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The glass of Lalique
Reinventing himself in glass

At the turn of the 20th century, French-born jewellery artist Rene Lalique (1860-1945) was arguably at the peak of his popularity. His jewellery designs had won him both fame and awards and his groundbreaking use of non-precious materials was almost universally admired. Which makes it all the more remarkable that he chose that exact time to switch to the medium of glass.

Initially his glass designs were modest - glass bottles commissioned by Francois Coty and other blossoming perfumiers such as d'Orsay and Roger et Gallet - but by 1913 Lalique had established a factory near Paris where he began to produce glass vases, ornaments, lights and architectural fittings. Production expanded to a larger factory in Alsace, and throughout the 1920s and '30s Lalique undertook a number of important architectural and interior decorating projects, both in France and internationally.

Not officially lead crystal

Lalique liked the look of the glass produced at the factory near Paris. The sand was silica-rich and he chose not to add lead to his batches, despite the fact that this meant his glass could not be sold as lead crystal. The demi-crystal, as it was known, was easy to work with, inexpensive and had a milky opalescence. Lalique was drawn to glass for its unique properties, particularly its ability to transmit, reflect and diffuse light. During his working life he applied for 16 patents, four of which were related to the use of light.

More for the masses

Lalique opened his Alsace factory in 1921 so that he could produce glass that was more affordable to the masses. He used press-moulding techniques to produce some 200 vases, most of them with wide necks so that the mould could be easily removed. The end result was a vase with a perfectly smooth interior and a crisply moulded pattern to the exterior. By the 1930s the factory employed more than 600 people and was turning out glasses and goblets, carafes, bowls, plates and boxes, ashtrays and clocks.

The crème de Lalique

For just five years, from 1925 to 1930, Lalique produced the car mascots that have become the Holy Grail for collectors. Designed to replace the hood ornaments on luxury automobiles such as Bentleys and Bugattis, the designs - of which there were twenty-seven - included heads of horses, roosters and peacocks, a goldfish, a frog, nude figures and a wild boar. They were priced from £2/12.6, were illuminated from the inside and weren't small - the largest, the Spirit of the Wind which was used in the 1928 Paris Motor Salon, was 25cm long. It must have been incredibly impressive fully lit on a car bonnet at night.

Collecting Lalique

Although Lalique has never been cheap, it wasn't until the 1960s that it began to acquire a collector status and accompanying value. As academics, dealers and collectors began to research the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements of which his work was such an integral part, Lalique's glass began to rise in value. The peak, reached in the 1980s and early 1990s, was followed by a dip in collector interest when the Japanese collectors fell away towards the end of the 20th century, but the re-introduction of specialist sales in London and New York over the past few years have helped to increase values, which are determined by a range of factors that include colour, finish, subject matter, the quality of the moulding and the length of production.

Coloured Lalique glass is far less common than clear glass, and an opalescent finish is generally more desirable than a monochrome version. Other Lalique finishes include enamelled, stained, polished and acid etched. Although figural subjects are popular, the highest prices are usually paid for items that were made using the 'lost wax' process: the design was hand carved into wax and pressed into clay to create a mould, with the wax being melted out (or lost) so the molten glass could be poured in, thus destroying the original mould and making such pieces rare.

Because they were made to fit on the car radiator, it's not surprising that many of the car mascots were damaged either by careless owners or by wear and tear on the road, and unfortunately even the smallest chip will significantly lessen the value.

Many of Lalique's designs were so popular that they were produced over a number of decades; the Bacchantes vase, for example, is still in production today. And dating a piece of Lalique can be difficult; the trademarks were moulded, engraved, etched or stenciled and they were applied in a range of forms. Broadly speaking, Lalique glass produced before the Second World War is more valuable than post-war, and items produced by the modern company of Lalique Cristal struggle to find collector interest on the secondary market.

"What draws collectors is Lalique's vision of how the natural world could be brought to life," says Mark Oliver, director of 20th Century Decorative Arts for Bonhams London. "He used techniques that rely on natural or artificial light and this element of 'life' is always there if you light the pieces properly." Oliver maintains that the Lalique market remains strong internationally. "The pieces always have an investment edge," he says. "One-off pieces...can fetch from $60,000 to $400,000." But you can also own a piece of Lalique for as little $300. "What's great is that you can start a collection modestly with a pre-1939 tumbler or a small Coquilles bowl," notes Oliver.

"I look, I observe: the woman, the child, the flight of a bird . . . a tree harmonious in the light like a fish in water; suddenly, the harmony of a form, a pose, a gesture, a movement, imprints itself in my mind and does not leave, it combines with other compositional elements that I have seen; when this has been mulled over for a long time in my mind, the work is ripe, and I have only to pick it."
Rene Lalique

Ref: http://howtospendit.ft.com/art/894-lalique
Antiques Trade Gazette: Lalique by Anne Crane

This information first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit