An icon of turn-of-the-century American design, the Tiffany lamp’s timeless appeal makes it highly sought after by collectors today. The classic floral and geometric creations, pioneered by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the 1890s, gained prominence on the global stage as part of the international Art Nouveau movement. Painstakingly cut and joined together by hand, each leaded glass lampshade is unique.
Louis Comfort Tiffany — not to be confused with his father Charles Tiffany, who founded the renowned jewellery house Tiffany & Company — was an artist, decorator and designer. ‘He was a young man from a wealthy New York family who wanted to be an artist, so he travelled to Europe,’ explains Sandberg. ‘When he returned he was very interested in glass and interiors, and he got together with some of his artist friends and started a decorating firm in 1879.’ Tiffany’s nascent firm received a number of important commissions from private clients, and even the White House. It was not until the 1890s, however, that Tiffany turned his full attention to glass objects and lamps, and the firm became known as Tiffany Studios.
Once the designs had been created the men and women of the workshop spent hours selecting pieces of glass to fit the pattern, making hundreds of decisions every time. ‘That’s how you get different qualities in each lamp — no two shades are the same,’ says Sandberg. Each piece would then be carefully leaded together with copper foil and built up on a wood mould to create the domed shade.
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, New York, while some featured enamelled and mosaic bases that attract the highest prices. They can also be interchanged with various shades, although 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 switched on to a variety of bases. You have to judge the overall aesthetic, and proportion is important. You can’t put a giant shade on a tiny base.’
‘Rewiring is perfectly acceptable and does not affect the value if done sensitively,’ says Sandberg. 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 incongruous new sockets that can lower the estimate.
Tiffany Studios, A leaded glass, bronze and mosaic ‘Lotus’ lamp, circa 1900-1910. 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,’ Sandberg explains. ‘It has a lot of unusual elements to its design, including a beautiful and spectacular mosaic base.’ Less rare models can be bought for as little as $3,000.
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 Sandberg. ‘Even Tiffany’s rivals made similar designs, but you start to see more reproductions in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.’ 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. ‘I let the lamp speak to me,’ Sandberg says. ‘I’m looking at the glass, the level of artistry and execution, the patina, the age, the dirt — dirt is very important, I want there to be 100 years’ worth of dirt on that lamp! It gets down in the cracks — you can’t fake that.’
At the time of their creation the lamps were very fashionable among New York society and are still highly sought after by collectors today. Tiffany lamps work in all sorts of settings, not just homes filled with antiques. ‘What’s great about them is their flexibility,’ says Sandberg. ‘I’ve seen these lamps displayed to great effect in very spare, modern interiors, which is not how most people think of them. A Tiffany lamp is classic enough to mix well with any number of styles.’
‘Lamps are easier [to collect] because anyone can buy one, put it on the table and plug it in, whereas Tiffany’s beautiful chandeliers and sconces require a little bit more planning and you have to have the right space for them,’ says Sandberg. The studio was also known for producing glass windows — many of which can still be seen in churches around the U.S. — mosaics, enamels, vases and objets d’art, which can be widely found on the market.