Art | Past Masters

Lalique

Collectors are mesmerised by René Lalique’s talent for bringing the natural world to life in his glassware, says Nicole Swengley.

January 13 2010
Nicole Swengley

Glamorous and technically brilliant, the work of René Jules Lalique (1860-1945) is as admired and sought-after today as it was when his designs were first unveiled at the 1895 Salon in Paris. And with the 150th anniversary of Lalique’s birth giving rise to a dedicated new museum in Alsace, France (opening in October), it seems that collectors such as Elton John and Barbra Streisand are not alone in their appreciation of the great glass maestro.

Exactly 100 years ago Lalique, a trained jeweller, opened a shop in Paris near the famous perfumer François Coty, for whom he created a scent bottle – the first of around 800 made for companies including Worth and Guerlain. This led to the creation of hundreds of other glass designs – from vases, plates, bowls, stemware, decanters, clocks, desk and dressing-table accessories to flamboyant chandeliers and bonnet mascots for cars such as Bentleys and Bugattis.

Production took off in 1921 when the government provided a factory in Alsace where, at one point, more than 600 people worked. It closed during the second world war, and Lalique died before it reopened. His son, Marc, carried on the business, changing the material to full lead crystal, while Lalique’s granddaughter, Marie-Claude, later introduced clear crystal with coloured motifs. Pre-1939 pieces, however, are the most sought-after.

Lalique embraced art nouveau’s stylistic tics with gusto, weaving leaves, vines, flowing water, birds, animals and human forms into his geometrically inclined designs. Vibrant colours – achieved by adding meticulous amounts of pigment to the glass – also characterise his work. Hand-polishing and glazing lent the mass-produced pieces individuality, and he also produced one-off designs.

“What draws collectors is Lalique’s vision of how the natural world could be brought to life,” says Mark Oliver, Bonhams’ director of 20th-Century Decorative Arts. “He used techniques that rely on natural or artificial light and this element of ‘life’ is always there if you light the pieces properly.”

“They really come alive with light behind them,” confirms Christine Larkin, a collector who works for a banking group. And this is why Simon Hessel, a former software entrepreneur, displays his 800-strong collection on underlit shelves and in illuminated cabinets at home: “No other glass has quite the same glow as original Lalique.”

“The designs catch the light in a very clever way using techniques that were brilliant for their day,” says London dealer Raul Arantes, who began collecting Lalique 25 years ago (he currently owns around 300 pieces) and turned his passion into a business.

“The market for Lalique is still very strong internationally because the pieces always have an investment edge,” says Oliver. “Prices continue to rise, especially for rarer pieces, and even a standard design increases steadily in value,” says Arantes. “I bought a Ceylon vase 20 years ago for £500. Two years ago I was selling this design for about £3,000 and today you’d pay £4,500.”

Provenance is essential. Lalique signed most work “R. Lalique” while his son Marc’s postwar pieces are signed “Lalique France”. The best sources are salerooms and specialist dealers. Online purchases should be treated cautiously. “There’s a vast danger of fakes,” warns Joy McCall, head of 20th-Century Decorative Art and Design at Christie’s. “We hold two specialist sales a year and turn down a couple of pieces every time. The fakes look good and are not easy to spot.” Still, Hessel has bought extensively via the internet after cross-checking with Felix Marcilhac’s definitive reference book.

Condition is also important, with chips and ground-down edges reducing the value. However, Arantes says, “It’s quite normal on R. Lalique pieces to have a few bubbles or lines and small imperfections related to manufacturing, while some scratches are expected because of age.”

“What’s great is that you can start a collection modestly with a pre-1939 tumbler or a small Coquilles bowl costing about £150,” explains Oliver.

Larkin started with three small pieces 10 years ago, later trading up to a stunning Archers bowl costing £4,500. Meanwhile, Hessel’s initial purchase – an amber-coloured lemonade jug bought for £1,500 from London dealer Victor Arwas – has been joined by rarities such as a peacock’s head car mascot costing £30,000.

“In the mid-range [£5,000-£10,000], coloured glass is favoured over opalescent, and dramatic designs – birds, fish, butterflies, animals, nude female or male forms – are prized above foliage and vines,” explains Oliver. “One-off pieces, especially those made using the cire perdue [lost wax] process can fetch from £30,000 to £200,000.”

“Very early pieces and those made with cire perdue are the most highly prized,” agrees Lydia Cresswell-Jones, a specialist in Sotheby’s 20th-Century Design department. “We sold a 1912 Cicadas vase estimated at £100,000-£150,000 for £155,000 last October. Lalique is a perennial favourite and consistently collected. Once people get hooked, it becomes an all-encompassing passion.”

One man who knows this well is Silvio Denz, Lalique’s chairman and chief executive. “Before my involvement with the company I ran a chain of perfumeries for 30 years so I was interested in perfume bottles,” he says. “About 20 years ago I spotted some early René Lalique perfume bottles at an auction in Geneva and immediately fell for them. I bought 10 and have now added many more pieces including vases, jewellery and three major collections. These will be on permanent loan in a special room at the René Lalique museum when it opens.

“What I love about the early pieces is the way they are made. For example, Lalique sandwiched gilded paper between two layers of glass during the infusion process to create a bright, shimmery effect. It’s a forgotten technique. Even though we employ third- and fourth-generation workers we are still trying to work out how to do this.”

Some original moulds and even an original oven are still used by Lalique. So why hunt for a 1927 Bacchante vase when the current version is the company’s bestseller? “Today’s Bacchante vase is in clear frosted crystal, while the original is in opalescent glass,” explains Arantes. “It is highly desirable – hence it costs around £25,000 while new ones retail for 10 times less.” And Denz adds: “An antique with the R. Lalique signature, made of glass rather than lead crystal, is iconic, very rare and full of emotive appeal.”

As Hessel warns: “If you start buying, you probably won’t stop because the designs are mesmerising and such a joy to live with.”

See also

Collecting, Glassware