Breathtaking Blooms: Phillips Could Sell a Circa 1905 Tiffany Studios Wisteria Table Lamp for $650,000

Tiffany, Wisteria Table Lamp

What you see: A “Wisteria” table lamp by Tiffany Studios, circa 1905. Phillips estimates it at $450,000 to $650,000.


The expert: Cordelia Lembo, Head of Design for Phillips in New York.


Where does the Wisteria design stand among Tiffany designs, in terms of its desirability when it was new, and its desirability now? The Wisteria lampshade’s naturalistic beauty has a broad appeal, outside of its historical and market contexts. It was one of the most popular and expensive shades in its time, and continues to be today.


How many iterations did Tiffany Studios make of this lamp? Is the table version the most popular? There are some slight variations in the shapes of the larger Wisteria table lamp shades, and then there is also the “Pony Wisteria” which is a miniaturized version.


Could you talk for a bit about Clara Driscoll, her importance to Tiffany, and how this Wisteria design testifies to her artistry? Clara Driscoll was Tiffany’s lead designer. She was behind some of his more elaborate and commercially successful shades, but it wasn’t until recent years that she has received the recognition she deserves. I highly recommend the book A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls for the full story of Clara Driscoll, her career and contributions to Tiffany. [A Wisteria lamp appears on the cover of the book.] She was a fascinating woman far ahead of her time in so many ways.


Could you talk a bit about what went into making a Wisteria? I get the impression that this shade was particularly labor-intensive. Yes, that is immediately evident in the intricate design which required around 2,000 pieces of glass. For me, the most fascinating aspect of Tiffany lamp production was the glass selection, a process in which a “glass selector” would choose the type of glass to be cut for specific placement on the lampshade. Even more than the design or glass-making processes, this is where you can see the individual perspective of the artisan.


This lamp dates to 1905. The Wisteria design was produced between 1901 and 1910. Does the date matter? Do collectors have a clear preference for Wisterias made early or late in the run? We’ve actually dated the lamp circa 1905, which is fairly standard dating for a Wisteria. Some lamps have certain indicators which, considered together, can give a more specific date within the window of production. As with some other Tiffany lamp models, the preference tends to be for earlier examples, but that is one factor among many.


How does this shade compare to other Wisteria table lamp shades that you have seen? What aspects of its color palette distinguishes it? How does its appearance testify to the skill of the pair of artisans who assembled it? What strikes me about this shade is its delicacy and realism. The glass selector clearly intended to showcase the shape of individual blossoms. The paler pannicles [individual pieces of glass] can be interpreted as either a glittering background or white and pink blossoms. My favorite part about the lamp is that as light passes through the blue and purple glass, it colors the white glass a pale blue. These kinds of subtle and almost magical effects are one of the reasons that people are drawn to Tiffany.


I see in the lot notes that the shade has a tag that has the number 342, and the base is impressed with the number 342. Does that mean the shade and the base left the factory together, and have remained together? Or could it have left the factory with a different base and had the tree base swapped in later? “342” refers to the model number. I am not sure if this base and shade are an original pairing, though that is certainly possible. It would have originally been paired with a tree base. 


Phillips handled this particular Wisteria in 2012. How has the Tiffany lamp market changed over time? Are Wisteria table lamps even more desirable now than they were six years ago? The Tiffany market is one of the strongest and most consistent categories within 20th century design. A number of other Wisterias have come to market in the last five years, some of which have achieved truly exceptional results. This means that some of the collectors who were actively seeking to acquire a Wisteria no longer are, but also that these results have established certain benchmarks and brought visibility to the market, inviting new collectors to participate. The Design department at Phillips has a track record in bringing new audiences to established categories, and we are pleased to have the chance to introduce them to Tiffany.


How did you arrive at the estimate? As with any other, we took into account other auction results for similar examples, and in this case of course the 2012 result for this particular example.


How often do Tiffany Wisteria table lamps come to auction? Approximately 2-4 a year in recent years. But each one is unique.


What is the world auction record for a Tiffany Wisteria table lamp? I believe it is over 1.5 million USD, and there are more than a few results in the high six and low seven figures.


Does the lamp work? If so, what sort of bulb does it use, and how has its wiring changed over time? Are LED bulbs recommended now? If so, do LED bulbs change the appearance of the lit shade? The lamp does work, it’s very important that it illuminate! I recommend a bulb that doesn’t emit too warm of a light. 


Why will this piece stick in your memory? For me personally, this lamp was sold in my first sale at Phillips, and so for that reason alone I will always remember it. One of the best things about working at an auction house is that sometimes we have the chance to be the custodian of certain works more than once.


How to bid: The Tiffany Studios Wisteria table lamp is lot 25 in the Design Evening Sale at Phillips on December 13, 2018.


How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.


Phillips is on Twitter and Instagram.


Cordelia Lembo spoke to The Hot Bid in 2017 about a record-setting Lucie Rie bowl.


I like Tiffany Studios lamps and all things Tiffany. I’ve written about Tiffany Studios and Clara Driscoll for Art & Antiques magazine and I did a piece for Andrew Harper Travel (now Hideaway Report) on a Tiffany Studios-themed tour of New York City.


You can buy A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls from Powell’s or your favorite independent bookstore.


Also, just sayin’: Somebody needs to do a solid period miniseries about Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls. AMC? PBS? Netflix? Get on it, please, and see the “About the Hot Bid” page to contact me and compensate me for the idea. You’re welcome.


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Phillips.


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A Unique Ceiling Light that Graced the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair Could Command $50,000 at Bonhams


What you see: A unique Torciere della Cultura ceiling light, designed by Sami El-Khazen and executed by Arredoluce between 1964 and 1965. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.


