An expert on Tiffany Studios, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Art Nouveau decorative arts, Arlie Sulka joined the staff of Lillian Nassau in New York in 1980 and is now its owner and managing director. She has also appeared for 12 seasons as a regular appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” In November, 2010 Lillian Nassau LLC will publish its second book on Tiffany written by Tiffany scholar Martin Eidelberg. Sulka can be contacted via lilliannassau.com.
When I was an art history major in college, there were very few programs that had a concentration in the decorative arts. So when I graduated, I thought I’d be working with paintings, sculpture, and prints.In 1979, when I was working at Plaza Auction Galleries, a small auction house in New York, I met Lillian Nassau, and she asked me to work for her. I’ve learned almost everything I know on the job.
I ended up in the Art Nouveau department at Plaza because that’s where the opening was. I fell in love with the things I was working with. Mrs. Nassau could see my enthusiasm—I think that’s why she asked me to come work for her in the first place.
Tiffany is really what I like the best. Many people are not aware of how diverse Tiffany’s business was. Not only did Tiffany Studios produce windows and lamps, but also beautiful blown glass pieces and fabulous pottery, as well as metal pieces and enamels. Tiffany’s first interest was in painting, and it was something he did throughout his life, beginning in high school. Tiffany attended a military school in New Jersey, graduating around the end of the Civil War. Instead of going to college or joining his father’s business at Tiffany & Co., he went on a grand tour of Europe where he painted. Later, he became a member of the National Academy.
One of my first loves is Tiffany’s blown glass. It’s so interesting and diverse. It’s really spectacular. Tiffany made blown-glass objects from the early 1890s until the company closed in the early 1930s.
Tiffany’s initial work with glass was with windows. In the 1870s, he started to experiment at a glasshouse in Brooklyn, where he made some of his earliest opalescent windows. Blown glass came after the windows, and the leaded glass shades came after that.
The leaded glass shades are iconic. Other companies and individuals have been trying to copy them since the shades were first produced. It’s not an uncommon mistake for owners of any type of stained glass lamp to assume that their lamps were made by Tiffany. The name has become almost a generic term. I find myself constantly informing hopeful lamp owners, “You have a Tiffany-style lamp, but not an original Tiffany.”
Collectors Weekly: How can you tell if it’s an original Tiffany?
Sulka: It’s difficult and takes time to learn. Original Tiffany lamps had distinct patterns that other companies couldn’t copy. When determining the authenticity of a lamp, you have to consider the pattern, how the glass looks, how the lamp is constructed, and the casting of the base as well as its finish.
Tiffany created a large operation. He hired very talented artists and artisans. We don’t know how much of the work he actually did himself. For example, we don’t know if he ever learned how to blow glass or whether he made pottery, but he had a very large firm with very skilled people working for him. His name was on everything. Some of the advertising pamphlets from the 1890s made it sound as though he was actually doing the work, but we have no evidence to support these claims.
Collectors Weekly: Tiffany had several companies. Were there different employees for each one?
Sulka: Actually, there were several different departments and often different designers and craftspeople would work in a number of those divisions. One of the most famous employees was Clara Driscoll, who probably designed many of the floral lamps. There was an exhibition at the New York Historical Society a couple of years ago called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” The premise was that Mrs. Driscoll designed many objects for Tiffany, and he approved them before they went into production. Another prominent woman employee who worked for Tiffany, Agnes Northrop, designed many windows for Tiffany.
Women could work for Tiffany Studios, but if they became engaged they’d have to leave the firm. A married woman couldn’t work there at all. Mrs. Driscoll actually worked for Tiffany three different times. The first time she got married, so she left. After her husband died three years later, she returned. Later she became engaged again and left, but her fiancé disappeared so the engagement was essentially off, and back to Tiffany she went. She designed most of the lamps during that period. Finally, in 1909, she married again and never returned to the company.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the other artists working with Tiffany?
Sulka: Lillian Palmié and Alice Gouvy worked in the enamel, pottery, and mosaics departments. A very important window designer named Frederick Wilson also worked there.
In the mid-1890s, Tiffany was represented by an art dealer in Paris named Siegfried Bing, who had opened his gallery in December of 1895. Among the objects Bing exhibited were windows he had commissioned that were based on designs by Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard and then executed by Tiffany. The name of Bing’s gallery, L’Art Nouveau, eventually became the name for this style of art in Europe.
