RESTORING ORIGINAL TIFFANY SHADES
by Paul Crist, August 2007
In the current business-friendly economy, the rich are getting even richer (while the rest of us are getting poorer) and they appear to be spending their money like there’s no tomorrow. In fact, the market for all luxury goods is doing very well these days and the prices for high-end Tiffany leaded lamps seem to set new records every time there’s a sale at one of the New York auction houses. For example, a good 22” Peony that brought gasps when it sold for $25,000. in the early ‘80s, would now have dozens of eager buyers willing to drop $250,000. to 300,000. in a New York minute! Another example- a Tiffany decorated senior floor base recently sold for $80,000.- and that’s just for the base- no shade! The problem is that there aren’t nearly enough good Tiffany lamps- especially florals- around to meet the demand of this pumped-up market, forcing dealers and auctioneers to scramble to come up with anything that might spark their customers interest. In this environment, restoration has become a vital resource and we at Paul Crist Studios are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time- along with having an unchallenged reputation in our field. The goal in all restoration is to make the repair undetectable and this is something we have become very good at. In almost 40 years in business, I cannot remember a time when demand for our services has been this strong.
The truth is that nobody who collects Tiffany today wants a repaired shade or even one with a lot of cracks. As far as cracks go, small corner cracks seem to be ok, but if the cracks go across the central area of the piece and there are very many of them, the desirability of the shade is definitely lessened. A statement in a recent issue of the Grind that cracks in up to “30% or more” of the glass pieces in a Tiffany shade do “not cause any loss in the value of the shade” is incredible, to say the least. In my experience, all collectors are very concerned about the number of cracks in their shade and they often insist that even ones that I consider acceptable be “removed.” They want their shade as perfect as possible. An answer to the question of how many cracks are acceptable can vary a lot depending on a number of factors, but I would have to say that on average when the number of significant ones reaches eight or ten, we are starting to have a real problem. When approaching a shade restoration, one of our first steps is to glue up the cracks, using a special proprietary process that does not involve removing the cracked pieces from the shade and thus does not negatively affect the value. This is often effective on over half of the cracks, though it does not do much good on ones where the glass has separated (allowing light through), where dirt has penetrated into the crack or where there has been further material loss attendant to the crack. In the first two cases, the glass tile can usually be removed from the shade, cleaned, glued and reset, but in the latter case replacement is often the only option. Pieces with multiple cracks almost always have to be replaced, unless the glass is spectacular.
Replacement of glass in a Tiffany shade brings us squarely back to the issue of its impact on value. Granted that everyone is looking for a lamp in mint condition, disclosure that a shade has been restored will all too often kill the sale. The problem with the Tiffany market is that it is a relatively new phenomenon- when compared to say French Empire furniture or Impressionist paintings. Both of these markets have been around long enough for collectors to understand that the supply is limited and that restored pieces are an unavoidable and acceptable part of the genre. A lot of Tiffany collectors- especially newer ones- don’t seem to have arrived at that point yet; they still expect perfect. As a consequence, sellers are extremely reluctant to talk about repairs and some won’t bring the subject up unless pointedly asked. We of course have no way of knowing how our repairs are represented once they leave the studio, but it would not surprise me if our efforts are often overlooked, minimized or even outright denied. Thus the question of how much repair is acceptable is not even out of the closet at this point. The Tiffany market is still a lot like the Wild West, where it’s often hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys and every man must fend for himself. Prudent collectors, especially if they are fairly new to the game, are well advised to have the piece vetted by an independent expert before they lay their money down.
Fortunately for collectors, a lot of the repaired shades around today are fairly easy to spot. Work done in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, when prices were still reasonable and the market was relatively naïve, often tends to be somewhat slipshod. Many dealers in those days simply relied on their local stained glass studio to take care of their shade problems. The results, as one might expect, run the gamut from fairly competent to just plain awful. My favorites are the repairers who, in an effort to keep the patina on the outside of the shade intact, cut away the lead on the inside of the shade and removed and replaced the piece that way. You can imagine how much effort it would take to carefully carve out the leading and duplicate the exact shape of the original piece, including all of the little edge irregularities left from grozing. And, after the replacement piece fit perfectly, they would still have the problem of uneven surfaces (from the glass being rolled out on an iron table), which never seem to match up. Addressing this discrepancy without damaging the surface of the leads is nigh impossible, so the restorer is left with noticeable gaps under the outside lead lines, which are typically filled in with putty. All that work and in the end the repair is very easy to spot!
