Antique Austrian Glass

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

The word glass is derived from the ancient Celtic glas, meaning bluish green, which refers to the color of woad, a body dye popular with warring ancient Britons. With the exception of some soccer fans, the British have refrained from painting themselves blue before combat for several thousand years, but the bluish-green color is as ubiquitous in glass making today as it was in the ancient world.

Few glassworks have exploited the bluish-green combination of cobalt, copper and iron more successfully than that founded in 1840 by Johann Loetz in Klostermuhle, Bohemia, which was within the Austro-Hungarian empire during most of its period of operation. Even though Loetz died in 1848, the Loetz works was initially operated by his wife under the name Glasfabrik Johann Loetz-Witwe (the Widow Johann Loetz Glassworks). It retained that name until its closure during the Second World War.

By the early 1880s the Loetz works had acquired a reputation as a manufacturer of fine glass, produced under the direction of Loetz's grandson Max Ritter von Spaun. He modernized the works and introduced innovative glass types and production techniques, several of which he patented. By 1889, Loetz glassware was well enough established to exhibit at the Paris International Exposition, held under the newly constructed Eiffel tower. The Loetz pieces won critical acclaim for the "Onyx" range and other lines of highly polished, opaque glass with contrasting veining that simulated natural hard stones.

The Paris Exposition of 1889 was the launching pad for many of the century's finest glassworks and it is widely accepted as the birthplace of Art Nouveau. Émile Gallé's earliest artistic glass was shown there. While Loetz was technically compatible with Gallé works, the Loetz glass was clearly out of its artistic depth when compared with the French glassmaker's art. However, Loetz glass showed potential for following in Gallé's footsteps with its display of ornate, free-blown "Octopus" vessels applied with tentaclelike slivers of opalescent glass. Within a few years of the exposition, the Loetz-Witwe works became regarded as one of the finest and most progressive producers of Art Nouveau glass in the world.

The breakthrough for Loetz came in the mid-1890s when Spaun, encouraged by successes at the 1893 Columbia World's Fair in Chicago, concentrated his efforts on developing iridescent finishes. In 1898, after several years of experimentation with reduction firing, he patented a technique to produce the deep blue or gold metallic luster that has been unrivaled. It still serves as the most identifiable and most sought-after feature of Loetz glass. Spaun celebrated with an impressive exhibition of vessels he designed for production in the new technique in Vienna, Loetz's closest and most receptive marketplace.

Vienna was a thriving imperial capital at the turn of the century with an artistic and intellectual population that tolerated the Secessionists, appointed Gustav Mahler director of the city's opera and provided clients and dreams for Sigmund Freud. The affluence of Austria and Hungary before the First World War absorbed much of the output of the Loetz factory, which reciprocated by employing or commissioning prominent members of Vienna's creative community to design vessels.

According to Michael Playford, owner of Two Zero C Applied Arts in London and an expert in Loetz glass, most Loetz glass was made to commission for outside designers, and the best pieces were produced by the union of Loetz and Viennese talent. "Several of the most progressive designers associated with the Wiener Werkstatte designed vessels which were produced at Loetz," Playford says, referring to the avant-garde decorative-arts workshops allied to the Vienna Secession Art movement, "including Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser [the Wiener Werkstatte founders], Otto Prutscher, Michael Powolny and Dagobert Peche." The appeal of Loetz derives largely from its subtlety of form, together with the advanced technical and artistic achievement in use of color. However, Playford admits that attribution to a respected designer is highly important in determining value.

The forms of Art Nouveau Loetz are as varied as the minds that conceived them and, like the most creative of minds, they are rarely dull. The principal staff designer for Loetz between 1903 and 1914 was Maria Kirschner, who was born in Prague but studied and practiced in Paris and Berlin. Kirschner favored subtle forms of elegant simplicity with little decoration beyond applied handles.

Kirschner's work contrasted with the French Art Nouveau forms, including gooseneck vases and pinched, organic shapes, sometimes applied with tendrils of iridescent glass produced from the late 1890s. Kirschner designed more than 200 vessels for Loetz, some of which are signed with her monogram--not to be confused with the capital letters mk engraved, the mark of Moser (Koloman). Her forms and scale are not unlike the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose career in glass making parallels that of Loetz and whose style shows a clear Austrian influence, perhaps learned as early as 1889, when Tiffany admired Loetz's display at the Paris Exposition. It is widely believed that glass workers from Loetz and other Bohemian factories defected to Tiffany's works in New York City, which would have been a welcome haven for emigrant artisans in the uncertain years of the early twentieth century.

In contrast to the fully evolved Art Nouveau spirit of Kirschner's Loetz, the designs by Josef Hoffman and his followers tend to be of controlled, almost architectural proportion. The combination of bold simplicity of form with vibrant, lustrous color and organic, pitted surface treatment makes the best of Loetz what Playford calls "real art glass." It is glass designed by artists of the highest order to be admired by the most sophisticated of people as works of decorative art.

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.