Collectors Weekly: How did Tiffany go from making windows to other glass objects?
Sulka: With a couple of partners, Tiffany opened an interior decorating business in the late 1870s. Each partner has a specialty, including fabrics and furniture. Tiffany’s other areas of expertise evolved within the context of his interior decorating because he was creating objects for the interiors.
Tiffany and his partners got plum commissions, such as decorating the Chester Arthur White House in 1881 and the 67th Street Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York. They also did work for Mark Twain in Hartford, Connecticut.
Tiffany was well connected and had a lot of capital behind him. His father owned Tiffany & Co., which was the jewelry and fancy-goods store. Tiffany & Co. always exhibited at the world expositions of art and industry, and Louis was allowed to exhibit his decorative art in the rooms right next to those of Tiffany & Co. He also retailed many of his objects through the Tiffany & Co. stores located in New York, Paris, London, and even Russia.
Connections aside, the quality was indisputable. Nobody could compete on his level. Tiffany had a large volume of window commissions from the 1870s until the company closed in the early 1930s. By then Tiffany had died, and the company was also going into bankruptcy. The gradual decline of Tiffany Studios was partly because of the Depression, but also because peoples’ tastes were moving toward Art Deco, a style that was more streamlined, simpler, and Machine Age inspired.
With the onset of the Depression, the demand for luxury items like those made by Tiffany was drastically reduced.
Collectors Weekly: Were Tiffany’s pieces one of a kind?
Sulka: All the blown glass pieces are one-of-a-kind because each one was individually blown. While some are similar in form and color, no two are identical. The lamps were modeled on patterns that were repeated over and over again, but no two could really be alike because the glass selection wasn’t exactly the same.
Collectors Weekly: How were the lamps priced and sold?
Sulka: At the time the lamps were being made, the shades and bases were generally priced individually. A buyer could choose a shade to go with a base. In 1906 there were more than 100 bases in all sizes and shapes. The larger shades had to have larger bases. There were also floor bases. Some lamp bases included bronze, glass, and pottery in their overall construction.
When they were first offered for sale by Tiffany Studios, the shades were not priced based on the color of glass that was used. A yellow dragonfly pattern shade and a blue dragonfly pattern shade in the same size would cost the same amount of money, even if the glass in the blue shade was more vibrant.
Today, however, the type of glass, the color of the glass, and the model of a base will affect the price of the lamp for collectors. Two examples of the same pattern shade, one in very pale colors and the other in very vibrant colors, can have two different values to collectors. The vibrantly colored shade might be double, even triple, the price of the paler shade.
Color was what interested Tiffany most. That probably comes from the fact that he was a painter first and foremost. So he was interested in color and the effects of light on color.
Collectors Weekly: Was Tiffany known for specific colors?
Sulka: Most people are just familiar with the gold and blue iridescent glass, but his best art glass was far more detailed. The glass had various textures and different colors. There was so much more than just the gold and blue.
Collectors Weekly: Was Tiffany a technological innovator?
Sulka: Yes he was. The process in which the windows and lamp shades were constructed was very innovative and complex. The glass had to be selected, cut, and copper foiled before assembling it on a wooden form. After it was soldered together, the lead on the shade would be patinated.
It was a huge process. The main operation was in Corona, Queens. There was a glass-blowing factory and a foundry there. It no longer exists.
To some degree, Tiffany viewed the lamps as more of a commercial venture, but everything he sold was really a luxury item. The average working person couldn’t afford the least expensive lamp as it could cost more than a month’s salary. When Tiffany first started making lamps, they were sold as works of art. The first lamps used fuel, but as electricity became available, Tiffany Studios started to make electrified lamps. The lamps were electrified art pieces.
Many of the early lamps were blown glass lamps because Tiffany was making glass in the early 1890s. There were blown glass shades for double student lamps and single student lamps. The ornate leaded shades came after that, with the peak period being between 1906 and 1913.
By 1913, many of the lamps were already out of production. You could order them, but the company was no longer producing them in high volume. The company’s output changed as we moved toward the 1920s. The lamps became a little simpler. Certain stained-glass lamps were still in production, but at that point, Tiffany started producing lamp bases that were meant to take cloth shades. Many of the later lamps had gold finishes.
Collectors Weekly: Who were Tiffany’s competitors?
