The hammer slammed down. 1.32 million Swiss francs! A round of vigorous applause greeted the winning bid of about $1 million from a consortium of American and European dealers and collectors going up against an equally high-spirited Japanese dealer at the Christie's Geneva sale room on November 11, 1990. The prize was unusual: A glass fountain, one of a pair designed by René Lalique in 1926 for the Galeries des Champs Elysées, a covered shopping arcade in Paris. The piece had stood peacefully in a French provincial garden for several decades before being thrust into the auction spotlight--the location of its twin remains a mystery.
The world record bid delighted Christie's, the anonymous consigner and collectors around the world, who had grown accustomed to the regular shattering of Lalique sale records during the late 1980s. Most recently, the record for a Lalique vase was reset when a Japanese buyer paid two million French francs (about $375,000) for a vase made in the cire perdue or lost wax casting process at an auction of 250 works by Lalique held last October at the Drouot Montaigne saleroom in Paris. Another cire perdue vase from the same auction went to Japan at a price of 1,750,000 French francs (about $327,000) and Americans took home the better production pieces, including a rare green vase which found a new home in Detroit for 300,000 French francs (about $56,500). A glass and bakelite lamp designed in 1920 sold for 810,000 French francs (about $152,000).
Prices realized in this, and subsequent sales, have proved that there is shortage of money or competition for the finest pieces of René Lalique's remarkable glass. The global economic recession of the last two years took considerable wind out of the sails of prominent art and antiques dealers, and the markets they represent. But not so for Lalique, except for a slight downturn during the Persian Gulf war that satisfied some critics who thought it overinflated. While not totally invulnerable to the downturn, the Lalique market has been buoyed by the loyalty and enthusiasm of established collectors, new buyers including museums and the relative scarcity of extraordinary pieces.
The Lalique mystique also benefited from a series of international museum exhibitions. The Galeries des Champs Elysées fountain, authentically restored, gracefully gurgled and splashed water on the red carpet at a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which opened last October. The carpet had been laid out for Jacques Lang, the French Minister of Culture, and tens of thousands of eager visitors last October. The exhibition was among the most successful held at the Paris museum in its 100-year history. The turnout was so strong that the show was extended by several weeks before traveling to Tokyo, where it appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in June and July.
René Lalique, who died in 1945 at the age of 85, began his career as a jewelry designer in Paris over a century ago. He worked in a unique, Art Nouveau style which made him the most heavily patronized and celebrated jeweler in the world by 1900. At 50 years of age, he devoted his attention to glassmaking, producing a legacy of extraordinary designs which collectors have pursued with increasing fervor over the last 15 years. The manufacture of impressive cast works was made possible by Lalique's modern factory in Alsace, completed in 1921. The facility, largely unchanged, is the site of the modern production carried on under René Lalique's granddaughter, Marie-Claude, whose most recent contribution to the innovative family legacy was the glass and metal medals designed for the Albertville Winter Olympics. René Lalique's commercially produced ware at Alsace ranged in scale from monumental architecture to exquisite glass jewelry, and provides collecting opportunities for most budgets and tastes. Vases, particularly those of rare design or color, top the list of desirability and value with prices that can rise over $100,000.
Lighting devices and illuminated decorative glass also were an important part of Lalique's commercial empire by the peak period of production in the late 1920s, and the boldest examples are in short supply and high demand. Like vases and Lalique's glass sculpture, lighting has the market advantage of appealing to interior designers and general collectors of decorative arts from the years between the great world wars.
Many Lalique collectors choose to focus on one area of the artist's output. Perfume bottles, which are among the earliest commercially designed glass by René Lalique dating from his collaboration with parfumer Francois Coty in 1907, are still made in large quantity and variety by Lalique. Most René Lalique examples sell for less than $2,000 each but the rarest models command as much as a Mercedes 560 SEL ($100,000). The typical perfume bottle enthusiast takes a conventional approach to collecting by trying to amass many of them. Collectors of René Lalique's glass automobile mascots (or mascoteers as they are known to dealers) also typically attempt to "collect the set," limited to 28 models. Providing they had survived the rigors of being bolted onto radiator caps in the golden age of motoring, the rarest examples can be worth considerably more today than the automobiles they originally graced, although most models are valued between $2,000 and $10,000.
