Ornate Furniture Style of John Henry Belter

The Craftsman, His Style, and the Identification of His Work

Carved tulipwood bed, ca 1860, by John Henry Belter
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images
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    Belter's Rococo Revival Style

    When it comes to rococo revival furniture, John Henry Belter was no doubt a master craftsman who perfected this style during the mid-1800s. He was so skillful in replicating the elaborate carvings common during the late baroque period of the mid-1700s that his contemporaries often tried (and failed) to copy his techniques. Even though he popularized this style more than 150 years ago, his name and memory live on in furniture fabrication today. It is common to find newly made ornamental furniture fashioned in this style and billed as Belter-style.

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  • 02 of 05

    About John Henry Belter

    A German immigrant who became an American citizen in 1839, Belter described himself as a cabinet manufacturer (rather than a cabinetmaker). Belter worked as a furniture craftsman in New York from 1845 until his death in 1863. He was considered the most important cabinetmaker working in the rococo revival-style in the United States at that time. He patented many of his improved techniques for crafting furniture. Among those patents was a technique for laminating wood that was widely copied by his competitors in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

    Another innovative process he perfected allowed him to create extraordinary carvings without sacrificing strength and durability. His patents included the machinery for sawing Arabesque chairs and the design of a special bedstead. His ornately styled bedstead was a combination head-to-foot bed frame that could easily disassemble in case of a fire.

    Belter operated the five-story J.H. Belter and Company factory in New York City employing many apprentices. He employed three of his brothers-in-law: Jonathan, William, and Frederick Springmeyer. After Belter's death (reportedly from tuberculosis in 1863, although some sources state 1864), the company was renamed Springmeyer Brothers and ceased operation in 1867.

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  • 03 of 05

    Belter's Construction Method

    While there were many fine pieces of rococo revival furniture made during the era, the most elegant is said to have originated in New York by Belter. His work is superior in that he generally used more layers of laminated wood while constructing his intricate designs. While his competitors might have used three to five layers of laminated wood, his work would have six or more layers.

    While styles can be similar from maker to maker, Belter's rococo revival work was more elaborate than his competing contemporaries J & J.W. Meeks of New York and Mitchell & Rammelsberg of Ohio. His carvings were infinitely more intricate and ornate with his rose and fruit motifs standing out from the others who often tried to imitate him.

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  • 04 of 05

    How to Identify Belter's Pieces

    Victorian Rococo Revival Slipper Chair by John Henry Belter
    Photo Courtesy of Prices4Antiques.com

    Some upholstered pieces made by Belter are 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 you do not see a label or stamp, look closely at the carving and its components for trademark Belter clues.

    • Since Belter always used six or more layers of laminated wood in his carvings, you can count the layers in the exposed edges of the wood to confirm the number of layers.
    • He preferred using rosewood for his carving work; it is often present in all his pieces.
    • When compared to his contemporaries, his carvings were the most intricate and well made. If a piece you are looking at looks crude or poorly constructed, rule out Belter.
    • Most bed frames with curved sides and ornate carving can be attributed to Belter; he patented this type of bed design.
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  • 05 of 05

    Value of Belter Furniture

    Authenticated Belter furniture is worth significantly more than a similar item by another maker. Belter pieces don't come on the market frequently, so that makes them even more desirable and valuable.

    A single chair confirmed as a Belter can easily warrant a price tag of $20,000 or more in an upscale antique shop. An ornately carved meridienne (sofa-like chaise) can go for $25,000 or more at a high-end auction. Marble-topped tables with significant decorative elements can sell for as much as $16,000.

    As you would expect, the more elaborate the piece, the higher the price. Even relatively plain Belter pieces commonly sell in the thousands, although those prices are nowhere near what his bold designs fetch. The value of his pieces goes down if they have been altered or shoddily repaired.

    Alterations that are acceptable are those pieces that have been reupholstered in high-quality fabric by a professional. You would be hard-pressed to find rococo revival parlor furniture that hasn’t been reupholstered at some point during the past 150 years, including Belter pieces.