Undetectability then, rather than the number of pieces replaced, is the grail of restoration today. In approaching a restoration, patina and glass are the two main areas that we concentrate on- taking for granted, of course, that the soldering job will be done in a professional and “Tiffany-like” manner. The destruction of original lead lines must be kept to a minimum, because there’s no way to chemically reproduce the look of a 100 year-old patina, with its variety of colors, wear, staining and blemishes. The best any restorer can hope for is to generally reproduce the overall color of the original patina with chemicals and then use paint to add in any subtleties of the original finish. The painting of lead lines can be a very meticulous and time-consuming process and constant care must be taken to avoid getting paint on the glass (a dead give-away). The more of this touch-up that has to be done, the more expensive the bill becomes, the more likely it is to make mistakes and the easier the repair is to detect. Based on these factors, as a rule of thumb, we won’t recommend this remedy if the repaired surface makes up more than 10% to 20% of the shade. In the case of more extensive restorations, we know from experience that it is usually necessary to re-plate and patina the whole shade, so we only go ahead with the repair with the customer’s full understanding and acceptance of the fact that, independent of how good the glass match is, this course of action will probably negatively affect its final value.
Replacing glass presents a more daunting problem for the restorer. In our experience, taken as a whole, only about 70 to 80% of the glass Tiffany used in his shades was actually made at Corona. The rest of it he bought from the commercial manufacturers of the time- Heidt, Dannenhoffer, Kokomo, Clarksburg, etc. This (what we call “commercial”) glass looks very much like the glass made today by Kokomo or Wissmach, except that the ingredient colors in the old glass tend to be somewhat more intense. It is often possible to find a good match with modern glass or old salvage, which we avidly collect. You’d be surprised, though, how often an ordinary commercial amber glass tile in the repair shade is just a little pinker or grayer or denser than any one of the twenty varieties of amber we have at hand. As a rule, floral shades are easier to repair, because they can tolerate the glass color or character being a little bit off from the original piece. Geometrics are the toughest, because, if the replacement piece is just a smidge different from the overall fabric in terms of hue, value or density, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Tiffany’s Favrile glass presents a whole new level of challenges. As I discussed in my book Mosaic Shades II, Tiffany didn’t have to concern himself with reproducibility in his glass production and was thus able to constantly experiment with the gamut of complex glass color chemistry. In fact, most of the glass that he produced is in “off-colors” that weren’t made in any other factory. In practice, this glass is often very frustrating and often nigh impossible to match. (Fortunately, Paul Crist Studios has a significant stock of original Tiffany glass to work with and this has been an important factor in our garnering a lot of repair work.) The other big problem with matching Tiffany glass lies in the nature of the opacity, particularly the mottles. In Tiffany’s time, cryolite (a mineral mined in Greenland) was used to introduce flourine (which produces the opacity and the mottles) into the glass. Because it is a natural substance, cryolite is usually contaminated with a number of undesirable elements (particularly iron) which result in the relatively gray reflected surface that is a defining characteristic of Tiffany’s glass. Modern art glass manufacturers use sodium silico-floride, a pure chemical that produces a very white opacity, both in reflected and transmitted light. To give an example. a pure white mottled blossom in a Tiffany hydrangea shade turns out to be several shades grayer in transmitted light than modern white mottled glass; it’s just not evident when it’s in context. If we had to replace that blossom with modern glass, it would again “stick out like a sore thumb.” In practice, the gray surface of Tiffany’s glass represents a major challenge to the restorer. All too often, we are able to ferret out a perfect match to a piece of Tiffany glass in transmitted light, only to discover that the modern glass has a much whiter surface when the light it turned off. The job of matching a piece of Tiffany glass frequently involves cutting and then re-cutting a trial piece ten or even twenty times and sometimes still not coming up with an acceptable match- an exercise in frustration.
This whiteness discrepancy is especially noticeable in the mottles, where the whiteness in reflected light of the “donuts” on the underside (table side) of the glass is a dead give-away that the glass is new. In practice, we have to scrupulously avoid these white rings in selecting repair material from modern glass, a process that my idle mind, while hovering long hours over my work bench, has dubbed “dancing between the mottles.” On account of this problem, we have tended to avoid repairs that involve large pieces of mottled glass- except when we can find a match from our Tiffany stock. The shade repair that inspired Brian’s question is a perfect example of this. As I recall, the pictures of the finished shade did not include any of the large upper background area on the inside of the shade, where the whiter rings of the new glass would have been most obvious. Assuming they are noticeably whiter than the original Tiffany material, the repairs would be readily evident to any competent Tiffany expert. Knowledge that 30% to 40% of the glass in a Tiffany shade has been replaced would pretty much ruin its value as an antique. It then becomes questionable whether it’s worth spending the money for a professional repair- such as was ostensibly the case here- and wind up with a shade that is worth little more than a modern reproduction. Almost none of our customers would think so.
In closing, I hope that in sharing my experience I have shed at least a little light on the problems of repairing Tiffany shades and how those repairs impact the value of the shade.
Paul Crist, August 2007.