Tuesday, December 17, 2013
All That Glitters Isn't Always Tiffany
QUESTION: I recently bought what I thought was a Tiffany lamp. I paid several hundred dollars for it and thought it was a steal. Now I'm not so sure. I cannot find a signature on it anywhere. Can you tell me if you think it's a Tiffany?
ANSWER: Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, "You got robbed." Well, not exactly. No, your lamp isn't a Tiffany. It's not even close. But what you paid for it probably is what it's worth. And as long as you like it, that's what counts.
The sight of what looks like a Tiffany lamp sends some people into a dream-like state. Others begin to see dollar signs at the mere mention of the name. Tiffany lamps have become the Holy Grail of antique collecting for many people. To find one—to own one—is paramount to winning the MegaMillions jackpot. And there lies the rub.
Because lamps made by Tiffany Studios command such a high price, people tend to lump all stained glass lamps into this one category. They think that any stained glass lamp is a Tiffany and that they’ll be set for life. In a million-to-one shot, they just might be, but more than likely, their lamp had been made by another company. While its not a fake, neither is it a Tiffany.
Between 1895 and 1915, small factories in New York and Chicago produced a huge variety of mosaic stained glass lamps to satisfy a growing demand for stylish lighting designs to complement the new electric lamps. While Tiffany Studios set the industry standard, other companies produced excellent designs as well.
Companies such as Duffner & Kimberly and Gorham, made lamps of a quality equal to Tiffany Studios and created styles that appealed more to the Victorian taste, although on its way out, that the American middle and upper middle class preferred. Some companies, like Wilkinson, made high quality bases, and took short cuts with their shades. Others, like Unique, focused on creating complex shades and paired them with simpler bases. Many copied Tiffany’s Art Nouveau designs—in many instances almost exactly—and many copied each other.
Tiffany lamps are about the most flamboyant art objects ever produced in America. They attract celebrities, speculators, and decorators, whose buying whims have driven the Tiffany market into a frenzy and then leave it a shambles when the next fad comes along. For the last few years, the market for these wonderful leaded-glass lamps, most produced during the first two decades of this century, has been recuperating from a decade-long manic-depressive binge.
During the 1950's, a few pioneer collectors began looking at the sensuous floral lamps made by Louis Comfort Tiffany and his Tiffany Studios. Louis was the son of the founder of the famous New York jewelry firm, but for most of his life he preferred painting, the decorative arts, and interior design.
During the 1960s, interest in the lamps grew rapidly because their restless, fragmented, colorful designs fit nicely into eclectic, psychedelic decorating schemes of that time. Inflation in the 1970's drew investors, speculators, and celebrities into a market where prices sometimes doubled from year to year. Recession in the early 1980's drove those buyers from the market, and prices collapsed. Since then, prices for some lamps have moved back to, or even above, their former highs; but the market is still very selective one.
The current record price for a Tiffany lamp is the $528,000 paid in December, 1984, at Christie's in New York City for a large floor lamp with a shade in the Magnolia pattern. The lamp was one of several being sold by record producer David Geffen, who had been a major Tiffany buyer during the era of hectic growth. Although it was set long after those halcyon days, the record was more a last gasp than a portent of things to come. Today, authentic lamps made by Tiffany Studios and signed either “Louis Comfort Tiffany” or “Tiffany Studios” on the rim of the shade go for as high as $30,000. No wonder there are so many “Tiffphonies” out there. Neither of the lamps pictured here are Tiffanys.