France has the richest collection of firebacks in the world, dating as far back as the Renaissance.
Marc Maison, an antique dealer based in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine, in the northern suburbs of Paris, who specialises in the decorative arts, is passionate about firebacks.
He said: “Over the centuries, craftsmen in France developed a savoir-faire, which led to a huge diversity in imagination and decoration which does not have an equivalent anywhere else in the world.
“I love them, above all, as objets d’art and for the history behind them.”
He is clearly not alone. People come to France from all over the world to find an antique back to suit their fireplace.
Mr Maison says it takes years of experience to learn all about the cast-iron artworks, to spot an original from a copy, and to pick out one which is exceptional.
“They serve three purposes. They protect the brick or stone fireplace back wall, because they are made of cast iron, which is not damaged by the heat of the fire.
“They also reflect the heat into the room, and they were a decorative feature, often used to show off a family coat of arms.”
Every fireback tells a story.
For example, one on show in Mr Maison’s gallery (marcmaison.fr) is from the 17th Century and represents the coat of arms of Louise-Renée de Penancoët de Kéroualle (1649-1734), pictured.
She had great influence in French and English affairs, as she was the mistress of King Charles II for 15 years, when she lived in the Palace of Whitehall.
She became the Countess of Fareham, Duchess of Portsmouth and Baroness of Petersfield, but at the same time acted as a secret agent for the French King Louis XIV.
It was said of her that “the silk ribbon around Miss Kéroualle’s waist united France and England”. Copies of this fireback can be found in the museums of Orléans and Berry at Bourges.
Firebacks were made in China as early as the 5th Century, but arrived in Europe from the middle of the 15th Century. The oldest-known European example dates from 1431 and is on display at the Lorraine Museum in Nancy, Meurthe-et-Moselle.
It is decorated with the coat of arms of King René of Anjou, with a Jerusalem cross and four identical little crosses next to two Lorraine crosses on a background of fleurs de lys, the French royal flower.
Firebacks became more popular in the 16th and 17th Centuries and flourished in the 18th Century, regarded as the golden age of plaques de cheminée, when artisans would base their designs on paintings or engravings by well-known artists.
Few originals were made after the end of the Second Empire in 1870, though there are some fine examples from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods. After World War Two, production declined.
Mr Maison said antique firebacks can still be found, but only one in 20 is in a perfect state, which means it has a beautiful decoration, is original and is not damaged.
“Though cast iron resists heat, the constant change in temperature means it draws in humidity, which can eventually lead a fireback to lose its decoration.
“In the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, many copies were made of popular earlier styles and it is difficult to discern whether one is an original or not.
“They were never signed, so it is not easy to find their provenance or date of manufacture – the coats of arms help.”
Heraldic motifs are the most common. “If there was a marriage, a new set of firebacks would be created to combine both families’ coats of arms.
“If it was a big chateau, several might be made: one for each room with a fireplace.”
There are many themes: “Mythological, military and allegorical scenes were popular, as were human or animal figures.”
Firebacks depicting the fleur de lys or other royal attributes dating from before the Revolution are extremely rare, as a decree in 1793 ordered them to be destroyed.
Anyone found with one in their home would be suspected of supporting the royal family and could be sent to prison, or even the guillotine.
Firebacks were usually made in regions rich in iron and forges, such as Normandy, Lorraine and Champagne, with the finest coming from the north east.
Anyone who finds one should get it valued by an expert, as it is so complicated to verify authenticity, Mr Maison said.
Sending a photograph would be a first step but it would have to be looked at closely to work out its rarity, its date and where it might have come from.
Mr Maison said that this spring he will be putting the “find of a lifetime” fireguard, featuring three wise women, on display in his showroom: “It is one of the most beautiful pieces I have ever seen, dating from the Renaissance, with sumpt-uous decoration. It weighs 750 kilos.”
An exceptional fireback can sell for between €20,000 and €50,000.
A basic 19th Century model might cost €300, one which is older between €800 and €1,500, and an 18th Century good quality one around €2,000.
Mr Maison said owning one like the Renaissance model, even for a short period, is an experience to savour: “I am always only a temporary owner, as I am a dealer and must eventually sell.
“While I have a piece like this, though, I will make the most of it, enjoying its unique beauty.”