Excitement in Sotheby’s Monaco saleroom was palpable as the auctioneer struck his gavel at $1.79 million, a winning bid more than three times greater than the previous record for a single piece of furniture. The date was June 25, 1979 and celebrated lot number 60 was a French eighteenth-century corner cabinet manufactured by Jacques Dubois. Instantly famous, the encoignure (corner cabinet) now belonged to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Acquired in memory of the institution’s founder and namesake, it was once listed among his twelve favorite pieces objects in the world. More than thirty years later, the corner cabinet is arguably still the pièce de résistance within the collection’s decorative arts holdings. Expertly rendered in high Rococo style, the imposing cupboard is replete with undulating gilt bronze mounts and luxurious shell and fan motifs. A veneer of floral marquetry further enlivens the decoration while two spiraling candelabra adorn the upper portion of the cupboard with fluidity of form. The ornate design is finished by a monumental clock, on top of which an allegorical figure rests.
The Getty Museum’s corner cabinet was born out of a golden age in French design, the result of unparalleled workmanship recognized and appreciated by collectors and connoisseurs for more than three centuries. The cabinet’s history of ownership reads like a suspense novel: not long before the sale in Monaco, the cabinet was purchased by a Saudi Arabian entrepreneur who planned to decorate his private ocean liner-cum-casino with luxury antiques, including the encoignure. The earlier provenance included the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family who owned the piece until Adolf Hitler confiscated it for his personal museum in Linz. In 1744, long before the Parisian cupboard fell victim to twentieth-century tumult, it was first commissioned from Paris by Jan Klemens Branicki, a Polish count and chief military commander to the King. He waited patiently for nearly eight years to have the cabinet delivered to his Warsaw palace.
Standing nearly ten feet tall, the encoignure is larger and more robust than most French examples of the period, indicating it was manufactured for a foreign market. Former Getty curator Gillian Wilson asserted that “no Parisian would have had this piece of furniture in his house because of its size and outrageousness.” Perhaps a less francocentric perspective is to acknowledge that it was intended for a different kind of domestic setting than a Parisian hôtel. A surviving inventory reveals the cabinet was originally situated within a formal parade room at Count Branicki’s Warsaw palace. The object's seemingly outsized dimensions in fact illustrate the Eastern European preference for what has come to be known as the “Monumental Rococo.”
By 1724, the taste for French furnishings was already well established in Warsaw when Marie, the daughter of Stanisław Leszczyńska, deposed King of Poland, married King Louis XV of France. Though surely this political arrangement further propelled the vogue for the Parisian Rococo. This intriguing encoignure is thus but one manifestation of a complex diplomatic relationship between France and Poland during the eighteenth century.