The World of Charles R. Knight

A Rendition in Marquetry

On May 2, 2004, a rather unusual collection of "marquetry", based on the Charles R. Knight murals that decorated the halls of the Field Museum, was auctioned by the Chait Galleries in Beverly Hills, California, finally reaching a closing price of $169,750.00. Here is the announcement which appeared at that time on eBay:


The story of this collection is a curious interweaving of the lives and talents of several extraordinary people all coming together to generate the works of art that make up this important and historic offering.

The commissioner of this artwork, Oscar Zerk, was born 1878 in Vienna, Austria. Showing an early talent for technology, he was fascinated by the challenge of that most modern of technical marvels: the automobile. As a result, Zerk designed the first 6-cylinder car as well as an automatic transmission. In order to view the state of American automotive design, he sailed for the U.S. on the Lusitania in 1907. While aboard, his fertile mind conceived of a new and better lubrication system. Crucial to this new system was a small device, which subsequently became known as a "zerk" fitting: a fitting that almost 100 years later is still with us. Based on this system, he had by 1938 founded two companies, made a fortune and decided to 'retire'. With his considerable fortune he purchased a 3-story mansion in Kenosha, Wisconsin and had it gutted. When rebuilt, it featured, among other things, a private museum of Paleontology. This museum took the form of an elegant drawing room filled with various treasures of prehistoric life. Fossils and an extensive selection of petrified wood were everywhere. What was needed, in Zerk's estimation, was a way to integrate the interior design of the room with the collection in it.

In the years prior to this, Charles R. Knight, possibly the most renowned painter of prehistoric scenes of the time, had finished a commission by J. P. Morgan to produce paintings and watercolors for the American Museum of Natural History's new Department of Vertebrate Paleontology. Another commission, this time from Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, came through the intercession of Dr. George Kunz, famous gemologist for Tiffany and Co.

Oscar Zerk, having lived in Chicago, was already familiar with these wonderfully detailed paintings. He saw a way to combine Knight's paintings with his own desire to show "how the world looked when my petrified wood was growing."

With a plentiful supply of time, money and motivation, Zerk commissioned three master marquetry artists in Munich to faithfully reproduce the genius of Charles R. Knight for the walls and entrance of Zerk's private museum.

The project took the three men two years to complete the work. Part of the reason for this was the use of living trees, which had been watered with aniline dyes, as the source of the wood used for the sky and grassland scenes in the panels. When finished, the panels were installed on the walls of the museum. The crowning touch was the entrance to the museum. It integrated a door depicting two Cro-Magnon artists, working by the light of an oil lamp. This is a copy of Knight's copy of actual cave paintings on the walls of Le Grotte de Font le Gaume in France.

Oscar Zerk died in 1968 at the age of 90 with over 300 patents to his credit. These marquetry panels are a tribute to Zerk's vision and love of natural history.

This lot is comprised of the door and six panels that adorned his private museum. This lot constitutes ALL of the marquetry known from his mansion. Consultation with world-renowned marquetry experts have determined that this is truly an important and one-of-a-kind offering. No other works of this magnitude on this subject matter are known to exist. Each panel is individually titled using South American black rosewood.

"CRO MAGNON MAN—25,000 YEARS":   The original Knight work was titled "Cro-Magnon Artists of Southern France". The original can be seen today at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In this work two Cro-Magnon artists are hard at work. One is holding an oil lamp, while the other is drawing a woolly mammoth on the cave wall. This superb example of marquetry manages to retain the dramatic treatment of light and shadow that made the original so impressive. By carefully selecting the different wood veneers that make up this exquisite piece, even the shadows cast by the flickering, golden light of the primitive oil lamp seem alive. Note the use of a burl veneer to convey the texture of the furs worn. This is the only one of the pieces that is not a wall frieze. It was intentionally made as a door: a door to Mr. Zerk's private Land Before Time. The marquetry panel is 34 ½ x 24 inches and is inlaid in a door that measures 78 5/8 x 31 7/8 x 2 inches.

