By Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Antique mirrors can make collectors lose themselves in their shimmering depths.
The love of Maryalice Huggins’s life is dynamic, bright, at least 130 years old, and stands about eight and a half feet tall and four and a half feet wide. The spectacular 19th-century American antique mirror now hangs in her studio on the grounds of her Middletown, R.I. home, where its gilded wooden frame, embellished with details that reference Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, is safe from errant elbows and shoulders. “Sometimes I rent the house, and I don’t want people touching the mirror. It’s fairly fragile,” says Huggins, a restorer who handles antique furniture as well as gilding of mirrors. “Now it has its own little shrine house.”
It is also the main character of Huggins’s book Aesop’s Mirror: A Love Story (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009), which chronicles how she fell under the mirror’s spell, bought it at auction and embarked on a quest to pin down the elusive facts of its origin. The story is about one woman’s enchantment with one remarkable object, but it also represents an entry in the long history of the human race’s fascination with mirrors.
Today, it is nearly impossible to escape from the sight of your own image. Walk down the street, and a pale twin follows in the plate-glass windows of shops and skyscrapers. Distorted doppelgangers stare back from the shiny sides of cars. Snapping a self-portrait on a cell phone camera and uploading it to the Internet, with its vast and pitiless power of recall, is frighteningly easy. Moreover, almost any first-world citizen can afford a mirror. K-Mart sells an attractive full-length one for less than the cost of filling the gas tank of an SUV.
But for most of human history, a clear view of one’s own face or figure was a rare event. The wealthiest of our distant ancestors had to make do with seeing themselves in polished stones or metals or smallish bits of glass. For the less fortunate, a fleeting glimpse in a pool of water would have to do. From late medieval times to the mid-19th century, mirrors were regarded as luxury objects and status symbols that ranked above superlative works of art. A French appraisal from the early 16th century valued a silver-framed Venetian mirror at 8,000 pounds and estimated an unnamed Raphael painting at 3,000 pounds.
Mirror-making reached unprecedented heights of drama and intrigue in the 17th century, when the French were determined to steal the secrets of Venice’s glassblowers and establish high-quality mirror factories on their own soil. The Italian city-state had relocated its mirror-makers to the nearby island of Murano in the late 13th century, partly so that their furnaces wouldn’t pose a fire hazard to the city and partly to deter them from leaving with their precious industrial knowledge. The workers enjoyed healthy wages and spiffy fringe benefits that included tax breaks and the right to marry the daughters of nobles, but the non-compete clause in their employment contract was a doozy. Any mirror-maker who absconded from Murano to ply their trade elsewhere was subject to the death penalty, and the fugitive’s family could be imprisoned until he was found and executed.
In 1665, through the subterfuges of its Venetian ambassador, France succeeded in spiriting away a few artisans to help launch its Royal Company of Glass and Mirrors. Despite some difficulties, the most vexing of which was the Venetians’ reluctance to share their trade secrets, French artisans learned enough to produce good-quality mirrors. In 1682 their success was revealed when the French public first saw the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. It would not be finished until November 1684, but the hall, ultimately decorated with 357 mirrors, dazzled like nothing else before or since. It was the best advertisement the royal company could have had.
The near-magical effects of mirrors aren’t confined to the decorative realm. Without them, art history would be a shadow of itself. For one thing, there would be no self-portraits; trying to paint while constantly checking your reflection in a basin of water is damned awkward. In addition, mirrors themselves make prominent appearances in some of the most engaging paintings in Western art—think van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, with its trompe-l’oeil rendering of a spherical mirror, or Velasquez’s mind-bending and perennially riffed-on Las Meninas, in which the viewer can’t quite decide what is reality and what is reflection.
Today it is still possible to own exquisite antique mirrors. Not surprisingly, those that survive with their original plates intact are rare. A mirror offered by the London gallery Apter-Fredericks illustrates how valuable the plates could be: It marries a Queen Anne-era mirror plate to a later Regency-era frame. Harry Apter of Apter-Fredericks theorizes that a previous owner “decided they didn’t want a Queen Anne frame, they wanted a Regency frame. So they took the frame, threw it away, and built a new frame around it.”
Other mirrors testify to the technological limits of their times. Elaborate frames allowed manufacturers to artfully unite several differently-sized segments of plate. Some antique mirrors display an obvious seam where two large plates meet, or include a horizontal spar in the decorative frame that strategically bisects the mirror’s face. Such techniques were necessary before 1850, a time when the biggest mirror plates were also the toughest for glassblowers to make. In the early 18th century, the French factory at Saint-Gobain (the town where the successor to the Royal Company of Glass and Mirrors was established) charged a private client 3,000 pounds for a mirror that measured 90 inches by 55 inches. One hundred years later, the price of wholesale unframed mirror plate had dropped to 90 francs per square meter. Mirrors were nonetheless beyond the budget of the average worker, whose monthly salary was half that amount.
While dealers and auctioneers generally agree that an antique mirror that still has its original plates is preferable to one that lacks them, none are willing to quantify precisely how the plates can affect a mirror’s overall value. “It’s always desirable to have all the original parts in a piece. The reality is that the original parts don’t always survive,” says Rachel Karr of Hyde Park Antiques in New York. “If a great mirror has replaced plates, the gallery will buy it. If the mirror has a more typical, common type of frame, it will be more valuable if the original plate is in it.”
