Artist Louis Comfort Tiffany will go down in history as the man who made glass magical.
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A Collector's Dream
Mooning over a Tiffany and owning one are two separate things. The pieces became hot commodities again in the 1950s when the Museum of American Craft in New York City (now The American Craft Museum) held a retrospective of Tiffany's work. Suddenly dealers were combing Grandma's attic, and Tiffanys have sold for as much as $2.5 million. Most of the floral leaded-glass shades sell for $30,000 to $150,000, although the simpler geometric ones can start at a mere $15,000. The lamps with rounded blown -glass shades and bronze bases start at about $5,000. In fact, all Tiffany's work is pricey. But for those who can scratch together the fee, the investment is worth it, says dealer Harry Wallace: "The value just keeps going up and up."
If you're serious about purchasing a Tiffany, the first step is to visit galleries, dealers and auction houses that have Tiffany pieces. Says Harry, "Get books, study the patterns, go into the top stores and decide what you want depending on price." And don't lose a moment's sleep wondering how a Tiffany might blend with your decor, says Gary E. Baker, curator of glass at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.: "Even in a sleek room, a naturalistic Tiffany lamp makes a fabulous focal point. Tiffany fits in today's eclectic look very well."
Once you're ready to buy, check out the piece and the dealer. "Deal only with someone who has a good reputation," says Lary Matlick, vice president of the Macklowe Gallery in New York, one of the foremost dealers in Tiffany art. "The dealer should be willing to teach you all the tricks he uses to make sure the pieces are authentic."
Identifying a true Tiffany is not simple; a signature or markings are easily falsified, and imitations are common. "One favorite trick is to use a good piece of modern studio glass imitating Tiffany, grind off its signature and mark it LCTFavrile or LCTiffanyFavrile," Gary says. "I can't tell you how many people have brought me things from flea markets that are marked as Tiffany but that aren't." The best plan is to ask the dealer for the original documentation authenticating the piece and to tote it to an independent appraiser.
To find one, go through Sotheby's (www.sothebys.com) or Christie's (www.christies.com), auction houses in New York, or call the American Society of Appraisers in Herndon, Va., 703-478-2228. If you're lucky enough to find a Tiffany you can afford, latch on. As designer Michael Payne says, "It's a piece of beauty that will last a lifetime."
Tiffany's experimentation and intense creativity led him to develop new colors and leading and heating techniques. Perhaps as remarkable as his creative genius was his skill in directing an assembly of craftsmen and artists who crafted everything from glass to bronze, furniture, fabrics, enameling and jewelry. He even developed wooden molds and numbered templates for the lampshades, which enabled craftsmen to reproduce his designs in a seemingly endless variety of colors and glass textures. Here are some of his other breakthroughs:
- Extraordinary Color: Tiffany was the first to color glass with metal oxides, a method that yielded a range of 5,000 colors, formulas whose secret he guarded. "It was not only the hue he came up with but the colors within a hue," says Tiffany dealer Lary Matlick. "Within a hue of red, say, there was orange-red, yellow-red, blood-red. And by choosing different colors within a hue, Tiffany could create a flow of color," he says. "When you look at a good Tiffany lamp, you see not one color but continuous movement and variations within that same color."
- Favrile: During travels abroad, Tiffany became fascinated with the iridescent quality of ancient Roman and Persian glass. He and others during the Art Nouveau period — a late-19th century burgeoning of decorative arts in Europe and the United States — mimicked the ancient metallic sheen by applying chemicals, primarily metallic salts, to the glass surface. Tiffany patented his variations on the process, naming his glass "Favrile" from an old-English word meaning "made by hand." His Favrile vases, shaped like yawning flowers or slender stalks, stretch out from glass heated, colored and shaped repeatedly — in as many as 20 different phases — winding into sinuous forms that seem almost alive.
- Copper Foil: Tiffany bought the patent to a new process — copper foil placed around the edges of each piece of glass — allowing him to use a thinner lead line between glass segments, one he could incorporate into the design.
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