What you see: A Tiffany “Pebble” table lamp, dating to circa 1904. Christie’s estimates it at $100,000 to $150,000.
The expert: Daphné Riou, head of the design department at Christie’s New York.
What sort of reputation did Tiffany Studios have at the turn of the last century, when this table lamp was made? Louis Comfort Tiffany was considered one of America’s most important artists. He was, himself, a member of elite society, creating for the elites. He didn’t create for everyone.
This is a good place to point out that while table lamps are necessities today, that wasn’t true in the early 20th century–electricity was not widely available. Yes. Tiffany lamps were about technology as much as beauty. The shades were created to be works of art, but they were useful objects.
How do we know that the Tiffany Pebble lamp design was probably one of the first Tiffany lamp designs? There are two magazine articles that help us establish the timeline of the Tiffany Pebble lamp. One was written in 1897 and the other in 1899, and both referenced Pebble windows. The Tiffany Pebble lamp was a natural offshoot of these windows.
The promotional material from Christie’s describes Tiffany Pebble lamps as “exceedingly rare”. What makes them so? We don’t know how many Tiffany Pebble lamps were made, but very few have appeared on the market in the last five decades. One reason they’re so rare is their creation required extraordinary skill and a great eye. They [the Tiffany artisans] had to select pebbles and cut them. What’s remarkable about this shade is each pebble was cut in half–the exterior is round and soft, and the interior is flat. Some probably broke during cutting. It was a very delicate process.
…so Tiffany didn’t have a few of these lamps finished and sitting in a warehouse, ready to go. They were probably only produced on request. It was a highly sophisticated shade model.
I imagine if a pebble broke during the cutting process, it was a real pain finding a replacement… Exactly. They had to select the pebbles, and they didn’t have a huge selection.
Might the loss or replacement of a pebble require reshuffling the pebbles and glass that surrounded it? Potentially. That’s why selecting pebbles and glass for the shades was such a complicated process. It required a great eye.
Would Clara Driscoll have designed the Tiffany Pebble lamp? Would her team of Tiffany girls have assembled the shades? It’s not known as a Driscoll design, but it’s possible the Tiffany girls assembled the shade. They had the eye, and they had smaller fingers which were more readily able to handle tiny pieces of glass.
We know from period catalogs that the Tiffany Pebble lamp cost $100 in 1906. How does that price compare to other Tiffany lamp designs offered then? Comparing it within Tiffany prices, it was relatively expensive. The [shades with] geometric shapes, which were much more common and simple, cost $25. The Wisteria lamp cost $400. The highest was the Lotus lamp, which was $750.
The Tiffany Pebble lamp was offered until 1911. How fair is it to consider the design a dud? Or did Tiffany Studios just not call much attention to it? It was a very subtle and sophisticated model that didn’t appeal to everyone.
Do all Tiffany Pebble lamps share the same orange-rust-cream-white-beige palette we see in this example, or did they vary? The palette of the shades are the same, but there are very subtle variations. The pebbles came from the same source, and the colors reflected the natural hues of the pebbles. They are pebbles from the beach.
Wait–they are literal pebbles? Like, rocks? I thought “pebbles” was a Tiffany Studios house term for a type of textured glass that was made to look like pebbles. They are actual pebbles that Tiffany and his children picked from the beach. That’s why they’re difficult to cut. They’d gather them from the shoreline, so there was a limited supply.
Wow, this lamp must have been a pain-in-the-butt to make. Exactly, but it reflects the aesthetics of found objects–Tiffany would incorporate found objects in his designs.
How did Louis Comfort Tiffany find out that he could cut beach pebbles just thin enough for light to glow through them? That’s part of his creative process. That’s what the genius of Tiffany is. In some of his earliest designs, he was basically constructing the design around pieces of glass that had flaws in them–pieces that commercial glass houses might reject. Here, it was pebbles, which you wouldn’t normally think about.
The Tiffany Pebble lamps share the same general color palette. Does this one differ from other examples in any notable way? The pebbles around the lower edge are a little bigger. It makes the flower blossoms even more distinctive, and you can make out the patterns in individual petals. When you look at other Tiffany Pebble lamps, you see pebbles first. Here, you see flowers.
Is it possible to know how many pebbles were used in the shade for this Tiffany Pebble lamp? I haven’t really counted, but it’s an extraordinarily intricate pattern.
Was the Tiffany Pebble lamp always and only a table lamp, or did Tiffany Studios produce it in other forms? It’s known as being a table lamp, but there are variations in the diameter of the shade. Ours is 18 inches in diameter, and the smallest we know of is 10 inches.
How does the Tiffany Pebble lamp show the mastery of Louis Comfort Tiffany and those who worked for him? It was a tour-de-force and highly experimental at the time. They used the leaded cane used by stained glass workers to hold glass together. Here, it holds pebbles together, which is even more remarkable.
So they couldn’t have been sure that the technique would translate from glass to pebbles? They were experimenting all the time with glass and leading. I don’t know the genesis of how they tried to get the leading to hold pebbles, but we can assume it was an experimental and inventive process.
Is this Tiffany lamp on its original base? The thing to know about Tiffany lamps is the bases and shades were swapped all the time. This is not on its original base, but the shape of the base compliments the shade.
What is the Tiffany Pebble lamp like in person? What’s incredible, and quite specific to Tiffany lamps, is whether it’s illuminated or not, it’s extraordinary. When it’s illuminated, the pebbles are even more translucent. When it’s not illuminated, it still has a very strong presence, with strong colors.
Have you touched the shade on the Tiffany Pebble lamp? When you touch it, it has a very tactile aspect. The pebbles are very smooth. You don’t get that when you touch another glass lampshade by Tiffany.
Is this Tiffany lamp heavy? It’s not heavy, and no, it’s not heavier than a leaded glass shade. The pebbles are cut in half.
How is the Tiffany Pebble lamp lit? With LEDs (light-emitting diodes)? We select the bulbs. I think, for this lamp, we used LEDs to light it. We experiment with different types of bulbs so the illumination is the best.
What condition is the Tiffany Pebble lamp in? Overall, this lamp is in very good condition. In others, the pebbles may be loose or have cracks or chips, or they may be dirty. That’s not the case with our shade. Some might be cracked, but very few.
And a few cracked pebbles here and there–that’s to be expected with a Tiffany lamp of this vintage? Absolutely. The condition is very good, considering its age and the change of hands [ownership] over the course of the century.
How rarely do Tiffany Pebble lamps appear at auction? I can’t give you a precise number, but there have been fewer than ten over the past 50 years.
What’s the world auction record for a Tiffany Pebble lamp? It was set in 2015 at Sotheby’s by a lamp that sold for $760,000.
Is there any chance this one might meet or beat the record? No, I don’t think it will beat the record. I do think it will generate excitement–it’s a rare lamp in good condition. The record lamp was on a blown-glass base. That’s not the case with our shade.
Why will this Tiffany Pebble lamp stick in your memory? For Tiffany’s ingenuity and his innovative spirit, and the innovative use of found materials. It shows Tiffany’s love of nature. That’s why it’s a stunning example, a stunning lamp.
How to bid: The Tiffany Pebble lamp is a featured lot in Important Tiffany from the Collection of Mary M. and Robert M. Montgomery, Jr., a sale scheduled at Christie’s for December 11, 2020.
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