Every picture (on this bookcase) tells a story

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s one thing to find a maker’s mark on a piece of furniture. It’s quite another to find an elaborate history encoded on a piece dating from the early 20th century, but written in the language of the ancient Egyptians.

Victor Werner of Antwerp, Belgium, brought the imposing Egyptian Revival bookcase to the 55th Brussels Antiques & Fine Arts Fair, held from Jan. 22-31. Made in 1907, it carries not only the name of the cabinet-maker and an inscription revealing its place and date of manufacture, but also the name of its first owner and an inscription telling of his activities and duties, all done in hieroglyphics.

“A first impression might have led the amateur to attribute the bookcase to the Napoleon III period, but a first reading of its inscriptions proved this impression wrong,” Werner said. “The cabinet-maker was not an Egyptologist, of course, and he used common literature as a source of inspiration, easily identifiable as far as the general shape of the bookcase and the sculptures decorating it are concerned.

“The signature of the cabinetmaker opens the inscription on the left: the man is called Joseph and either has ‘Birouty’ or ‘Beyrouthi’ as a family name, or claims he came form the Lebanese capital.

“We could not find any information on this cabinetmaker. Another cupboard or bookcase undoubtedly by the same man, decorated in part with the same bronzes, was for sale at Philippe Farley’s in New York in 1991. He attributed the piece of furniture, wrongly but significantly, to Charles Morel, circa 1840. This bookcase is also decorated with hieroglyphic texts, but they are impossible to decipher based on the only available photograph published at the time in Architectural Digest magazine.

“The name of Joseph’s client opens the long inscription on the right: His family name is Parmentier. We’ve identified him as Henri Parmentier (1871-1949). An architect, he arrived in French Indochina in November 1900, as ‘pensionnaire’ of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, an Institution that for half a century studied and documented the art, architecture and archaeology of the area.”

From May to October 1907, a Colonial Exhibition was held at the Bois de Vincennes, near Paris. An Indochinese village with native actors was one of the main attractions, and Parmentier represented the École Française d’Extrême-Orient at the event. It’s believed he ordered the bookcase from Joseph at that time for his private use.

For more information on Victor Werner Antiques, visit www.victorwerner.be.

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