Design specialist Beth Vilinsky illuminates the origins of the lamp and advises on what to consider when buying
The leaded glass lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Tiffany Studios are truly iconic. First introduced in the late 1890s, they have continued to appeal to collectors around the world. Tiffany’s major source of inspiration was nature in all its guises, and his love of flowers is superbly reflected in his lamp designs.
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) — not to be confused with his father Charles Tiffany, who founded the renowned jewellery house Tiffany & Company — was an artist, decorator and designer. ‘After successful careers as a painter and interior decorator, Louis decided to shift focus onto the design and production of stained glass windows,’ explains Beth Vilinsky, Design specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘His leaded glass lamps were a natural offshoot. His factory, located in Queens, New York, produced these and a wide variety of other decorative objects for almost 40 years.’
Tiffany hired some of the finest artisans in the United States to realise his aesthetic vision in leaded glass. Lampshade construction was a laborious process, with each small section of glass carefully selected from the thousands of sheets available to the men and women in the cutting departments. ‘The finest lampshades exhibit a wonderful harmony of diverse colours, with subtle tones in an intricate pattern,’ says Vilinsky.
It’s not just the shade that’s important — the base is also a key part of the design. Most were made of bronze from Tiffany’s foundry in Queens, while some featured enamelled or mosaic bases. They can be interchanged with various shades, though these hybrids should never compromise the design, explains the specialist. Many designs demand a certain base; the wisteria, for instance, always goes on the tree-trunk base, but most dragonfly shades can generally be placed on a variety of bases. ‘The overriding factor in matching a shade and base is the appearance of the overall piece,’ says Vilinsky, ‘particularly in terms of proportion and shape. A large shade on a small base, or vice versa, would be incongruous.’
‘Rewiring is perfectly acceptable and does not affect the value if done sensitively,’ says Vilinsky. It’s important to ensure the lamp can be used safely, but collectors should be wary of scratching the original patina on the base, or of using new sockets that can lower the value of the piece.
Tiffany Studios, A leaded glass, bronze and mosaic ‘Lotus’ lamp, circa 1900-10. 34¾ in (88.3 cm) high, 28 in (71.1 cm) diameter. Sold for $2,807,500 on 12 December 1997 (World record for any work of Tiffany Studios)
The most valuable Tiffany lamp ever sold reached $2.8 million at a Christie’s auction in 1998. ‘The "Pink Lotus" lamp is a very rare form and few survive today,’ Vilinsky explains. ‘It has a lot of unusual elements to its design, including a beautiful and spectacular mosaic base.’ More common Tiffany leaded glass models can be found starting at around $5,000 for an attractive ‘geometric’ lamp.
As with any antique it’s important to look at a lamp’s condition. ‘The object is 100 years old, so I don’t expect perfection,’ the specialist explains. ‘Typically a few cracks are completely acceptable. It’s a little bit different if a shade falls over or is missing pieces of glass. When I first started at Christie’s I sold a lamp from a private member’s club in Cleveland. The gentlemen would practise golf shots in the club and they hit the lamp repeatedly, so it had numerous circular indentations in the shade. It was on a spectacular base though, so it still brought almost $400,000, even after all it had suffered!’
It’s important to inspect the lamp for signs of restoration, although these can sometimes be hard to detect, especially if done well. Older restorations tend not to be as neat, clean and seamless as newer restorations. Good restoration may not affect the value of a piece. But as with any antique, the more original parts the better.
‘There are many fakes out there, of varying degrees of quality,’ says Vilinsky. ‘Even Tiffany’s rivals made similar designs, but you start to see more reproductions in the 1970s.’ It can be very hard to tell a good fake from an original, and while the lamp may be marked ‘Tiffany Studios’, this is no guarantee of originality. A specialist will always look closely at the lamp’s design and condition to determine its value. ‘Each lamp requires close scrutiny,’ says Vilinsky. ‘I examine the leading, patina, pattern, casting of the bronze base and, most importantly, the type and quality of the glass used. Some reproductions are actually quite easy to spot. But often a trained eye is necessary.’
Tiffany lamps were very fashionable among New York society at the time of their creation, and are still highly sought after by collectors today. They work in all sorts of settings, not just antique-filled homes. ‘These lamps are unique works of art, just like a painting or sculpture,’ says Vilinsky. And, like a painting or sculpture, a Tiffany lamp ‘can be a room’s focal point.’
Tiffany Studios is perhaps best known for its leaded glass lamps, but it is interesting to note that Louis Tiffany was probably most proud of his blown glass vases and leaded glass windows. The company’s mosaics, ceramics, enamels and fancy goods were also widely acclaimed and are highly sought after by today’s collectors.