The Tapestries of Kings

Antique French tapestries

When Bill and Melinda Gates (yes, that Bill Gates) discovered four 17th- century French tapestries illustrating the hunt of Emperor Maximilian that were commissioned by Colbert, Louis XIV's chief minister, they knew just where they belonged: in the library of their Seattle home, right next to the Leonardo da Vinci codex. After all, what could possibly hold its own next to a Renaissance masterpiece better than a tapestry made for a king?

The Gateses are among a growing number of connoisseurs who are buying antique French tapestries—and not just for their radiant colors, dazzling craftsmanship, and regal mystique. "Unlike works of art, the value of tapestries does not depreciate," explains Dominique Chevalier, director of Galerie Chevalier, regarded as one of the leading dealers in antique tapestries in Paris, if not the world.

Tapestries hold their value because they are so painstaking to produce—the sort of artistic endeavor that makes perfect sense only for a monarchy with unlimited funds, time, and craftsmen. You first need an artist to sketch the design and a painter to turn that sketch into an oil that is the same size as the tapestry. Skilled masters then weave the tapestries using silk, wool, and sometimes gold or silver threads. But above all you need patience. "It will take a good weaver an entire day to weave a surface about the size of the human hand," explains Bernard Blondeel, director and co-owner with Armand Deroyan of Galerie Blondeel-Deroyan, in Paris, another specialist in antique tapestries.

Chevalier agrees, "It's a very long and costly process. Any tapestry made between the 16th and the 18th centuries would be far more expensive if you were to attempt to reproduce it today. While sales have decreased during economic recessions, tapestries have never lost their value. That's why the tapestry market has never been speculative like the art market."

The finest, many experts argue, are known as the Gobelins, which were made especially for the Sun King and are today among the rarest on the market, fetching prices of $250,000-$750,000. Because so many tapestries were lost or destroyed during the French Revolution (many were burned to extract the gold and silver threads), only a few dozen antique Gobelins are available today through a handful of Parisian dealers and galleries.

"Many of our customers buy them because they find that they complement their French antiques," Chevalier notes. He should know—his customers include the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as private collectors in North and South America, including the Gates family.

The Gobelins take their name from a 15th-century family of dyers whose workshops were located on the outskirts of Paris along the Bièvre River. (Today, these very same workshops have been expanded and modernized, while the river now runs through an underground canal in what has since become the 13th arrondissement.) Following the initiative of Henry IV to make France a leader in luxury goods, Colbert purchased the family's property and brought together the dyers and Flemish tapestry weavers who were scattered around Paris, establishing the Royal Gobelins Factory in 1664, whose mandate was to work exclusively for the king. Under the direction of Charles Le Brun, the official painter to Louis XIV, the factory's 250 tapestry makers were ordered to copy paintings commissioned by Le Brun, and later by his successor, Pierre Mignard.

Considering that it takes about three years for two people to make a single tapestry, the Gobelins' output between 1663 until Le Brun's death in 1690 was prodigious—775 tapestries. Each was created as part of a series of thematically linked tapestries, depicting subjects like the changing seasons or the months of the year. Le Brun had a special talent for celebrating the glory and passions of Louis XIV; among the most important series of tapestries he designed were "The Child Gardeners," "The Story of Alexander," "The Life of Louis XIV," and "The Royal Residences."

By 1694, Louis XIV's costly wars had drained the royal treasury, forcing the Gobelins to close. When the factory reopened its doors in 1699, under the direction of Jules-Hardouin Mansart, the architect of the Château of Versailles, the designs took on a lighter spirit. Claude Audran III (1658-1734), for instance, used decorative inventions, especially grotesques, to create such series as "The Grotesque Months" and "The Portals of the Gods," which were designed to be hung over palace doorways. With the appointment of painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry as inspector at Gobelins in 1748, shop supervisors were encouraged to imitate the effects of easel painting, weaving "frames" around their subjects. To replicate the palette's multiple shades, the dyers increased the number of shades that they used, resulting in tapestries of particularly vibrant color.

"The Gobelins tapestries that were woven at the end of the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century are the most superb," maintains Blondeel. "They are among the rarest and most sought-after, because of their association with the monarchy." In addition to Gobelins, both his gallery and Galerie Chevalier carry antique Beauvais and Aubusson tapestries, as well as Flemish tapestries. (Because they were made for both the aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class, Flemish tapestries are much more numerous and varied.)

As with most fine antiques, the tapestries' value is commensurate with the quality of the restoration and conservation. The unsuspecting buyer can be deceived by badly done restorations, notes Blondeel. "Some very unscrupulous people have tried to hide defects by touching them up with paint. Experts can detect this sort of thing from far away," he adds.

Chevalier Conservation, regarded as the eminent authority in France on the cleaning and restoration of antique tapestries, is currently testing a revolutionary cleaning process that limits the risk of colors fading or bleeding, and protects the tapestries' fragile silks and wools. Moreover, thanks to an on-line camera system, curators and collectors will be able to observe the cleaning in real time via the Web, and thus make suggestions as the restoration is underway. "We are making a four-million-franc [$555,000] investment in this equipment, but if we want to gain the confidence of curators and collectors around the world, this is necessary," Chevalier insists.

This spring, Galerie Blondeel-Deroyan in Paris will mount an exhibition on the history and influence of the Gobelins (June 5 through July 21). Among the masterpieces in the exhibition are the splendid Ceres, or Summer and Diana, or The Earth, both woven before 1736 and part of the "Portals of the Gods" series, which was commissioned by Mansart. Within the next few years, the Gobelins plans to open a gallery showing choice examples from its stunning collection—demonstrating that you need not be a king to appreciate such treasures.

Galerie Chevalier, 17 Quai Voltaire, 75007 Paris; 33-1-42-60-72-68. Galerie Blondeel-Deroyan, 11 Rue de Lille, 75007 Paris; 33-1-49-27-96-22.

For a better understanding of how Gobelins tapestries are made, take a guided tour of the Parisian workshops that were first organized by Colbert and are now subsidized by the French Ministry of Culture. Today, 37 weavers (employed exclusively by and for the French state) apply the same painstaking techniques used to make the tapestries of Louis XIV, producing only about five tapestries a year, which are destined for the walls of French embassies and ministries. Their designs are based on works by such contemporary artists as Pierre Alechinsky, Yukihisa Isobe, and Aki Kuroda.

Manufactures Nationales des Gobelins, 42 Avenue des Gobelins, 75013 Paris; 33-1-44-54-19-30. Tours in French are offered at 2 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. English-language group tours must be booked ahead.