Mirror frames played critical supporting roles. They added beauty, held multi-plate confections together, and were routinely equipped with candle arms to help increase the amount of light in the rooms where they were placed. This last function was all-important at a time when interior lighting choices were limited to sunbeams or fire. Materials ranging from Japanese lacquer to papier-mâché to needlepoint were fashioned into frames but gilded gesso laid over a skeleton of carved wood became the dominant favorite. It looked luxurious and wasn’t subject to tarnishing as silvered frames were.
The mirrors that fetch the highest prices share commonalities with other sought-after antique furnishings and decorative arts. At a sale titled “Treasures: Aristocratic Heirlooms,” held in July 2010 in London, Sotheby’s auctioned a pair of mid-18th century George II carved giltwood wall mirrors for £385,250 ($583,000) on an estimate of £300,000–500,000. The mirrors had great provenance and strong documentation. “They were made for a very important house. We knew who made them, who they were made for, and where they were positioned in the house. All that made a huge difference.” says Jeremy Smith, director and lead specialist in English and Continental furniture at Sotheby’s. The mirrors were made for Stowe House, an outstanding 18th century English country estate in Buckinghamshire; they were commissioned by Richard Grenville, second Earl of Temple; they were furnished by Giovanni Battista Borra, who looked to Jean Antoine Cuenot for the carving; and they were placed in the state bedchamber in Stowe House. Their inclusion in a mid-1980s exhibit of British treasures at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., added icing to an already delicious cake. “They were also very decorative,” says Smith. “And it’s always very nice to know to know where the mirrors were placed in a house, and what room they were in.”
A George II giltwood mirror offered at Christie’s New York in June 2004 possessed everything that a collector could ask for. Commissioned in the mid-18th century by the fourth Duke of Beaufort for the Chinese bedroom at Badminton House in Gloucestershire, England, it was later acquired by Doris Duke. The mirror, which measured roughly six feet high by six feet wide, had all of its original plates save five or six minor ones, and it had been supplied by William and John Linnell, the latter of whom is particularly noted for his mirrors. Photographs that documented the mirror hanging in the Chinese bedroom appeared in the sale catalogue. It soared past its $250,000–400,000 estimate to fetch $1.5 million and win top lot status at Christie’s Doris Duke Collection auction. “It had all the factors,” says Will Strafford, head of European Furniture for Christie’s New York. “It had a great 18th century history and a great recent history, and it was a work of art in its own right.”
Mirrors that can be firmly attributed to well-regarded name makers such as Linnell or the English artisan Matthias Lock command top prices. At the International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show in October in New York, the Ronald Phillips gallery of London showcased a mid-18th century Lock mirror measuring 10 and a half feet high by seven feet wide, and displayed it with a copy of a drawing. The George III carved giltwood chimney piece, or mirror intended to hang above a fireplace, exactly resembles a Matthias Lock design drawing that was published in 1752 and now belongs to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The mirror offered at the Ronald Phillips booth is the only known example executed after the Lock design and is priced accordingly, at above $1 million.
Antique mirror plates can appear muddy or cloudy due to the ravages of time. Unfortunately, plates made between the 16th century and the mid-19th century usually cannot be restored. The mirror-makers’ silvering techniques relied on mercury, a chemical now confirmed to be too toxic to work with. The wood and gesso frames of antique mirrors are comparatively easy to rehabilitate, but not so the plates. “Once it goes foggy, it stays foggy,” says Karr. “It’s a chemical process. Once it gets to that stage of no return, you get to the point where there’s nothing left to repair.”
Few buyers are dissuaded by a less-than-pristine antique mirror plate, however. Dealers report that the number of clients who purchase antique mirrors and ask to swap the antique plates out for modern ones represent a tiny minority that ranges from a single person up to 10 percent of buyers. “Some people love the way old plate looks. I’m one of them,” says Matthew Imberman of Kentshire in New York, explaining that he does accommodate requests for new plates. “Mirrors are beautiful works of art that reflect everything around them. They occupy a 3-D space on the wall, and they are something that you can use. So I understand why some people want plates that are very, very clear.” In all cases, the antique plates are carefully wrapped and delivered with the modified mirror so they can be reinstalled by future owners.
Restoring a giltwood frame is straightforward, but doing it properly takes time, says Huggins, who has virtually stopped accepting gilding projects in the absence of clients who are willing to underwrite the costs. “The last job I did, I don’t think I made $3 an hour,” Huggins says, adding, “It’s very time-intensive, especially with European mirrors, which can be very, very intricate. Recarving pieces that are missing so that they completely line up with the artist’s work is difficult. It takes years to learn how to blend old and new pieces.”
No style, period, or shape of antique mirror is clearly more popular than another. Finding something that suits the buyer’s home is the greater motivation, just as it was when many of these mirrors were initially made. Those that were commissioned for grand houses were often part of a suite of furnishings designed to harmonize with one another. The best antique mirrors are perfectly capable of looking glorious divorced from their supporting casts and placed in another decorative context, even that of a sleek, contemporary, white-cube interior. “There’s nothing I like better than putting an antique artifact in a modern décor,” says Helen Fioratti of L’Antiquaire and The Connoisseur in New York. “It’s like putting a diamond pin on a black dress. It makes a big difference.”
Our Complimentary Bimonthly eNewsletter