About J. Leko

J. Leko is the principal of J. Leko Furniture Maker, LLC., where he designs and builds specially commissioned custom furniture and woodwork. J. studied woodworking with some of the world’s best craftsmen at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking where he is completing the Michael Fortune Fellowship. He has taught furniture making classes at the Jane M. Hughes Arts and Crafts Center on Redstone Arsenal, and his articles have been published in WoodTalk On-Line, and Fine Woodworking magazine.

Planning ahead

I recently received a Get-Ready Grant from the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, an organization that helps to support and protect the career aspects of artists. As a career woodworker for eight years, legacy planning was perhaps the last aspect I had not addressed professionally. Talking about legacy planning for artists is one of the least interesting aspects of my grant. You’d probably be more inclined to change the bag on the dust collector than involve yourself in this discussion! Stick with me though, and I’ll try to convey the importance of the subject. Maybe I can even make a case for the benefits you’ll derive from this exercise while you’re still on the top-side of the grass!

Plainly stated, legacy planning is about what to do with your “stuff” after you’re gone. Your “stuff” comes in many forms from the artworks themselves, to the tools and materials necessary to make them. But, your “stuff” also includes intangibles you might not have considered…

Why put yourself through this agony? Three reasons:

  • most obviously, it will reduce the administrative, physical, and legal burden you leave to family and friends when you’re gone,
  • it can help preserve your reputation by protecting your name and works, and
  • it can provide an incentive for clients to purchase more of your work now!

This past week, an illustrator with a studio in the same building as me recounted meeting with the son of a recently deceased oil painter (who also had space in the same building). Despite his passing nearly a year ago, the son was still coming to terms with the situation. Visiting from out-of-town, he had returned to survey the father’s estate. The painter’s home was brimming with work my neighbor explained. We never intend to hurt those closest and dearest to us. Yet through our inactions that is the result. It manifests itself emotionally, but can be a considerable financial drain.

The quagmire deepens if third-parties, such as galleries, have any of your artwork. Who holds the rights to the work in their possession? What can, and cannot be done with them since the originator has expired? Can, for example, the gallery put them on sale to liquidate them thus potentially devaluing the artist, and damaging their reputation? Further confusion results if, in the process of reconciling the painter’s home, the son finds another artist’s work. If not clearly marked as such the potential exists to confuse it for his parent’s. How is he supposed to determine proper attribution? I face a similar issue due to slightly different circumstances in my research. On a recent visit to a French museum, a colleague and I came across what we believe to be an unacknowledged Oeben mechanical table. Since Oeben held special patronage, he was able to ignore guild rules; one of which was the requirement to stamp all pieces produced! Not only is this frustrating, it permanently decreases the value of the work! The question will always remain, is this an original, or the product of someone else working in the artist’s style?

Finally, when Jean-François Oeben, cabinetmaker to King Louis XV, died at the peak of his career in 1763, his workshop was deep in debt, and his two chief craftsmen, Jean-François Leleu and Jean Henri Riesener fought for control. Contrast this with the case of Sam Maloof whose production continues today, and through activities such as the recent Smithsonian seminars continue assisting the community by addressing provoking questions. Because of their meticulous record-keeping, the pieces Maloof produced continue to increase in value. His clients understood this, and his back-order log grew as he aged. This didn’t “just happen”, Maloof planned ahead.

You don’t have to do it all yourself, and you don’t need to get it right on the first try, but you need to get started.The raw material for a wood worker is wood (duh!). A jeweler uses precious metals, stones, etc. For a writer, the basic building blocks are words, sentences, and paragraphs. However, unlike natural materials, letters don’t assemble themselves into these structures. So, writers go through the process of creating “drafts”; each one (hopefully) improving on the previous bringing them closer to what they were intending to say, the way they intended to say it. The Get-Ready Grant CERF+ provided got me started. Due to the legal structure under which my business operates (an LLC), I used it to consult with an attorney, and draft a will and healthcare directive documents. Lawyer fees aren’t insignificant, so to prepare for these meetings and help reduce costs, I relied heavily on the CALL Estate Planning Workbook from the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

It can be daunting thinking about, and plan for the time when you’re no longer thinking and breathing. If this paralyses you, talk with someone about it. Explaining it to another person (and recording it!) can be the beginning of the process which can be transformed later. But only you can take the first step…

Surprise! Musee Nissim de Camondo

Façade of Musée Nissim de Camondo

While in Paris recently, Ronaldo Messina lead me to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, one of the treasures in the municipal system. The place is filled with specimens of XVIII century furniture, and is an example of a “modern” residence circa the close of the XIX century.

Included in the collection are pieces by Leleu, one of Oeben’s skilled journeymen who became a notable maker in his own right. A highlight of the visit was seeing the Oeben cylinder desk re-created by Bert DeClerk. We experienced the greatest surprise, however, on the third floor in Moïse de Camondo’s apartment. There, we spotted what appears to be another Oeben mechanical table which I don’t see listed in the Jean-François Oeben book mentioned previously!

Another potential Oeben mechanical table...

