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Restoration Reveals Rare Coffer's Hidden Secrets

Designed by André Charles Boulle in around 1685, the Louis XIV coffer is among the finest examples of a process known as marquetry which was pioneered by the French master cabinetmaker.

In 2009 a pair of similar Boulle Louis XIV coffers were sold for more than £2.6m at Christie’s.

“Boulle was considered the ‘most skilled artisan in Paris’ and was awarded the title of cabinetmaker and sculptor to King Louis XIV in 1672,” said Blenheim Palace’s Kate Ballenger.

“Our coffer is believed to have been among a number of items purchased by the 9th Duke of Marlborough after his marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895.

“Due to the process and materials used it is very fragile and susceptible to environmental change over the centuries. As a result some sections of the marquetry had begun to separate and we took the decision to bring in a specialist restorer,” she added.

In Boulle Marquetry, thin sheets of brass, pewter and tortoiseshell are sandwiched together and the design, placed on top, is cut out with a fretsaw, providing identically shaped patterns in each material. 

The separated pieces are combined to produce a design of brass on a background of tortoiseshell.

During the cleaning and restoration process, restorer Ludovic Potts was able to unpick a section of the coffer which had been remained locked for decades.

“Originally the coffer was designed to hold jewellery and other precious objects,” said Kate.

“For as long as anyone can remember the upper section of the coffer has remained locked as the key had been mislaid.

“When Ludovic was able to finally open the upper lid of the coffer he discovered Boulle had created a series of secret compartments hidden behind hinges where items of particular value could be concealed.

“The newly-opened upper section of the coffer reveals Boulle’s extraordinary craftsmanship in its original state; although sadly all the secret drawers were empty,” she added.

Blenheim Palace’s coffer is one of three, the other two are in the Getty Museum, known as ‘du Grand Dauphin’ which have been traditionally associated with the marriage of the Grand Dauphin in 1680. The Blenheim example most closely fits an entry in the inventory of the collections of the Grand Dauphin in 1689.