The modest collector can focus on the range of superbly designed glass boxes, most of which can be found for less than $2,000, or smaller vases in common colors and tableware. Specialized collections exist in the United States in René Lalique's inkwells, clocks, candlesticks, ashtrays, cigar humidors and cigarette boxes. The wealth and design diversity of Lalique's drinking vessels and decanters appeal to oenophiles. Many examples can be found at reasonable prices.
Advanced collectors focus on rarities including the unique cire perdue cast glass that exhibited the artist's talent as a master glassmaker, and were not for commercial sale. The number of cire perdue pieces in existence is estimated to be less than 200, over half of which are in permanent museum collections. One of the attractions of cire perdue has been its impressive performance as an investment: A six-inch high sculpture of a crouching cougar which sold for a record price of $39,000 at a New York auction in 1980 changed hands less than six years later for over $300,000. Small vases in the technique, which fetched an average of $4,000 each in the early 1980s, highlighted auctions later in the decade with prices climbing over $150,000.
"I have had more fun collecting Lalique over the last five years than I had building my business during the previous 30 years," comments Marvin Kagan, the recently retired president of the Milgra- Kagan Corporation, a shoe store chain based in greater Chicago. Mr. Kagan may not be aware that "fun" is a euphemism for financial profit in the antiques business, but he has had considerable financial success during his relatively brief encounter with Lalique. Mr. Kagan's best deal was in 1990 when, at the highpoint of the market, he sold the bulk of his 250-piece collection to a Japanese collector for over $2 million. In that year, art and antiques was the fifth largest U.S. export to Japan.
For many Americans, however, Lalique glass collecting offers the opportunity to have real fun. "It is hard to beat a walk around the Paris flea market on a chilly spring morning, pausing for vin chaud or café au lait," according to a Midwestern collector. He is only too well aware that the days of finding cire perdue among the crates of brocantes or fancy junk are long gone. But the Marché aux Puces is one of the many exciting, and sometimes exotic locations frequented by Lalique enthusiasts. They also dart in and out of museums with Lalique collections, a feat easily accomplished in most every European capital. Lalique cannot be purchased from museums, although many dealers have tried. Therefore, it is the auction marketplace that represents the front line of collecting. Even so, a fruitless excursion to a flea market, antiques fair, a gallery or an auction has the same rewards for the enthusiast that a good day's fishing with no catch brings to a serious angler.
A day in Paris "on the hunt" can begin with the delights of the flea market. It can include the purchase of an extraordinary object, a first-class, lengthy lunch, a friendly argument in Franglais, and endless gossip about the fortunes of colleagues. In fact, the relationships developed on these expeditions often are one of the biggest draws for the collector and dealer alike. The day usually ends with a generous and elegant dinner--after all, this is France--at an hour when most Americans are watching The Tonight Show. "Before I started collecting Lalique, I couldn't speak a word of French," a New York collector said recently. "Now, I can argue in the flea market."
Most collectors don't need to explore the back alleys and tight nooks and crannies of the French flea markets. The world's fine art auction houses are an important forum for buying and selling Lalique glass. Among the most elegant are the regular sales held at Sotheby's in Monte Carlo, which provides an attractive weekend retreat from, say, Milwaukee. Lalique turns up regularly at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions worldwide, and at sales held in Paris by several French auctioneers. The largest French auction company is Ader Tajan, which holds an occasional auction dedicated to Lalique in the serene atmosphere of Tokyo's Okura Hotel. These auctions are held in French and Japanese, with live action telecast by satellite to bidders in Paris. Such sales are a far cry from the provincial events in Britain and the United States, which are often the source of the best bargains. Enthusiasts are especially advised to monitor the Lalique auctions held every fall at the delightfully English family firm of Bonham's, headquartered in a Georgian building just a stone's throw from Harrods in London.
Ask any auctioneer, dealer or collector about the problems of buying Lalique and they are likely to recount the abundance of fakes and forgeries that litter the marketplace. There are very few deliberate forgeries, but it is common to encounter glass made in the style of René Lalique which has had his signature added for purposes of deception. The novice can avoid such pitfalls by following the golden rule of art and antiques collecting: Never let the signature authenticate the object; always allow the qualities of the object to authenticate the signature.
Nicholas M. Dawes, a New York antiques dealer, is the author of Lalique Glass, a standard work on the subject.