The Art of Gallé

By Nicholas M. Dawes | From Cigar Case, Summer 93
The Art of Gallé

How much would you pay for a table lamp shaped like a mushroom? If you were the anonymous bidder at Sotheby's New York on December 2, 1989 who went home with an impressive but badly damaged glass and metal lamp entitled "Les Coprins, "you paid $1.1 million. This extraordinary lamp, of which six examples are known to exist, is widely considered the finest work by Emile GaIIé, who was active as a designer and maker of ceramics, furniture and, principally, art glass, from 1874 until his death in 1904.

On the other hand, you might also be one of the unfortunate, like a private collector in New York whose collection of 31 outstanding examples of GaIIé glass was offered by Sotheby's New York on June 11, 1992. After a tense 45 minutes, only 16 pieces were sold for a total of just over $1 million. The low estimate for the collection was over $2.5 million.

But in those two examples lies the truth in the GaIIé market: Prices today are as affordable as they've been in recent years. And, it wasn't all that long ago when the mushroom lamp was sold, giving investors a genuine price standard for Gallé's works. That world record auction for "Les Coprins" still stands, which is not surprising given the global recession that has depressed prices since 1990. But it was the culmination of a heady ascent in the value of objects by Emile GaIIé which had begun over a decade earlier.

Only the artistic--as opposed to the popularly produced--Emile GaIIé is unique. Popular production models such as the "Elephant" vase, which was made throughout the 1920s, appear regularly at auction, and their performance is a sound gauge of market interest. Barbara Deisroth, who is head of Twentieth Century Decorative Arts for Sotheby's in North America, remembers the first Elephant vase in a specialized Sotheby's sale of 1978, a pioneer year for collecting art glass. It sold for $26,000. The model appeared in auction catalogs several times over the next ten years, its massiveness warranting a full-page spread. In November 1987, Christie's New York sold two examples de-accessioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The two fetched a total of $69,000. The museum should have kept them. Less than a year later, Sotheby's sold one for $170,500, and as the market peaked on December 1, 1990, two lucky consigners saw their Elephant vases bring $187,000 (for a conventional example) and a whopping $346,500 (for a rare, white glass example).

Emile GaIIé worked in the town of Nancy, capital of the French province of Lorraine and home to a glass industry since the Renaissance. His talent and enthusiasm were inherited from his father, Charles Louis Edward GaIIé, a potter and glassmaker who had settled in Nancy in 1844. Much of Emile Gallé's early work is in earthenware, typically of tin glaze type (called faïence, a French term for earthenware decorated with opaque-colored glazes) or of the lustrous, thickly glazed barbotine ware. Very little of Gallé's earthenware reaches values above $5,000 today, and most is in conventional historical taste.

From about 1885, GaIIé worked in exotic woods and marquetry veneers, providing a legacy of cabinets, small tables, chairs, pedestals, boxes and the like, which are among the highest-quality examples of the Ecole de Nancy, or the Nancy school of Art Nouveau furniture. Some of Gallé's furniture is a little too close to the opulence of rococo for modern taste, and many later examples are uninteresting and of lower standards. Even the best prices rarely command as much as $50,000, and an ordinary side table changes hands for less than $2,000.

Emile GaIIé was remarkably prolific as a glass artist during his lifetime but was nominally responsible for an even greater amount of commercial glass produced in the years following his death, in 1904, until the firm closed in 1935, and all output ceased. The overwhelming majority of Gallé's glass made after 1904 is of overlay type. While impressive examples can reach prices in the low six figures, mundane vases, often sparsely patterned with Art Nouveau flora (significantly passé by the 1920s), can be found today for a few hundred dollars. "We sell them by the inch," quipped a New York dealer, pointing to a ten-inch vase priced at $1,000.

You have to pay over $ 10,000 an inch, however, for a good example of marqueterie de verre, a complex technique that GaIIé pioneered during the 1890s which involves pressing colored glass elements into a glass object in a semi-molten state and rolling it to achieve smoothness. Other characteristically "GaIIé" techniques include the engraving or application of romantic verse onto glass vessels. Such wares are termed verrerie parlante (talking glassware) or vases de tristesse (vases of sadness, when the inscriptions evoke misery and gloom).

GaIIé was a protagonist of the Art Nouveau movement, a uniquely French form of Romanticism which helped ease nineteenth-century France into the twentieth century. Modern collectors have concentrated on his work in glass, paying particular attention to pieces made during his lifetime that illustrate his command of marqueterie de verre.

The earliest evidence of modern respect for the French genius was in December 1980, when a marqueterie de verre and wheel-carved coupe patterned with a languid dragonfly sold at Christie's New York for an eye-opening world record of $250,000. The dragonfly coupe eventually found a new home in Japan, a country whose artistry had strongly influenced GaIIé during his formative years and early on in his career, and whose collecting frenzy targeted GaIIé a century later.

"There are hundreds of collections of GaIIé," notes Barbara Deisroth, "relatively few of which are in Europe, although European collections are rich in artistic pieces." Auctioneers and the few specialist dealers in the United States, Europe and Japan who handle GaIIé agree that before 1988, virtually all collectors of GaIIé were American. Deisroth observes that between 1988 and 1991, the vast majority of GaIIé which appeared on the market was purchased by Japanese collectors or their representatives, many of whom concentrated on artistic pieces.

The collections formed in Japan in the heady years of the late 1980s were as speculative as they were spectacular. "Some pieces have dropped off as much as fifty percent over the last three years," says Deisroth.

"The decline in Japanese interest in GaIIé since 1991 is not entirely discouraging," continues Deisroth, who is optimistic about the activity of new collectors entering the market, which has clearly peaked and is therefore peppered with attractive prices. Almost all of the new buyers have been American (North and South), a trend evident at a Christie's New York sale in December of last year in which a good selection of decorative GaIIé was dispersed, including an Elephant vase which went to a collector from the United States at a very respectable $140,000.

Gallé's popularity has precipitated a wide variety of forgeries over the last decade. The best examples include imitations of marqueterie de verre made in France by glass artists of undeniable ability. These are convincing to all but the most educated eyes, and several have appeared in the sumptuous color illustrations of major auction catalogs, only to be discreetly withdrawn prior to going under the hammer. The vitreous nature of glass renders it easy to cut and polish on a wheel, and it is not uncommon to find authentic works by GaIIé which have been cleverly altered to disguise damage. Other deceptive alterations include the application of glass elements, such as dragonflies or similar japonaiseries, onto signed GaIIé vessels of plain origin. Forgeries such as these are much more difficult to detect than the conventional fake; typically an authentic Gallé-style piece made by an inferior glassworks has been given a GaIIé "signature." Some Art Nouveau marquetry furniture has been treated in this fashion.

The most common category of fakes, however, is the modern, simulated overlay glass vase or table lamp, which can be found at interior design stores of all types, including department stores. Most of these are made purely as decorative objects and not intended to deceive the buyer, but some feature simulated signatures and are commonly misrepresented by unscrupulous dealers or auctioneers.

It has been said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it is unlikely that Emile GaIIé would have shared this sentiment. Undoubtedly, however, he would be impressed and flattered by the extraordinary attention and value given to his work from an international audience of admirers.

Nicholas M. Dawes is a New York antiques dealer and the author of Lalique Glass.