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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.

All but one of the pieces offered at the Tokyo sale found buyers, mostly Japanese collectors or their agents, for a sale total of eight million French francs, about $2 million at the time. Almost two million francs, or $500,000, were realized by a unique, internally decorated, overlaid, applied, wheel-carved and etched-glass vase engraved with a verse from Victor Hugo, which is about as good as artistic Daum gets.

While many art glass enthusiasts, including Prushkin, consider most artistic Daum secondary in quality of design to comparable work by Daum's great rival, Gallé the finest works fetch prices that exceed even Gallé's masterpieces. The Daum/Majorelle lamp--the overlay glass and bronze three-light lamp in the lotus form--is a prime example of the high prices paid for Daum. But Lloyd Macklowe acknowledges that although bidding at those stratospheric prices would be unlikely today, the demand for Daum of this caliber remains very high. One aspect that contributes to the high price levels was and is the superb condition of the pieces involved, an all-important factor in glass collecting. The effect of condition on value was felt sharply by Christie's New York in 1990, where a breathless crowd watched an overlay glass owl-design lamp sell for $880,000 to a Japanese collector. Less than a year later, the same lamp was reoffered at Christie's with damage it had suffered during handling. It sold for $190,000.

Most dealers identify two principal categories of Daum: the Art Nouveau style, which includes all artistic and most multicolored ware made before the 1920s; and the Art Deco style--typically monochrome, heavily walled ware with geometric designs deeply etched in the glass by the action of hydroflouric acid--made between the First and Second World Wars. "The market for Art Deco Daum always followed the Art Nouveau glass market and the market for Lalique," according to Prushkin. "In the 1980s, many collectors realized that Art Deco Daum was underpriced, and the market took off, although even the best prices never approached those for artistic Daum."

"There has been an established market for Art Deco Daum for over 15 years," says Robert Zehil, a decorative-arts dealer based in Monaco who is an internationally recognized expert on the subject. "Before the mid-1980s, most collectors were in the United States and Germany," Zehil adds, "together with a few South Americans who bought mostly in New York and Los Angeles." Zehil was responsible for introducing Art Deco Daum to Japanese collectors in the late 1980s, which caused a significant upswing in what had been a relatively stable market. In 1984, a blue glass Art Deco vase was sold at auction for $7,000. A year later, Zehil bought it at Christie's, New York for $6,000. Within two years, he sold it to a Japanese collector for $30,000 as one of the jewels in an impressive collection of Art Deco Daum vases and lamps that Zehil had accumulated.

"There are likely to be very few major pieces of Art Deco Daum still in private hands," claims Zehil, although he says that demand for good examples is still very strong, especially in the United States.

The finest Art Deco Daum was made before 1935. During the late 1930s and 1940s, Daum's decorative glass was typically thickly walled, pale-colored, of plain, geometric or curvilinear outline, infused with thousands of tiny air bubbles. Pushkin refers fondly to this moderately priced ware as "Champagne Daum" and suggests it is a good area for the novice collector to explore.

Daum pieces also cover several other periods including the recent and modern eras. One style was introduced at an exhibition in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris after the Second World War, which coincided with the revitalization of the French glass industry. Company heir Michael Daum displayed a variety of new clear crystal styles at the 1951 event.

Tableware and decorative sculpture dominated the exhibition in a fluid style that the French lyrically describe as limpide, which loosely translated means loose or flowing. There is little collector interest in Daum of this vintage, and examples can be found for a few hundred dollars.

But there is growing popularity for the company's limited-edition issues of the past 25 years. These include the series of decorative objects made in vibrant-colored pâte-de-verre and metal designs by Salvador Dali, the first of which was conceived in 1968. A modem series was reintroduced in 1988. It is likely that the current line of glass and furnishings by several young, avant-garde designers, notably Elisabeth Garouste, Mattia Bonetti, Frank Evennou and Phillipe Stark, will earn their own following and respect. This status has already been achieved academically and commercially by the "Cactus" range of tableware designed by Hilton McConnico, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, who works in Paris and recently opened a boutique there.

For the discerning collector, there are only a few things to look for when pursuing Daum. The majority of the glass is signed, typically engraved or etched with the words "DAUM NANCY" flanking a cross of Lorraine, an acutely important French symbol in Daum's early period following the Franco-Prussian War. Fakes do exist but are relatively scarce, owing to the high technical standards of Daum glass, which is extremely difficult to replicate inexpensively. Nonetheless, novice collectors should proceed with caution. One tip: Don't buy from anyone who pronounces it "dowm" (to rhyme with "Tannebaum"), or from anyone who says "Nancy," as in Reagan. For that matter, anyone who suggests it as an appropriate substitute for Mace in a bar fight, probably isn't on the up and up either.

Nicolas Dawes writes frequently about collecting antique glass.

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