Sulka: Tiffany sold worldwide in the same marketplace as Duffner & Kimberly, Bigelow & Kennard, Bradley & Hubbard, Pairpoint, and Handel, all of whom made quality lamps, although these companies never quite reached the level or size of Tiffany. Tiffany Studios was a very big operation, equipped to produce a large variety of objects.
Collectors Weekly: How many people would work on a typical leaded-glass lamp?
Sulka: I’m not sure of the numbers. From what we’ve recently learned, many of the women selected the glass, cut the pieces, and put the copper foiling around the edges of the glass. I think he thought women had a good color sense. There were some very talented women designers at that time, and he recognized that. At the end of the process, the men would step in to solder and assemble the lamps.
Collectors Weekly: What was Tiffany’s artistic goal for the lamps, and how did the public respond?
Sulka: Tiffany admired nature and loved flowers. He wanted to recreate the flowers in stained glass. There were other designs besides flowers, but the majority of the shades are florals. The geometric-design shades fit better in Arts and Crafts interiors. Of course, the dragonfly is one of his iconic shades.
It’s hard to know exactly how many were made because Tiffany lamps were so out of favor during the 1940s that people were taking the shades out in the streets and hammering out the glass and then selling the lead for scrap. We have no idea how many lamps were destroyed or just thrown away during that time. The lamps were just not considered tasteful in the late Art Deco period. It’s amazing how many people I meet who say, “We used to have a lamp. We never liked it. We sold it at a garage sale.” I’m sure a vast amount of them were destroyed.
Collectors Weekly: Tiffany lamps focused on a lot of the classic Art Nouveau motifs. What about his other pieces?
Sulka: There were glass flower-form vases that were supposed to look like flowers, including a popular form called Jack-in-the-Pulpit. The flower form imitated nature, which was considered to be very Art Nouveau.
Collectors Weekly: When did people really start collecting Tiffany lamps?
Sulka: There was a resurgence of interest in them in the mid- to late 1950s. There was actually a show at the Museum of Modern Art then that featured some Tiffany lamps, including a wisteria lamp that Mrs. Nassau loaned to the show. Wisteria is one of the most widely recognized Tiffany lamps.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most sought-after or well-known styles of lamps?
Sulka: Lily lamps are among the most iconic lamps. The wisteria lamp and any type of dragonfly-pattern lamp are also immediately identifiable as Tiffany.
Other companies didn’t have access to the glass that Tiffany made. His bases were fabricated out of bronze, and they were expensive to make. Many of the other companies made their bases in white metal.
Collectors Weekly: What made the glass unique?
Sulka: Tiffany’s firm made the glass, and very little was purchased from other suppliers. The flat glass was made just for the lamps and windows. As a result, Tiffany was able to incorporate many different colors in a single piece of glass without painting it. Prior to Tiffany and John La Farge, who made some very fine stained glass windows in the 19th century, variations and color for stained glass were traditionally achieved by actually painting on the glass. Usually when there is painting on Tiffany glass, it would be found in a window that had human figures—his artists would paint in the face, hands, and feet.
Collectors Weekly: What was Favrile?
Sulka: That was a term Tiffany created meaning handmade. According to Tiffany scholar Martin Eidelberg, the term was derived from the Latin “fabrilis.” It was used to describe his glass and some other objects.
It has been mistakenly assumed that only gold or blue Tiffany glass is Favrile when in fact all Tiffany blown glass is Favrile. That term is unique to Tiffany—it is only used to describe his objects and glass and not the glass of other glassblowers.
Collectors Weekly: What was Tiffany’s pottery like?
Sulka: Tiffany pottery was not in production for a long period. The more desirable pieces are based on organic forms like plants and flowers. Tiffany also produced simple forms with beautiful glazes. Some of the simpler forms were also made as lamp bases.
Lillian Nassau LLC is publishing “Tiffany Favrile Pottery and the Quest of Beauty,” by Martin Eidelberg, in November 2010. It’s going to be a wonderful book. I just read a third of the galley yesterday. We published another book, “Tiffany Favrile Glass and the Quest of Beauty,” three years ago. This will be the second in the series.
The pottery is not as well known as the glass, lamps, and windows, so it’s slightly more affordable. Most of the people who collect it are Tiffany collectors who want a comprehensive representation of all work produced at Tiffany Studios.
