Thursday, June 10, 2010

Winning Bid: Empire Bronze Brûle-Parfum

Several weekends ago Boy and I attended an auction at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, only several hours north of Manhattan.  The auction was held on a Friday evening at what Stair calls an "Exposition Sale," which is its equivalent of a Christie's House Sale or the Arcade sales that Sotheby's used to have.  These are bread-and-butter, "move-the-merchandise" sales, where Stair unloads what are generally lesser-quality decorative odds and ends that come with estates and that aren't included in the auction house's higher profile weekend sales.

Consequently, it is possible to find hidden gems among the offerings.  We've had good luck at Stair's Exposition sales, and we were particularly successful at this last sale, where we acquired, among other things, what was catalogued as an Empire-style Brûle-Parfum.

Brûle-parfum translates literally as "burnt fragrance," and is the French term for an incense burner, or censer.  We are convinced that ours is a first-period example made in bronze in a classical style popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when burning incense in such pretty vessels enjoyed a vogue among European fashionables.  Although the lot was catalogued as "-style," suggesting that the piece may or may not be "period," we think it was likely made in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and is not a later reproduction.  But it was only after we took it apart and cleaned it that we came to this conclusion.

Smoking incense burner in Nepal
Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Yangshu Chao

Incense has been burned since ancient times, originally for spiritual and religious purposes, and later for secular ones.  Thought to have originated in China, the use of incense spread via the Spice Trade routes to the west, arriving in Europe during the days of ancient Rome.  Incense has been used in the Western world ever since, enjoying a resurgence of popularity during my lifetime, first during the Eastern-obsessed Hippie era of the late 1960s--when every Pier One store and head shop sold it--and more recently during the aromatherapy craze.

Russian brûle-parfum, circa 1805
Image courtesy of Carlton Hobbs LLC

In researching this essay I came across examples of other classical bronze brûle-parfums made in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, from Russia, France, and England.  Some of them are extremely fine, as can be seen in the preceding photograph, and are far grander than our little burner, which as shown in the following photograph stands only 4 3/4 inches tall.   Boy took a picture of it next to a playing card to illustrate its diminutive size.  

Just as the candelabra we bought at an earlier Stair Exposition sale needed cleaning, so did our little incense burner.  And like the candelabra, our censer came apart easily for the task.  Boy washed it with warm water and dishwashing liquid, and used a toothbrush and a wooden skewer to remove the grime and residue that clogged the ventilation holes.

He then dried it, waxed it, and put it back together.  Here's a photo of it sitting on the pier table in our Snuggery, with the lid not quite screwed on straight for the shot:

I think our diminutive brûle-parfum looks marvelous--particularly now that it has been cleaned.  I can't wait to buy some incense and burn it in it.

Stair Galleries
549 Warren Street
Hudson, New York 12534
(518) 751-1000

All photos, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick


  1. That is a hugely chic little object Reg, and I confess a wee tinge of envy. Congratulations to you and Boy. In cleaning it, did you get the sense that it may have been partially gilded originally?

    And Stair Galleries is truly a gem. All of your devoted readers should regularly follow its website. Although your Brul-parfum is especially nice, undiscovered treasures regularly make their appearance there.

    My vote though is for Pot Pourri in the dear little thing: I fear that incense is much too evocative of the head shop, the cheap flower child clothing store and the Morrocan-esque curio shop to noses of today, connotations it did not have in the 19th century. The thought of admiring the charm and wonders of Darlington Hall and simultaneously recalling that three foot bong you bought in college (what was I thinking?), is too jarring.

  2. Magnus: You are a very funny man, your comment had Reggie in stitches!

  3. My vote is for incense. Why not go a bit overboard sometimes? Think of a gentle scent, exotic but not overwhelming, and imagine the sight of the fragrant miasma wafting skyward.

  4. Beautiful. And it's little bitty-ness is as important to its beauty as its ornamentation. Were this huge it would be infinitely less appealing. Small, it's adorable. I am receiving a wonderful education here. Thank you.

  5. You never know......later generations may write essays on Stair's 20th Century Bong Auction.....

  6. What a lovely piece. I'm also kind of in love with the Neo-Classical Russian brule-parfum.

  7. Michele from BostonJune 10, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    I have to agree w/Magnus on the pot pourri over incense. I have a bronze pair myself, about 8" tall, in the egg shape of a Roman brazier on stand w/cover. The stands, finials and strapping are gilt with an alabaster base and I think yours perhaps may have had gilt details as well. I think mine were possibly garniture for a clock and were separated at one time in their history. They are beautifully detailed objects and look very much like their inspiration. Yours is truly a lovely little object as well, beautifully cast. Congrats on your find! I have to say seeing the smoke coming through the vents would be very dramatic, but I was afraid incense might stain the internal brass cups on mine. But why not try it once for fun? The question is: do you own a paisley silk smoking jacket to recline in nearby?

  8. Incense was nasty in the Fifties, it was nasty in the Sixties, and it's still nasty. Potpourri is hardly better. (It reeks of put-on languor.)

    In a house like yours, the only evident smells should be cooking, fireplaces, and fresh flowers.

  9. Gorgeous. You have exquisite taste. It would make a fabulous Magpie Tale prompt.

  10. Patsy: Hilarious!

    Michele (and Magnus): No traces of gilding that I could find, but of course that needn't stop me, I suppose. And Michele, I don't have such a jacket, but Boy has a wonderful silk brocade dinner jacket from the late 1950s/early 1960s that might do in a pinch.

    Ancient: Welcome back, I have missed your comments. Do please email me, as I have no way to get in touch with you, and would like to ask you something off-line.

  11. How would you wax a burner?I would love to wax my collection ....

  12. That Boy is truly a wonder! The card trick was very helpful for me in order to understand the size of the thing. Your comments have me quietly giggling over here (and yes, here is Pound Ridge, NY). Will be checking out Stair Galleries, completely intrigued...and finally, totally agree with "The Ancient", although I do enjoy a diptyque candle from time to time.

  13. Julian: A light coat of paste wax, such as Butcher's Wax, and then buffed with a soft cloth, adds a soft gleam to bronze. Waxing brass (such as candlesticks) helps slow the pace of tarnishing, too.

    Zhush (and Ancient): I must confess, Reggie does have a bowl of pot pourri in the drawing room at Darlington House. Now, before you cry "Eegads! He is beneath contempt!" please understand that it is a Chinese export bowl circa 1800 and the (offending) pot pourri is Agraria's Bitter Orange, a marvelous (and expensive) all natural one made in tiny batches in San Francisco. Reggie does NOT countenance cheap containers of nasty artificial strawberry scented wood shavings, or worse--artificial peach--in any of one's residences...

    As far as scented candles go, try as I might, I can't get the hang of them. I have about a dozen that languish in a cupboard at Darlington, some never burned, most only once.

  14. This is too eerie...Agraria Bitter Orange is my favorite scent except I have the reeds which last quite awhile.

  15. Michele from BostonJune 16, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    Dear Reggie-
    Thought of you over the weekend while watching a scene from Sense & Sensibility. While Alan Rickman was pacing back and forth while confessing Willoughby's past to Emma Thompson, there on the fireplace mantle behind him were 2 brul-parfums just like yours! If you ever rent the film, watch out for them. (They didn't appear to have gilding either.) Best-M.

  16. Great find - and nice to hear about the full experience from the auction. I think the "fun" of an auction is too often forgotten these days. Thank you!


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