Antoine Chenevi`ere, a young London dealer, has searched the Western world for some of the finest examples of Imperial Russian cabinetmaking. He terms Russian antique furniture ``inexplicable, elegant, grandiose, and full of mystique.'' The furnishings and the lore they carry with them provide the kind of plot complications one generally associates with Russian history.
Although he just returned from Moscow, Chenevi`ere says he would never be allowed to bring a single antique out of Russia. ``I would spend five years in jail if I even tried,'' he comments wryly.
While some furnishings left Russia in the 19th century, Chenevi`ere says the bulk of Russian antiques now in circulation consist of family possessions that were allowed to leave the country around the time of the Russian revolution and items auctioned by the Russian government.
From 1915 to 1925, both before and after the revolution of 1917, many people left with all their possessions, sometimes renting trains in order to move their household goods out of the country. In 1928 and in 1930, when the Soviet communists were in need of money, they sponsored auction sales in Leningrad and Berlin to dispose of a variety of Imperial objects.
In about 1978, Chenevi`ere perceived that an international demand was emerging for Imperial Russian furniture and decorative arts. Because of this shift in taste, fine Russian antiques began to fetch surprisingly high prices at auction and to attract more dealer interest.
Soon, says Chenevi`ere, international style setters started to acquire costly Russian items. Designer Oscar de la Renta, interior designers Mark Hampton and Parish-Hadley Associates in New York, and art patrons Ann and Gordon Getty in California began incorporating such pieces to spark both contemporary and traditional rooms.
The proportions of Russian antiques are different, Mr. Chenevi`ere explains in his Dover Street shop called Tzigany Fine Arts.
``The overall look is sturdier, and certainly the chairs appear to be more substantial. And while there is a rigorous classicism about many pieces, there is usually something a little unconventional about them as well - a bit of folly, which adds to their charm.''
Chenevi`ere, who is researching and writing a book on Russian furniture from 1780 to 1850, says those ``were the golden years, when Russia was assimilating cultural and design ideas from Western Europe and also, for a time, producing furniture with a distinctly Russian character.''
He says that of all the European cabinetmakers working for the Russian court in the latter part of the 18th century, David Roentgen (1743-1807) was perhaps the most important. His work and influence spread from Germany to Russia in about 1783, when he was recommended to Catherine the Great as ``without doubt the greatest mechanical cabinetmaker of this century.''
She responded by letter that the German cabinetmaker and mechanical artisan would be welcome, ``because we are now building more than ever.'' The relationship between the two was uneasy, but she purchased two important desks from him, and members of the Russian aristocracy purchased the other 300 pieces he brought with him.
He later supplied large quantities of furniture to the Imperial palaces in St. Petersburg - furniture of typical German and French design, but shaped to Russian taste. He worked in both mahogany and birch wood.
Workshops established in Russia by Roentgen's students copied his work at first, but later developed an identifiable Russian style.
Other German craftsmen also taught their skills to Russians, and for a time a few Russian designers and cabinetmakers were turning out the singular pieces that now command some of the highest prices.
By 1850, says Chenevi`ere, this creative period had ended, and routine copies of French styles followed. Most Russian furniture is not signed, because the makers were not usually independent artisans but were employed by aristocratic families as part of the household staff. That makes establishment of provenance and attribution of maker extremely difficult.
After the revolution of 1917, Chenevi`ere explains, the workshops disappeared.
``Much was burned and many people killed. Everything was changed. There was no longer a market for good things, and the Russian craftsmen were absorbed into industry.
Today, a corps of fine craftsmen does exist, but only for the restoration of the palaces and museums.''
In the future, Chenevi`ere hopes to work with the Ministry of Culture in the Soviet Union to arrange further research in the ministry's library and archives, where he wants to study the wills, inventories, dowry lists, and perhaps even the original bills of sale of aristocratic families.
Although he has been receiving some documentation from cooperative Soviet sources, he is also working with private collectors and leading museums that own Russian pieces.
As an author, the dealer says he has been astounded at the lack of reference books and the fact that any literature on the subject of Russian furniture is largely out of print, hard to find, and printed only in Russian.
Chenevi`ere is contributing a piece to an exhibition in San Francisco called ``Window on the West - an Exhibition of Russian Decorative Arts, 1775-1825,'' which will take place at the Therien Gallery, 411 Vermont Street, through Nov. 14. The exhibit will feature furniture from the reign of Catherine the Great through that of Paul I and Alexander I.
The show will provide one of the rare opportunities outside the Soviet Union to see such a comprehensive collection of Russian decorative arts.
Last year and again in January, the elegant Winter Antiques Show in New York will showcase more superb examples of Russian antiques, including those displayed by New York dealer Gene Tyson.
The finest pieces, however, are still in the Soviet Union, where they can be seen in the restored palaces and museums.
``I saw more great Russian pieces in the basement of the Hermitage alone than I ever dreamed existed,'' Chenevi`ere says wistfully.