Since we toured the museum on a Sunday when the curators were off, and were the last patrons to leave, we could find no further information about it. A few e-mails later, a conservator kindly responded to my request, and provided a bit more information. Turns out, the piece is unstamped, so they are unwilling to attribute it to Oeben. From what we could tell, it has all of the characteristics. Perhaps on a subsequent visit, we will be able to examine the piece in detail. Until then, I will be happy in the knowledge that we managed to “discover” another mechanical table I was unaware of until this trip!

The definitive Oeben…


Back when this weblog first started, Ronaldo Messina, a reader in Paris, sent me a copy of the book, “Jean-François Oeben” by Rosemarie Stratmann-Döhler. It’s a fantastic resource covering the life and work of Oeben (Thanks Ronaldo!). Dr. Stratmann-Döhler is a German historian, and this book is actually a modified version of her dissertation, some 30 years elapsed. Opening chapters set the stage by detailing Oeben’s contemporaries, and focusing on the details of his life, death, clients, and business. The balance of the book presents the furniture in a series of logical groups: large/small furniture, writing furniture, mechanical tables, etc. There are even sections on the marquetry and ormolu decorations with which he embellished pieces. In the conclusion, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler puts Oeben into the context of his time. 

As good as this book is, the problem for me is that it’s written in French, a language which I neither speak, nor read…

    In anticipation of an upcoming trip to visit four Oeben tables in Paris, Amsterdam, and London, I decided it was time to overcome this impediment, and get serious about my research (as if traveling to Europe to examine four more specimens at great personal expense isn’t serious enough!). Over a period of several weeks, I pasted paragraphs of the text into an on-line translation utility, then assembled the resulting output into a document. It’s a slow, tedious, and at times incoherent process, that resulted in a somewhat intelligible account. Even with these shortcomings, however, I’m happy to have this solution. 

    So, other than for an historical account of Oeben, and his operation why should we care? One appendix catalogues all of the furniture attributed to him, signed and not, and gives their locations as of 2002, the publication date. This goes a long way to answering the question I posed about the remaining tables.

    Incidentally, Dr. Stratmann-Döhler published another germane article, “Design and mechanisms on the furniture of Jean-François Oeben” in the journal Furniture History vol. 9, 1973. It provides an overview of the mechanisms employed across the different types of Oeben furniture. 

      Update: “Found” another one

      Previously, I listed a number of similar Oeben mechanical tables with their locations here. When I assembled this list, I was aware of other tables. Lacking direct references, however, I refrained from including them. Early  last week, I received confirmation of another table located in Germany. This one is at the Residence Museum in Munich. When you tap on that link, the first picture you’ll see is of the table (see image below). Look quickly because it’ll change! Other than that, I could find no further mention of it. 

      http://www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/museum/kurfurst.htm

      http://www.residenz-muenchen.de/englisch/museum/kurfurst.htm

      Due to licensing issues, I cannot include other images of it. However, there are several incorporated into this web posting. 

      Up close with The MET Oeben

      As mentioned previously, there are at least four tables Oeben made similar to this located in North America. In September of 2016, I was fortunate to be granted access to the one in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

      Why view this table?

      Whenever more than one of something is made, comparisons are inevitable. With a date of 1763, the table at The MET, as it is known, is perhaps the last of the mechanical tables to be made. Completed by Oeben’s brother-in-law, Roger Vandercruse (Lacroix), it was destined for Mmde Pompadour’s personal use, although there’s question as to whether she ever did. She died the year following Oeben. Being the case, this is perhaps the most highly refined table in the series.

      Contrast this with the table that is the focus of this re-creation. Dated at 1750, it appears to be one of the first, and might possibly be the prototype for the form. It features a full-length lower drawer accessed from the proper-left side beneath the movable “main box”, a part not found on any other table in the series, that I’m aware. Also, the legs on the 1763 table are pierced, and lined with ormolu, a mark of high refinement.

      More important to the interests of this re-creation are the differences in the mechanisms. Unfortunately, just as with the Getty table, it was not possible to directly examine the mechanisms, and since, as I understand, The MET has never dismantled the table for conservation treatment, they possess no photos or x-rays. Visual inspection shows that both tables feature key holes in the side aprons to wind the mainspring barrels, the power source which makes the tables operate. However, tables made after the 1750 specimen, also feature an X-like mechanism connecting the rear of the main box to the interior of the carcass. Its function, I assume, is to assist in smoothly propelling the main box, applying even pressure to prevent it from becoming stuck. Another discovery, the 1763 table lacks stop rods! 

      To arrest the motion of the table in operation (and keep the table from flying apart), metal rods extend up through the side aprons, and into the table top. Metal plates reinforce the wooden grooves in which they “travel”. This is the situation on the 1750 Getty table. Evidence shows these rods existed on The MET table, but are now absent, suggesting the table has been modified.

      In conclusion…

       “A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.”

      ―Lee Segall

      I thought that by examining other tables in the series, I might gain insight into Oeben’s design decisions. Instead, it seems to have had the opposite effect. Differences in their original construction, combined with subsequent modifications, serve only to confuse matters. While we certainly expect differences in appearance, one anticipates their operational modes to remain nearly identical. Further study is warranted.