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A Stained-Glass Menagerie

The Works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Especially His Leaded-Glass Lamps, are Much Sought After by Collectors
Nicholas M. Dawes
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

(continued from page 1)

Like many, Tiffany was drawn to Europe in the late nineteenth century when Paris was a magnetic center for artists and intellectuals. The International Exposition of 1889, held in the shadow of the newly constructed Eiffel Tower, attracted millions of visitors, but few were as inspired by the opportunities there as Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Over the next decade, he established a personal and professional relationship with the German art dealer Siegfried Bing, whose Parisian gallery La Maison d'Art Nouveau promoted and named the most exciting new style of the Belle Epoque. Bing commissioned, exhibited and sold Tiffany's earliest products including artistic glass, bronze objets d'art and, particularly, pictorial, stained-glass windows. Tiffany had mastered this ancient, European art form, and his work in stained glass was widely respected by even the most discerning of French artists and patrons.

The dawn of the new century was celebrated in Paris at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, where Tiffany displayed an impressive range of his wares, which did not yet include his signature product: the leaded-glass lamp. For the next three decades, however, the expansion and success of Tiffany Studios relied heavily on its production of an impressive assortment of leaded-glass table, floor and hanging lamps, demand for which rose in direct proportion to the spread of domestic electricity in the United States, where Tiffany established the vast majority of his market after 1900.

The power of electricity was of course due largely to Thomas Edison, with whom Tiffany had collaborated in 1885 on the interior design of Broadway's Lyceum Theater, the first of its type with electric footlights.

The most ubiquitous of Tiffany's products are examples of his Favrile (Middle English for "handmade") glass, which ranged from inexpensive, tiny, individual salt shakers and shot glasses to large and important floriform vases. Favrile glass is typically of solid, iridescent finish, usually of warm gold or deep blue color, and authentic examples can, with relative ease, be distinguished from old or new copies by their fine quality of design and execution.

Tiffany's range of artistic glass includes extremely complex ware, most of which reflects his influence from glass of the ancient world, a theme evident in many of his endeavors. Louis Comfort Tiffany's biographer, Charles Dekay, writing in 1914, summed up his achievements in one line: "The world will not see his likes again."It took several decades, however, for the collecting world to realize the importance of Tiffany's legacy.

The foremost international authority on Louis Comfort Tiffany is J. Alastair Duncan of New York City, who was Christie's expert in decorative arts for 14 years. Duncan has published at least six books dealing with the subject and curated the critically acclaimed exhibition, "Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany," which was shown at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in Japan between 1989 and 1991.According to Duncan, Tiffany's work was subject to a three-generational cycle of collecting: it was initially purchased by people who loved and used it, rejected or sold by the generation that inherited it and rediscovered by a modern generation of collectors.

Much of the rediscovery, coincident with the modern renaissance in Art Nouveau and Art Deco, began in the late 1950s under the guidance of a few visionary dealers.The dealer most closely associated with Tiffany is Lillian Nassau, whose gallery still flourishes on East 57th Street in New York."I discovered Lillian Nassau in 1964. I was 21 years old," recalls Streisand, who began collecting Tiffany and related decorative arts before she could really afford it. "I went into her shop and my eyes just bulged out."

The sources for good Tiffany have remained limited to a handful of dealers, the majority of whom are in New York City.The most active trading over the past two decades, however, has taken place on the floors of Christie's and Sotheby's. Duncan outlines a continually upward trend in demand and prices for Tiffany at auction. The auction story is punctuated by a high point about 1979, when the first six-figure prices were realized for table lamps, a low point in the early 1980s, and further high points throughout the late 1980s, when Japanese collectors and corporate buyers began to take a serious interest in Tiffany's oeuvre.

"Many Japanese stopped buying by 1991," says Duncan, "but this has allowed American and some European collectors, who were unable to compete with the Japanese, to pick up the slack," he observes, adding, "the market is alive and well."

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