For example, Tiffany also made desk set pieces beginning in the early 1900s. You can collect up to maybe 40 Tiffany desk pieces in a particular pattern. That’s a nice area of collecting because it’s not as expensive as the lamps, but it’s also like a project because it can be built one piece at a time and is a wonderful area for loved ones to find gifts for Tiffany enthusiasts.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most important Tiffany pieces and collections?
Sulka: The rarest Tiffany I’ve handled would be a full-size stained-glass screen that was made specifically for the 1900 exposition in Paris. It’s a one-of-a-kind. We purchased the screen and then sold it 20 years later after having exhibited it in various museum exhibitions throughout the world.
Important collections of Tiffany are in the Metropolitan Museum; the Queens Museum, which houses part of the Neustadt collection; the New York Historical Society, who has the other half of the Neustadt collection; the Morse Gallery in Winter Park, Florida, which has many things that were salvaged from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany’s home on Long Island; the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia; and the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, Virginia. A couple of years ago, the Metropolitan Museum had an exhibition of objects that were in Laurelton Hall, many of which they borrowed from the Morse Gallery.
Collectors Weekly: Are there still objects to be discovered?
Sulka: I’m sure there are. There are things that were documented that haven’t surfaced for a hundred years. I believe they will. We’re always on the hunt. In fact, I’m having a lot of fun right now because some great things are coming out of the woodwork.
The bulk of what we purchase comes from private collectors. We’ve been in business since 1945. Lillian Nassau was really the first dealer to specialize in this area in the 1950s. Some people credit her with creating the resurgence of interest in Tiffany because she really supported the market.
So now we’re buying things Lillian sold in the 1960s. We’re getting them from estates, from the children of collectors, from the grandchildren. They all have our provenance on them, which is spectacular. It doesn’t get better than having a Lillian Nassau provenance on something we are selling the second time around.
Collectors Weekly: Have you noticed any trends among contemporary Tiffany collectors?
Sulka: Well, it never ceases to amaze me that there’s still such a tremendous interest in the lamps. Even during this period of economic instability, we continue to sell lamps. That seems to be the mainstay of the business. It’s surprising because that’s the higher end of what we carry. I also see many new collectors coming into the arena. It’s lovely to see that.
Collectors Weekly: Are there any designers who you’d consider the Tiffanys of today?
Sulka: Not if you’re talking about stained glass. There are some very competent stained glass artists working today, but they still aren’t Tiffany Studios. Many artists who are making lamps in the style of Tiffany are faithfully following the Tiffany patterns, but they still don’t have the glass. Their lamps aren’t constructed completely in the way that Tiffany would’ve constructed them. However, they are getting close.
Collectors Weekly: Are reproductions a major concern?
Sulka: They can be. Some studios are making pretty decent reproductions, and the people who run these studios are putting their names on them, so they’re not trying to deceive anyone. When there is money to be made, however, there will always be forgers.
Back in 1980 there weren’t as many forgers, but now it has become more difficult to detect fake lamps because the forgers have become more skilled. My advice is to always to buy from someone who’s reputable and knowledgeable. It can be very treacherous out there. Dishonest sellers are known to manufacture elaborate provenances about the lamps they are trying to sell that aren’t necessarily true. A buyer cannot assume that a signed lamp is an authentic lamp—in my experience, I have found that most fakes are signed.
Many of Tiffany’s shades were signed, and most of the glass was signed, but there were also unsigned pieces. The signatures varied from piece to piece. For example, the blown-glass pieces were signed several different ways, the lamp bases were stamped several different ways, and the shades were marked differently depending on their time of production. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated forgers know how to fake a variety of signatures.
Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone new to collecting Tiffany?
Sulka: Try to read as much about the subject as you can. Find catalogs from the museum shows. I’d get the Laurelton Hall catalog the Met published in 2006 ,the catalog for the exhibition “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls,” published by the New York Historical Society in 2007, and the latest catalog entitled “Tiffany Glass A Passion for Color,” published in conjunction with the exhibition by that name mounted by the Montreal Museum of Art and now on view at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond. I’d recommend our glass book, of course.
Visit as many museum collections of Tiffany as you can—just keep educating yourself. If you’re going to buy, try to find and learn from a reputable dealer. Lillian believed in educating her clients when they were buying something from her. She liked to teach people, and that is why she had such a devoted client base. I am continuing that tradition.
(All images courtesy Lillian Nassau)