"TRICERATOPS AND TYRANN- OSAURUS—90,000,000 YEARS":   Marquetry wall panel depicting the typical daily interactions between these two species. In this panel a Triceratops is squaring off against a rather determined looking T. Rex. There is a second T. Rex in the background. There has been an extensive use of green wood dyed in vivo. All apparent shading or patterning is the result of careful selection of the type of wood used and as well as its orientation. This is one of the most famous of the Charles R. Knight murals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, originally painted in 1927. While the original is 20 x 10 feet, this marquetry depiction is 74 ½ x 24 ¼ inches and is inset in a panel that measures 78 5/8 x 31 inches.

"BRONTOSAURUS—125,000,000 YEARS":   Now known as Apatosaurus, this large semi-aquatic dinosaur has been artfully rendered as a three dimensional animal, complete with the correct lighting effects one would expect in life, using only two dimensional sheets of wood. Notice the delicate shading effects in the 'sky'. In addition to the very detailed 'Brontosaur' centerpiece of this panel, there are three aquatic 'proto-crocodilians' in a group in the left foreground as well as two other 'Brontosaurs' in the background. This is the other of the most famous of the Charles R. Knight murals at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, originally painted in 1927. While the original is 20 x 10 feet, this marquetry depiction is 74 ½ x 24 3/32 inches and is inset in a panel that measures 78 ½ x 31 inches.

"DIMETRODON AND NAUSAURUS—215,000,000 YEARS":   Dimetrodon is the familiar sail-backed pelycosaur of the synapsid group. It is thought to have had a number of mammalian features, which is one of the reasons it is not considered a dinosaur. In this work; there are five Dimetrodon sunning themselves on some rocks with trees and cycads in the background. Incredibly, the "ribs" of the sails are all cut from a single piece of veneer. The two triangular-headed primitive amphibians emerging from the water in the foreground represent 'Nausaurus'. They are referred to currently as Diplocaulus. This marquetry depiction is 49 x 24 ½ inches and is inset in a panel that measures 53 ½ x 31 inches.

"PROTOCERATOPS—100,000,000 YEARS":   Protoceratops was the first of the true ceratopsians. About the size of a small pig, they were herbivores with a rudimentary frill. Eggs of this species are some of the oldest dinosaur eggs known. In this panel there are six Protoceratops, one of which is guarding a nest of eggs. This marquetry depiction is 49 x 24 ¼ inches and is inset in a panel that measures 53 x 31 inches.

"COMPSOGNATHUS AND PTERODACTYLS—175,000,000 YEARS":   Compsognathus was about the size of a chicken, which makes it one of the smallest of the non-avian dinosaurs. Being small and a carnivore, it must have been both quick and agile. In this panel, there are two of these fleet-footed little terrors in the foreground examining a potential meal. In flight and hanging from one of the cycads are Pterodactyls, a general term for what are now called Pterosaurs. At the time Charles Knight painted the models for these panels, there were nowhere near the number of winged lizards that are distinguished today. In addition, four primitive "birds", presumably Archaeopteryx, are cavorting slightly to the left of the Compsognathus group. Note the use of burl wood to represent the texture of the cycad trunks. This marquetry depiction is 49 x 24 ¼ inches and is inset in a panel that measures 53 x 31 inches.

"STEGOSAURUS—125,000,000 YEARS":   Two Stegosaurs peacefully grazing are the focal point to this panel. It is conjectured that, since Stegosaur brain cases are exceptionally small and they were herbivores, they were a bit on the dim side. Chances are that it didn't matter given the amount of armor they carried in the form of bony plates and spikes. They are shown grazing amidst scattered cycads and palms. Note the perspective effects used with the 'trees' in the hazy background. This marquetry depiction is 49 x 24 ¼ inches and is inset in a panel that measures 53 3/16 x 31 inches.

[All marquetry photos by Shayan Shidfar.]

The World of Charles R. Knight

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