In the late 19th century Emile Gallé’s vibrant glassware helped to transform ideas of what art could be. Carina Villinger, Head of Design in New York, shares her insights into the work of the master himself and of the factory he founded
Born in Nancy, France, Emile Gallé (1846-1904) is considered by many to be the pre-eminent glassmaker of the late 19th and early 20th century. The pieces produced by his eponymous company were famous for their beautiful forms, rich colour palettes and inspired decoration, often featuring popular Art Nouveau motifs relating to nature, botany and insects.
The techniques Gallé pioneered enabled his company to create the most refined glassware on the market. Today, one of the best public collections of Gallé glass and ceramics, comprising more than 400 works, can be found at the Musée de l'École de Nancy.
Gallé was personally involved in design creation at his company, and also often oversaw the technical research it carried out. The fact that the names of the designers and craftsmen employed by Gallé are less well known than that of its founder does not affect the overall value of a work.
For a collector, the main distinction to be made is between the unique, hand-modelled pieces produced by the Gallé Company, and those executed in larger quantities.
Like René Lalique, the man and the brand are considered one and the same. Gallé died in 1904, but his factory continued to produce high-quality glass under the guidance of his friend, the painter Victor Prouvé. Works executed after Gallé’s death occasionally bear a small star next to his signature.
In the mid-1920s, the company introduced its highly coveted line of mould-blown cameo glass lamps and vases. By 1936 the factory had closed, never quite able to recapture its pre-war momentum.
Provenance is not an essential consideration when looking to acquire Gallé glass; if the piece is aesthetically pleasing and of excellent quality, it will be sought after. Of course, as with any work, a notable history can add to its value.
Gallé glass, while valuable, is also practical. Feel free to put flowers in your Gallé vase, although water should not be left sitting in it for too long. The vase should be cleaned regularly with very mild soap and water, as you would with any kind of glassware.
Gallé lamps — such as the magnificent Wisteria table lamp to be offered in Christie’s Design sale in New York on 7 June — were also meant to be used. Be careful to fit a low-wattage bulb, because too much heat can crack the glass.
As with any collectable, fakes exist. The best way to avoid them is to do your homework. Handle as many pieces as possible in order to get a feel for the glass. Study relevant books, and visit museum collections.
The best indicator of a fake? Clumsily-executed decoration that fails to replicate the grace and elegance of an original. And be sure to turn the glass upside-down: a base that is too flat or too smooth may be cause for concern.
The condition of a piece of glassware can greatly affect its value. For Gallé glass, a crack can be deadly; a chip, which may be easier to repair, can still significantly devalue a piece.
The market for Gallé glass is international and consistent, attracting collectors from around the world. The best way to start your own collection may be with small objects of the sort that were executed in larger quantities. Beautiful glassware can be found for $500; the very best pieces can sell for more than $100,000. Limited in number, these artistic, handmade works are sure to hold their value.
The Gallé company also produced ceramics and furniture, and these can often be found at lower price points than glassware.