The Tiffany Revival
Art Nouveau expert and antiques gallerist Ben Macklowe shares insights into the surging market for Tiffany lamps
Specializing in the intricate, finely crafted relics of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, Macklowe Gallery has been a touchstone of the New York antiques scene for nearly fifty years. Ben Macklowe, son of the founders, has helmed the family business since 2012, and his expertise in the historical decorative arts market is highly sought-after by collectors and museums worldwide. So who better to consult about the surging market for turn-of-the-century Tiffany lamps, which saw record-breaking sales in the last year? Read on for Macklowe’s insights into who’s collecting Tiffany and why.
What makes Tiffany lamps so collectible? Is there a reason we're seeing a resurgence in the market right now?
When Tiffany lamps were introduced in the 1890s, they were considered cutting-edge, modern design. Before nearly anyone else, Louis Tiffany saw that electric light would not just change the way people lived but also fundamentally alter people's sense of vision, their way of seeing. A brilliant colorist, he used electric light to bring his painterly vision into the modern home.
During his career, his designs achieved great renown, garnering award after award at watershed design events like the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. In fact, by 1900, 46 museums worldwide had acquired one of Tiffany's creations for their permanent collections. During the 50 years that we've specialized in Tiffany lamps, museums worldwide have continued to add Tiffany to their design collections. So, Tiffany has always been collectible and always will be.
Collectors often feel a tension between buying what others have already approved and wanting something innovative that reflects their personal taste. With Tiffany lamps, collectors can have it both ways, as there are an endless variety of styles that have all been recognized as central to the design canon. Furthermore, younger collectors are gravitating to Tiffany lamps as an antidote to the mass-produced, cookie-cutter West Elm-ification of what's being made today. They are looking for powerful colors and very opinionated design statements, and Tiffany lamps provide that in spades.
Are there traditionally-accepted rules for displaying and living with Tiffany lamps?
My first great client lived at the Dakota, an iconic New York building that was built in 1881. When I placed a Tiffany 18" Peony lamp in her living room, it complemented the high ceilings and original wood paneling so perfectly—it was like reuniting old friends. When Tiffany was creating homes for Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and others, there was a horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces that led to decorating every available surface. It was not uncommon to see several Tiffany table lamps in a room, with Tiffany sconces on the walls and often a Tiffany chandelier hanging in the middle of the room. The genius of Tiffany is that these never seemed de trop—rich and maximalist yes, but never suffocating.
Fast forward 125 years, and the opposite is true. Now most people seek to live in open, airy spaces with as little furniture and adornment as possible. While some of these spaces feel ethereal, to me most just look gray and empty and devoid of personality. The explosion of color and form in a Tiffany lamp is the perfect tonic for these pallid rooms. A minimalist white box practically begs for a jewel tone Tiffany Water Lily lamp.
Which Tiffany motifs tend to work well in contemporary, more minimalist spaces?
Because of the simple canvas of a modern space, almost any Tiffany lamp can work well. Tiffany Lily lamps were considered lighted sculptures when they debuted, and they continue to delight in a pared back space because of their subtle color and dynamic form. Many of our collectors seek out a canonical Tiffany lamp, and the Dragonfly design certainly satisfies that. Of course, the more geometric lamps are also a cool option for a more linear look.
What does the long-term market for Tiffany lamps look like? How do you predict they'll retain or gain value?
Simply put, Tiffany lamps are so collectible because they strike the perfect balance between beauty and innovation. We are extremely bullish on the long-term market for Tiffany lamps and feel they will continue to gain value and admirers in the years to come. Although the rarest lamps are very hard to come by, a few highly prestigious collections have come to market in recent years. And because of our reputation, we have been able to purchase some real gems. That will delight many of our newest clients who are under 50 and very interested in buying the "once in a lifetime" piece right now. In recent years, our clients are coming from as far afield as Singapore, China, Vietnam, Brazil, and Russia. These collectors share the recognition that Tiffany lamps are one of the great American contributions to the world of design, joining them with American collectors and museums worldwide. This all points to a bright future for lovers and collectors of Tiffany's artistic lighting. ◆