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Biltmore Furniture Conservator is a Desk Detective

All Things Biltmore • 11/16/17

Written By Jean Sexton

Although her day-to-day responsibilities may include anything from cleaning 100-year-old china to inhibiting biologic growth on outdoor statuary, when Genevieve Bieniosek, Furniture Conservator, tells you she has a desk job, she means it literally.

Desk detective

Biltmore furniture conservator is a desk detective
Photo of the desk paired with some of its component parts, including six of the eight legs

Biltmore’s Museum Services team has been working for several years to return the Oak Sitting Room to its original appearance during the Vanderbilt era of 1895-1914.

Like detectives, team members carefully sift through photographs, letters, and other details for clues to the furnishings and objects that were found in the room originally.

Historic details

One prominent item that will be displayed in the Oak Sitting Room is a massive desk or bureau Mazarin, named for its association with Cardinal Mazarin, a chief minister to Louis XIV, the king of France in the seventeenth century.

This type of desk was developed in France in the mid-1600s and functioned as a writing table with drawers on either side of a kneehole.

Such furnishings were often decorated with intricate wood and brass marquetry in the style of Andre-Charles Boulle, a royal cabinetmaker to Louis XIV.

While thes desk is original to the Biltmore collection, itt only appears in archival photos dating from the 1930s when the house was first opened to the public.

Conservator's tools
A selection of tools needed for this project

A massive project takes shape

That’s where Genevieve’s expertise comes into play. “The desk was probably already an antique when George Vanderbilt purchased it,” Genevieve said. “When we began this project, the desk had been stored as separate pieces for many years. There are multiple layers of old repairs, from both before and after Vanderbilt used it.”

In addition to locating all the pieces, like the legs that were discovered in a drawer in the conservation lab and a bag of tiny brass shapes that had come off the desk over the years, Genevieve must be able to understand how earlier repairs were made, including the mix of adhesives that might have been used to reattach sections of delicate brass marquetry that have lifted or come loose from the desk’s elegantly veneered ebony surface.

Rubbings taken from pieces of brass
Rubbings are created from sections of brass and identified according to its original placement

Slow and steady progress

“We originally allowed two years to complete the repairs,” said Genevieve, “and three or four people have been working on the desk on and off during that time. We are re-gluing sections of brass and wood that are loose, and in cases where the brass or veneer is missing, we make templates and cut replacement pieces to fit.”

Pieces of brass marquetry for the desk
New brass marquetry shapes cut to fit the original desk

The original brass marquetry was also engraved in fine detail, adding depth to the design, but Genevieve says they will paint the lines rather than cutting them, to distinguish modern repairs from the original.

A decorative desk leg showing old and new brass marquetry
Desk leg shows contrast of newly repaired and polished design with original

“It’s important that we document everything we’ve done so that future conservators don’t have to wonder or guess,” Genevieve said. “Not knowing how or why something was done makes the repairs that much more difficult and time-consuming.”

Featured image: Genevieve Bieniosek carefully polishes the decorative brass marquetry on one of the desk’s eight legs

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Avanti Smith

Thank you Genevieve for doing what you were born to do. Future generations yet to revel in the delights and beauty of history are indebted to you. Stay well 🙂

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