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Who Was John Henry Belter?

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A Look at a Rococo Revival Furniture Master's Work
Chair from a Belter Parlor Set

Chair from a Belter Parlor Set - Part of the Furniture Collection at The Queen Anne Private Residence Club in Eureka Springs, Ark. (http://www.thequeenannemansion.com/)

- Photo Courtesy of The Queen Anne Mansion
When it comes to Rococo Revival furniture, John Henry Belter was no doubt the master craftsman working in the mid-1800s. He was so skillful in executing elaborate carvings on his pieces that his contemporaries copied his techniques. Similar works are often deemed as Belter style today in the same way that the name Eames is associated with Mid-Century Modern style.

Who Was John Henry Belter?

Belter worked as a furniture craftsman in New York from 1845 to 1865, according to American Furniture: Tables, Chairs, Sofas and Beds by Marvin D. Schwartz. He is said to be the most important cabinet maker working in the Rococo Revival style in United States at that time, patenting many of his improved techniques for crafting furniture. Among these was a technique for laminating wood that was widely copied by his competitors in New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

The innovative process he perfected allowed him to "create extraordinary carvings without sacrificing strength and durability", according to information provided by New Orleans-based M.S. Rau Antiques on their website. His patents included for "Machinery for Sawing Arabesque Chairs" and a "Bedstead," that allowed for quick disassembly in the case of a fire. M.S. Rau Antiques also shares that In 1858, Belter received what was perhaps his most "important patent for 'improvement in the method of manufacturing furniture' which refined the process for achieving laminated construction. Belter had been using his improved process for several years and perhaps only patented it to thwart his competitors."

A German immigrant who became an American citizen in 1839, Belter was known to describe himself as a cabinet manufacturer rather than a cabinetmaker operating J.H. Belter and Co., according to New York City directories published at the time. His business employed three of his brothers-in-law: Jonathan, William, and Frederick Springmyer. After Belter's death (reportedly from tuberculosis in 1863, although some sources state 1864), the company was renamed Springmyer Brothers and ceased operation several years later.

What Sets Belter's Work Apart From the Others?

While there were many fine pieces of Rococo Revival furniture made during the era, and the most elegant is said to have originated in New York, Belter's work is superior in that he generally used more layers of laminated wood while constructing his intricate designs. His competitors might use three to five layers, while he would employ six or more. The overall quality is much better.

While styles can be similar from maker to maker, Belter's Rococo Revival work was also the most elaborate being produced at the time in comparison to others including J&J.W. Meeks, also of New York, and Mitchell & Rammelsberg operating in Ohio. His carvings were infinitely more intricate and ornate with his rose and fruit motifs standing apart from others who often imitated his skill.

Identifying Belter Pieces

Some upholstered pieces made by Belter are actually marked under the seat with a paper label making identification easier. A stamped identifying mark can sometimes be found on bed frame stretchers or inner blocks as well. If a label or stamping isn’t present on a suspect piece, looking at the carving and components used will provide clues.

Since Belter always used six or more layers of laminated wood in his carvings, you can usually count the layers in the exposed edges of the wood to confirm how many were used. Additionally, his carvings will be of the highest quality in comparison to similar pieces made by others and Rosewood was often present in his pieces.

Carvings executed by Belter will also be much more intricate, according to Schwartz, when compared side by side to other Rococo Revival pieces. Most bed frames with curved sides and carving present are suspected to be made by Belter, as he was known to have patented this type of bed design.

The Value of Belter Furniture

Furniture authenticated as a Belter piece will be worth significantly more than a similar item by another maker. And they don't come on the market frequently, so that makes Belter pieces even more desirable.

A single chair confirmed as a Belter design can easily warrant a price tag of $20,000 or more in an upscale antique shop. An ornately carved méridienne can bring $25,000 or more at a high end auction. Marble-topped tables with significant decorative elements can bring as much as $16,000 or so in most any venue.

The general rule is the more elaborate the piece, the higher the price. Relatively plain pieces by this maker will still commonly sell in the thousands, but prices will be nowhere near what the bold designs bring. This is true for items that have been altered or repaired. The exceptions are pieces that have been reupholstered in high quality fabric by a professional. It’s rare to find Rococo Revival parlor furniture that hasn’t been reupholstered at some point during the past 150 years, including Belter pieces.

It’s also important to remember that not all items purported as Belter will actually live up to the name, as this moniker has become a catch-all general description for Rococo Revival style. Just because a seller uses the word Belter in reference to a piece of furniture doesn’t mean that it was actually made in this craftsman’s workshop. Take care not to let marketing ploys cause you to overpay for lesser quality pieces.

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