Published: December 31, 2018
By Greg Smith
NEW YORK CITY – A new decorative arts benchmark emerged in December as Christie’s set a world auction record for Tiffany Studios, selling a Pond Lily table lamp for $3,372,500. The lamp was familiar with the achievement, having set the same record in 1989, again at Christie’s, for $550,000. According to the auction house, only 14 of these lamps are known – eight in private collections and five in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Louis Comfort Tiffany produced this model for only four years, from 1902 to 1906, with the current example dated to 1903. The work was inspired by the flora of Tiffany’s famed lily pond at The Briars, his country house on Long Island.
Antiques and The Arts Weekly asked Daphne Riou, Christie’s head of design in New York, to talk to us a little more about the lamp.
Now that this lamp has again broken the record, can you give me a sense of how important to the Tiffany canon this particular work is?
DR: The Pond Lily is one of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s most extraordinary lamp designs: at the time of its creation, it was one of the most expensive lamps available by Tiffany Studios, with a selling price of $400 on the 1906 price list. While the bronze base, modeled into the large circular leaves of pond lilies and their buds, is an elaborate version of Tiffany’s well known Lily lamp, the leaded glass shade is a technical tour de force, with a relatively narrow shoulder, steep angle downward and slightly upturned lower rim.
What are the nuances of the model that make it so desirable?
DR: This particular lamp displays an exceptional artistry in the glass selection, which would have been overseen by Clara Driscoll, head of the Tiffany’s Women Glass Cutting Department. The violet and purple streaked blue transparent glass simulating water in the background contrast with the magnificent pond lilies in shades of apricot, green streaked yellow, amber and white with hints of red and blue. The Pond Lily is a testament to Tiffany’s training as a painter and to his passion for botany.
Louis Comfort Tiffany is one of America’s greatest Twentieth Century designers, and this is the current market apex for his work. Are we looking at the finest American lighting design of the Twentieth Century?
DR: This lamp is definitely one of the finest examples of American lighting design of the Twentieth Century. In the dedicated catalog we created for the Pond Lily, Dakin Hart, curator of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, wrote an essay that brings together two design masters of the Twentieth Century: Louis Comfort Tiffany and Isamu Noguchi. He shows that while Noguchi’s light sculptures were conceived to represent the immensity of nature in the home, Tiffany’s approach, at the time, was also radical. His Pond Lily is capable of turning any surface it is on into a sheet of water, and the room around into the environs of a water garden. As Dakin Hart wrote, Tiffany lamps were meant, in their time, to work like nature, and “that is what is making them feel vital and contemporary now.”
The record came during a month that spilled over with offerings from the early Twentieth Century maker, with 98 examples of Tiffany Studios lighting offered by 11 American auction houses in December. Antiques and The Arts Weekly saw the wave coming and waited with bated breath to run the numbers.
Could the market absorb such quantity in only a few weeks? And what sold best? Let’s find out.
84.7 Percent Sold
As a whole, more than eight out of ten lamps offered found new homes. Most impressive here was Sotheby’s, who offered 21 examples and sold them all. With fewer offerings, but also at 100 percent sold, was Bonhams, DuMouchelles, Milestone, New Orleans Auction Galleries, Skinner and Toomey. Christie’s and Freeman’s passed only one, while Morphy sold 24 examples – the most of any firm in December – though they also passed 11 more.
$13,894,686 Total Sales
An extraordinary sum – almost $14 million – was paid for Tiffany Studios lighting in December. This was bolstered by Sotheby’s, which cumulatively sold the highest amount at just over $7.2 million, at an average of $345,952 per lot. It was further summed up by Christie’s with $4.1 million, and A.B. Levy’s, Bonhams and Morphy, which all sold well into the six-digits.
At And Above Estimate
Counting only examples that sold, all houses finished between or above cumulative estimates. By value, Tiffany lighting is enjoying a period of strong results.
Table lamps dominate the market, accounting for 69.9 percent of the total forms sold in December and 73.4 percent of total sales. However, floor lamps sold better against their estimates, taking 148 percent of their high estimate compared to the table lamps at 127 percent.
Damascene lamps were some of the most common offered, and the most affordable. Intricate and sought-after Dragonfly lamps were also abundant, though they averaged $154,640 per lot. Behind them in notable quantities were Tulip shades at $160,416 per lot, Peony shades at $135,666 per lot and Poppy shades at $106,416 per lot.
Christie’s record-setting Pond Lily came out on top, followed by four Sotheby’s results. With the only exception being the Trumpet Creeper shade, all other shade models listed here were unique among the auction offerings in December. The top five lamps totaled $8,502,500, or 61 percent of the total sales in our survey.
Editors note: All values provided contain buyer’s premium, as reported by the auction house. It should be noted that Tiffany Studios lamps provide a unique and difficult case study, as the maker’s bronze bases can be interchanged with others of varying quality, which will have a direct impact on sale price. Our survey included only Tiffany Studios marked pieces.
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