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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
| By Nicholas M. Dawes | From Fidel Castro, Summer 94

What does the name Tiffany mean to you?A pale-blue box holding something precious? Somebody's daughter?Breakfast?Or a colorful, leaded-glass lamp shade? If the answer includes the latter, you are familiar with the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), whose talent is synonymous with decorative, leaded-glass lighting fixtures patterned with Belle Epoque flower arrangements.

Just this winter, a high-profile sale of Tiffany lamps owned by Barbra Streisand set the auction world on its head with prices that hadn't been seen since the late 1980s. The Tiffany lamp has become part of American folklore and is thoroughly ingrained in the national character.

For instance, several North American restaurants, including chains, have adopted this motif over the past 20 years, following the success of the landmark New York restaurant Maxwell's Plum, which displayed some authentic Art Nouveau glass in its spectrum of ornamental leaded chandeliers, ceilings and bar fittings. Most of the inexpensive light fixtures that dangle over your head in beer-and-burger establishments, however, are as far removed from the original standards and taste of Louis Comfort Tiffany as the house wine is from Château Lafite-Rothschild.

It is unfortunate that cheap, leaded-glass lighting appears to be Tiffany's chief legacy to modern design. He was one of the most progressive and prolific creators in the history of American decorative arts. His disciplines included interior design, ceramics, jewelry and goldsmithing, bronze and other metalwork, enameling, lamp design, furniture, mosaics, stained-glass windows, artistic glass and oil painting.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was born into an era of unprecedented expansionism in the Eastern United States, much of it due to European immigrants whose ideas and skills Tiffany drew into his empire. His father, Charles Tiffany, had founded the Fifth Avenue

jewelry store (which still bears his name) eleven years earlier and was thus in an ideal position to pop a sterling-silver spoon into his prodigious son's mouth.

It is testament to the abilities and vision of the young Tiffany, however, that he opted not to pursue his father's business. He carved out his own career and destiny, much of which was literally forged in the highly successful bronze foundry he opened in Corona (a section of the borough of Queens in New York City) in 1892.

By that time, Tiffany had already established his credentials as an interior decorator with several prestigious residential and commercial commissions. One of the best-known was his work on the state rooms for President Chester Arthur's White House in 1883, which

were unfortunately dismantled during Theodore Roosevelt's administration 20 years later.Some of the best-known examples of Tiffany's decorating style that can still be enjoyed in situ are the anterooms and vestibules of the monumental Seventh Regiment Armory building on Park Avenue in New York, which was built in 1880 and still functions as an armory as well as a forum for North America's finest antiques shows.

Tiffany's preference at this period was for the Moorish taste of North Africa, where the young Louis had traveled on his own version of the "grand tour."His surviving canvases, painted en plein air in the deserts of Tunisia, confirm the young man's romantic attachment to a way of life that was entirely different from the clamor of New York City.

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."

Streisand, who chose to dispose of most of her Tiffany collection and related items through Christie's in March, benefited from this upward trend and current demand. The rewards of collecting were particularly sweet with the sale of two major Tiffany lamps.A "Peony" pattern table lamp with a "turtleback" glass-tile and mosaic-inlaid bronze base, acquired from Nassau for $45,000 in the 1970s, sold for a whopping $345,000.

Even more impressive was a leaded-glass, mosaic and bronze "Cobweb" table lamp. The extreme rarity of this model, coupled with the celebrity provenance and deluge of publicity drew a final bid of $747,500. Streisand purchased the lamp, which she considers "kind of ugly-great," from Nassau for $55,000 in 1979.

Today's Tiffany collectors, many of whom appeared to be present at the Streisand auction, are often high-profile individuals enjoying new wealth. In fact, Streisand is far from being the only Tiffany enthusiast in the entertainment industry."Lamps have immediate appeal. They are very pretty, and you can turn them on and off," according to Duncan. But he notes that many collectors "flirt" with Tiffany and do not make a long-term commitment to their collections, a phenomenon not without parallel in the Hollywood lifestyle.

Fakes and reproductions appear in any marketplace when the supply and demand curves begin to take opposite directions. Thus it is not surprising that the current market has been overrun with faux Tiffany. "Initially, only lamps were reproduced," says Duncan, who now finds "virtually everything Tiffany made--from bronzes to art glass and stained-glass windows--being convincingly faked."

Tiffany's innovations and extraordinary accomplishments a century ago are more easily achieved by modern craftsmen, several of whom, operating mainly in California, specialize in casting bronze candlesticks, lamp bases and other objets d'art, complete with authentic-looking Tiffany signatures, which can fool all but the trained eye.

Leaded-glass shades and windows are more widely reproduced, often not with the intent of deception. But the best of these can also fool most collectors."A lot of forgeries are sent directly abroad for sale in countries where collectors are less well informed," says Duncan, a consultant who spends a good deal of his time authenticating Tiffany.As long as people continue to take an interest in the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany, it seems Duncan's job security is assured.

Nicholas Dawes writes frequently on the antique-glass market.