulle, in Paris.  That changed my life.  I owe a debt of gratitude to Brian Considine, who introduced me to Dr. Ramond.

I was fortunate to have spent much of the 1990's with Dr. Ramond and other craftsmen and educators in Paris, and when he retired, I opened my school, the American School of French Marquetry.

I am responsible for introducing the French method, using the "chevalet de marqueterie," to North America, and happy to see its general acceptance.  It is a wonderful tool and you can accurately saw the finest pieces of material in comfort and with confidence.  You can order a custom chevalet from David Clark.  Chevalet Kits

Soon after I opened the school, I was contacted by Patrice Lejeune, a graduate of ecole Boulle.  He wanted to work with me, and I ended up making him a full partner.  He has an amazing talent for the craft, and an educated eye.  Most unusual, he is not offended by my personality.

Working together, we have created many wonderful pieces of furniture.  Starting in 2011 we decided to produce a series of Treasure Boxes, in a process which allowed us to make four identical boxes at the same time.

To better understand our methods, you can visit our YouTube channel: 3815utah.

Here is a short video that illustrates a typical assembly process.  This is Patrice working on the marquetry for the inside of Treasure Box II.


The inspiration for TB I came when I was searching online with Google images.  I spend a lot of time using "images" as it provides an amazing wealth of information.  I discovered a marquetry box that was made late in the 17th century and sold at Christies in Monaco for 18,000 British pounds.  I thought it was perfect and the price indicated a certain demand for such an object.

We spent the next 18 months producing 4 identical boxes with a similar construction and design.
The background for the marquetry was some wonderful absolutely black Gabon sawn ebony veneer that we obtained from J. George in Paris.  The interior was veneered in sawn olive with king wood, tulip wood and boxwood.

Treasure Box I

Interior View (secret compartment)

We were able to sell all four boxes before we had finished construction.


Encouraged by the success of the first series, we began to design TB II.  Again, Google images provided examples of marquetry that we adapted for our use.  The inclusion of birds was a goal, as we find collectors really like them.

The detail on the second series is much more complicated than the first.  Also, we included bone inlay, both white and green.  It took some research to find out exactly how to color the bone green.  I want to thank Don Williams for help in that search.

Treasure Box II

Interior (secret tray released)

Instead of a hidden compartment, we designed a system for a gilt leather writing surface to be released.  In one spot on the interior the wood is slightly flexible.  By pushing down in that spot the tray is ejected by hidden springs.

The interior is veneered with sawn bloodwood, kingwood, tulip and boxwood.  In total there are three birds on the box and marquetry on all sides.

As before, we sold all the series before construction was completed.  One was purchased by a kind client who donated it to the permanent collection of the Mingei museum, in San Diego.  That represents the first time one of our creations found its way into a museum collection, although I have participated in several different museum shows in the past.


There are several objects in the Getty museum collection that Patrice and I really appreciate.  One is the ivory and horn table attributed to Gole.  One of my students, Aaron Radelow has succeeded in making exact copies of that table, and they are wonderful.

Ivory and Horn Tables by Aaron Radelow

The other object that we admire is the marquetry coffer.  It is a basic box, resting on a gilded stand (not original?) and covered in marquetry.  We decided to use it for our inspiration and reduced the scale by 33 % to make it more manageable and salable.  We also decided to design custom made hardware and include drawers.

For the background we selected ferreol.  This wood was rare, even in the 17th century, and found in South America.  It has the density of brass and is very hard to cut.  That said, it has a wonderful chocolate brown color and really shows off the marquetry elements.  We added pewter and brass inlay to set off the border.

For this box we used nearly 50 different species of exotic hardwood sawn veneers.  I must say that I was fortunate to have purchased the bulk of my veneers in Paris during the 1990's, while I was in school.  These veneers were very expensive then and, unfortunately, are not available today.  Thus, it is essential that I use the material I have very carefully.  It cannot be replaced at any cost.

I Love Wood

Selecting the Material for Treasure Boxes

That is why making the Treasure Boxes makes sense.  These are perfect objects to show off the last of the rare woods from all parts of the world.

We immediately sold the first box to a long time client and he asked "could you make a stand?"  We had not considered that, but his suggestion was taken to heart.  We created a stand in matching material in the same late 17th century style.

Treasure Box III and Stand
Interior (three drawers, writing surface, secret compartment)
In fact, the stand itself is something that "stands on its own"  (sorry, I had to say that!)

Here's Looking at You, Kid

Louis XIV Stand
The interior of Box III has several interesting features.  The key that locks the box also serves to open the secret compartment located behind the mirror.  The front lid is released by pushing two buttons on the sides. The writing surface is covered in French silk and lifts up to reveal a tray veneered in satinwood.  Inside this tray is a small brass button.  Depressing this button allows the drawers to spring forward.

Three drawers, Silk writing surface, Secret compartment

Drawer Release System

Here is a photo of TBI, TBII, TBIII and the stand sitting in the veneer cave.

Words escape me....

As you can see, what I have learned in 50 years of business as a furniture conservator in private practice is how to convert hardwood logs into rare veneers into decorative marquetry surfaces into money.  And it all started with a pump organ...

Top View Treasure Box III

PS:  We have sold two of the boxes and stands at this point and are looking for nice homes for the rest.  I am thinking of a new motto for these boxes:  "Limited Quantities, Unlimited Quality."