Many of the leaded glass lamps produced by Tiffany Studios are truly iconic. First introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, they have had a strong international appeal ever since.
The ‘Pond Lily’ lamp above, for example, sold for $3,372,500 at Christie’s in New York in December 2018. Made by Tiffany Studios in the early 1900s, it was one of the costliest and rarest creations produced by the company, and retailed at $400. The lamp is one of only 14 thought to exist — five of which are in museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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.
The base can be as important as the shade — if not more so. Most were made of bronze from Tiffany’s foundry in Queens, while some were enamelled or mosaic. Bases can be interchanged with various shades, though these hybrids should never compromise the design, says Vilinsky. Many designs demand a certain base: the ’Wisteria’, for instance, always goes on the ’Tree’ base; but most ’Dragonfly’ shades can generally be placed on a variety of bases.
‘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.
One of the most valuable Tiffany lamps 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. According to the department, 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 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 members’ 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 work. 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.