The expert: Dan Tolson, specialist in modern decorative art and design at Bonhams.


What can you tell me about Sami El-Khazen, and about how he was chosen to design the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair? I can’t seem to find much. It’s incredibly hard to get info about him. I put hours upon hours into searching. He was in Lebanon in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when it was a cultural hotbed, the right time to be there. In 1988, he passed away. He was a vital designer, an architect, an unsung hero of modernism. [As for the story of how he was chosen to design a pavilion for the World’s Fair,] I’ve done a lot of research into it and it was not something I was able to discover. There’s relatively little in the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné, too. This piece is discussed in the opening, and they talk about him, but there’s no biography.


Do we know how long he’d been working with Arredoluce when he got the nod to create that World’s Fair Pavillion? No, we don’t know that either, or how it [the World’s Fair commission] came about. He designed it and Arredoluce provided all the manufacturing expertise. Arredoluce has been around since 1930. They were at the height of their success as a company [in the mid-1960s,] at the top of their game. It’s a piece of architecture in the way it’s been designed and put together.


Was the 1964 Lebanon Pavillion at the World’s Fair El-Khazen’s crowning achievement? From what I read about him, he was not a product designer, he was an architect. This may be the only thing he produced outside of architecture.


Do period photographs of the Lebanon Pavillion survive? Yes. The way you see the lamp, it extends down almost to the floor, like a stalactite. It was spectacular. It must have been ten feet in height. It must have been the centerpiece of the pavillion.


Why did El-Khazen and Arredoluce call it the Torciere della Cultura [lamp of culture]? I think it ties into what I was saying about Lebanon. In that period, they embraced modernity. It was a way of looking forward to the future. I think that’s what it was for them. It was made to symbolize Lebanon’s contribution to civilization and was designed to look like a tower of flame – representing the spread of Lebanese culture across the globe. It was exhibited in the pavilion’s Culture Room.


And the Shah of Iran saw the ceiling light and asked to buy it in 1965, or someone representing him did? That’s my supposition. There’s no discussion of that anywhere in the book [the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné], but I imagine he attended.


The lot notes say that the ceiling light “was sent to the Arredoluce factory in Monza [Italy] where it was dismantled and re-engineered into the present smaller proportioned work.” Do we know what, exactly, the artisans at Arredoluce did to modify the piece for installation in the dining room of the Shah’s palace? No, that’s not mentioned specifically. But it tapered to the floor, so it was cut down to a more user-size scale.


And let’s just stop here and discuss why it was okay to alter the light, and what made it okay. It was still a creation of Arredoluce. It [the changes] happened in El-Khazen’s lifetime, shortly after the show, and done with his approval. The ceiling light was completely impractical as it was. It was a huge thing, made into a more usable object.


Are there any period shots that show the ceiling light installed in the Shah’s palace dining room? No, there’s no interior shots, nothing that shows it in situ. It’s surprising how little information is out there about El-Khazen. Maybe it was destroyed in the war [the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990].


So, when we’re talking about works by El-Khazen at auction… this ceiling light is pretty much it? Yes, this is it, which is why it resonates with us. As an auctioneer, it’s incredible to have something unique by a critically acclaimed company, Arredoluce, and which is shown in its catalogue raisonné. It ticks a lot of boxes. The fact that there’s not a lot known about El-Khazen makes it more beguiling. The other thing that appeals to us is it was in the 1964 World’s Fair. It was legendary at the time.


And this sold once before at auction, in 1985, but we don’t know which house sold it? No. The seller’s grandparents bought it. He does not recall where they bought it. He thinks it sold for around $70,000, which in 1985 is quite significant.


And 1985 predates most of the available online auction archives. Yes, exactly. It gets patchy even past 15 years on Artnet.


What condition is the ceiling light in? It’s in excellent condition. It was rewired for the U.S. [electrical system] in 1985, but it hasn’t been updated since then. The bulbs have not been modernized. It’s in working order, and it’s been very well-cared-for.


How many pieces comprise the ceiling light? It has about 170 individual pieces.


Are they fixed in place, or is there any play or give? No. It’s amazingly well-engineered. It tessellates together, firmly into place.


I see that it is strictly described as a “ceiling light,” never a “chandelier,” which people would expect to wiggle and sway a little. Yes, exactly. It’s quite densely packed. It’s a complex piece.


This is a unique lighting design, and it seems to be the only thing El-Khazen designed that isn’t a building. How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? We looked at comparables [somewhat similar things that sold at auction in the past] for Italian lighting–prices for rare or unique lamps by Stillnovo and Arredoluce. But you can’t be precise with something unique. It comes down to what people are willing to pay for. It’s not only unique, it’s by a top manufacturer in Italy at the time, and it has historic connections with the 1964 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of good factors that make it highly collectible, and the Middle Eastern feature makes it collectible as well. [With this,] you can’t hold out for a second. That gets people’s attention. It should really go above the top estimate.


What’s it like in person? It’s absolutely incredible. It’s got great presence. It’s obviously quite masculine, quite powerful.


Is it heavy? Very heavy. It’s bronze, nickel-plated bronze. It’s a very serious weight.


The Shah of Iran put this ceiling light in his palace dining room. Where could someone put it today? If the entryway in your home has a double-height ceiling, it would work. It’s the focal point of a room. Though it’s reduced in scale, it’s a great conversation piece to have in a modern home.


Why will this ceiling light stick in your memory? I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so unique. It speaks volumes of El-Khazen’s vision for design. It’s spectacular. There’s definitely an unwritten story somewhere.


How to bid: The unique mid-century ceiling light is lot 93 in Bonhams‘s Modern Decorative Art + Design sale on December 14, 2018 in New York.


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Arredoluce has a website (but it’s Italian-language only).


Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.


Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.