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Antique Austrian Glass

Nineteenth-Century Artisan Johann Loetz Established a Factory in Austria that Defined a Genre of Glass Art
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

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Admiration for Loetz remains high among certain Germanic peoples, and, according to Playford, most modern collectors are found in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Playford also notes that Loetz is well respected and collected in the United States, where many good pieces were exported and appear on the market today.

Nancy McClelland, who heads the department of 20th Century Decorative Arts at Christie's in New York, regularly includes Loetz in her sales held on Park Avenue three or four times a year. "I think it is probably a world record," McClelland notes, recalling a vase of extraordinary beauty which sold at Christie's on June 12, 1993, for $29,900. This price may appear high to the casual vase shopper, but it is very low in the competitive world of artistic glass; the finest works by such luminaries as Gallé, Daum and Lalique regularly penetrate six (and occasionally seven) figures.

McClelland and Playford attribute the relatively low prices achieved by Loetz to the fact that Loetz was largely ignored by the tidal wave of Japanese buying in the late 1980s, together with the tendency for most of the market activity to be centered in Germany and Austria. And there are few specialized dealers in Loetz, (none in the United States or Paris). Most collectors rely on auctions in New York, London, and Germany.

Sotheby's recent sale in New York included a typical selection of 15 pieces, most of which sold for less than $5,000 each, although the two best pieces each sold for more than $20,000--well in excess of expectations. The relative abundance of Loetz, together with new documentation and low prices, combine to make Loetz very attractive to the prospective collector. "Loetz has always been perceived as being underpriced," McClelland says. This perception may well be founded as much on truth and pragmatism as on dealers' hype.

The majority of Loetz glass produced during the most desirable periods was not signed at the factory, a phenomenon that has led to the antique dealer's familiar tag line: Unsigned Loetz. This may qualify as the most abused identification in the world of art glass: it is liberally applied to virtually any Austrian-looking glass with even a hint of Art Nouveau form or iridescence. The often clunky, unadventurous and inexpensive glass of Loetz's contemporaries is often misrepresented as Loetz, notably the products from the Bohemian glassworks of Pallme-Konig & Habel, which employed more than 300 people in 1900 making green-iridescent Loetz-style glass, all of which was unsigned. The unsigned iridescent Bohemian glass of Wilhelm Kralik & Sohn is often similarly misidentified.

In fairness to many dealers, the strong similarities between the best of the lesser factories and the worst of Loetz makes positive identification difficult although those with the "good eyes" can always tell the form and quality of execution of Loetz. But there have been few excuses for misrepresentation since the publication of a catalog raisonné of Loetz designs and designers between 1880 and 1940, which was published in 1989 at the same time as a major museum retrospective of Loetz exhibited in Düsseldorf, Frankfurt and Prague. Books on art glass have never made the best-seller lists, and this collectively authored, out-of-print tome, which is expensive, exhaustive and available only in German, is unlikely to change the pattern. However, in the small world of Loetz collecting the book's publication was an explosion of new information that sent dealers and collectors scurrying after pieces attributable to the best designers, followed closely by new market prices.

The scarcity of original signatures does not mean that most pieces are not signed today. "It is not uncommon to find Loetz which someone has signed Loetz," observes Playford, "or it may even be signed Tiffany," presumably less in homage to the American master as to the ancient art of deception for profit. Ironically, in the 1990s, an unsigned Loetz vase is likely to be as valuable or more so than an authentic piece of Tiffany.

Of the authentic pieces that are signed, the majority bear signatures in the well left in the center of the base after polishing off the pontil mark with an engraved Loetz (or Lotz), usually accompanied with Austria, in script. A circular device enclosing crossed arrows above Austria engraved is also found on later, authentic Loetz, and better pieces may have the designer's signature or monogram engraved. Loetz made for export to the United States, which was an important market during the later years of production, is more likely to be signed than domestically distributed pieces.

Nicholas M. Dawes writes frequently on the antique-glass market.

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