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The Desire for Daum

Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Who would have ever thought that a company which in the nineteenth century advertised its tavern glass as "very heavy for use in self-defense" would become one of the finest names in collectible antique art glass in the late twentieth century? But that's exactly what has happened to France's House Of Daum, Ltd., which still manufactures drinking glasses today.

Although certainly not a heavy-duty tavern glass, one piece of Daum's artistic work, made in collaboration with bronze maker Louis Majorelle of Nancy, astonished auction market watchers in 1989 by bringing in $1.76 million at a Sotheby's New York auction. "The Lamp," as it is known in collectors' circles, is an overlay glass (by Daum) and bronze (by Majorelle) three-light table lamp in the shape of a lotus.

"It was the most artistic lamp made by Daum and Majorelle, and the only one I have seen in 30 years," says Lloyd Macklowe of the Macklowe Gallery in New York City, who has probably seen and handled more artistic Daum than anyone else. Even in 1989, a peak auction-market period, such prices were usually rare, with peaks of only I or 2 million French francs, which at that time meant $400,000 or less. In the same auction, a more conventionally styled lamp sold for $,325,000, and a single-light lotus lamp appeared inexpensive in comparison at $145,000.

Like many collectible antique glasswares, there are very few of the highest-quality antique Daum pieces, and even fewer in prime condition. But unlike many other of the well-known names in the collectible world, Emile GaIIé for instance, the House of Daum continues to turn out highly prized pieces using techniques that arc becoming more and more uncommon. Of course, there is also a line of modern Daum drinking glasses, although none of them would serve very well as a weapon in a barroom brawl.

The Daum company history began in 1878 when a French attorney of in modest means named Jean Daum (pronounced "dome") reluctantly took over the operation of a dilapidated watch-glass factory in Nancy, in the eastern French province of Lorraine. It was a desperate move, and he quickly discovered that it was hard to make a living manufacturing watch glasses. The company sputtered along under the guidance of Daum's two sons, Auguste and Antonin, both of whom shared their father's complete lack of glassmaking experience. By the late 1880s, an ambitious Auguste Daum had made commercial drinking glasses the firm's stock in trade, which served as the basis for the promotional self-defense line: "Handsome tavern glasses have to be very white to enhance the liquid's tantalizing color, voluminous in aspect to attract the client, very thin on the rim to please the lips, very thick in the walls and bottom to contain next to nothing, and finally very heavy for use in self-defense."

The Daums displayed their handsome tavern glasses at the Paris International Exhibition in 1889, an event that launched both the Eiffel Tower and the French Art Nouveau movement. It also provided the impetus that launched the Daum brothers as designers and manufacturers of art glass, a process they soon mastered.

The earliest Daum art glass consists mainly of small objets de vitrine, delicately enameled or engraved in conventional taste with landscapes or romantic images, examples of which were shown in the United States at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, together with Daum's newly introduced line of overlay glass. This ware, commonly called cameo glass, is distinct from most other overlay of that time, including the work of GaIIé, in that the raised decoration is typically enhanced or created by the action of hydrofluoric-acid etching, which gives the vessel a frosted background.

Throughout the Art Nouveau period, Daum excelled in complex glassmaking techniques. Etching was often combined with carving, enameling and engraving on a single piece. The most complicated creations, termed "artistic wares," also feature applied glass elements, such as handles or ornamental motifs in naturalistic forms. Applied glass snails, slugs, and clusters of berries are characteristically Daum and are magnets that attract the collector.

In 1906, Daum began the manufacture of pâte-de-verre, a glass-making technique of the ancient world rediscovered by pioneer French glassmakers in the 1870s. Pâte-de-verre (literally, "glass paste") consists of colored glass which has been ground into a fine powder and mixed with a fusing agent to form a paste. This substance can be pressed into molds or sculpted like clay, and when several colors are mixed, the fired result has a pleasing mottled appearance. Daum is one of the few glass companies to have freely exploited the pâte-de-verre technique in modern production; the finest examples of Daum from the past 30 years have been made entirely or partially by this process.

The successful evolution of the Daum company from its humble beginnings more than a century ago is as impressive as that of the collector's market in Daum, which has been buoyed by auctions and dealers internationally since the late 1970s. The modem market was established at the sale of Daum by French auctioneers Ader Picard Tajan, which was held at Tokyo's Hotel Okur in March 1984. Tajan's first sale in Japan included 129 examples of glass and related artwork that had been retained by the Daum family, who had owned the company until then. "It was a watershed for prices, particularly of artistic ware," says Michael Prushkin of the Prushkin Gallery in London, a prominent dealer of works by Daum.


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