Berlin Secretary Cabinet
David Roentgen (German, 1743–1807)
Oak, pine, walnut, mahogany, cherry, and cedar, veneered with curly maple, burl maple and mahogany (both stained), and with marquetry in maple (partially stained), hornbeam, apple, walnut, mulberry, tulipwood, and rosewood; ivory, mother–of–pearl, gilt bronze, brass, steel, iron, and silk; 141 3/8 x 59 7/8 x 34 5/8 in. (359 x 152 x 88 cm)
Kunstgewerbemuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (O–1962,24) (L.2013.15.1)
The Berlin secretary cabinet represents possibly not only the greatest achievement of the Roentgen workshop, but is also arguably the most expensive piece of furniture ever made. The model was produced in three variants (of which this example is the third) and sold to three of the major European rulers—Duke Charles Alexander of Lorraine, King Louis XVI of France, and King Frederick William II of Prussia—in the waning years of the ancien régime. The architectural design of this secretary cabinet is indebted to English prototypes of the 1750s and represents how the Roentgen workshop transformed the basic formula into a work of Neoclassical, monumental dimensions. Such a royal “entertainment system” was rooted in the tradition of the Kunst- und Wunderkammer cabinets of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As natural wonders and scientific objects were kept in those complex cabinets, a list of the astonishing collection of rare and valuable items that Charles Alexander of Lorraine kept in his desk reads like the inventory of an eighteenth-century shop of luxuries. Developed by David Roentgen on speculation, the cabinet played a key role in the history of the manufactory and in its economic success. With it, the Neuwied artisans perfected the colored marquetry depiction of the Liberal Arts as well as ingenious mechanisms and precise timepieces. The doors and drawers can be opened and moved automatically at the touch of a button—to the music of flute, cymbal, and glockenspiel—as can the entire interior desk area, various secret jewel boxes, and hidden compartments. The wealth of mechanical features incorporated into the design was largely the work of the mechanicus Johann Christian Krause, for many years one of the workshop’s most important masters. In December 1786, after Frederick William II had ascended the throne, David Roentgen delivered a new center door showing the apotheosis of the king, which was exchanged for the original one.