In Britain during the 1970s and 1980s, Victorian churches were becoming deconsecrated at a phenomenal rate. Astute antiques dealers spotted an opportunity: salvage the buildings’ unwanted stained‑glass windows and sell them off to the highest bidder. “At one point I was supplying 100 windows a month to Japan,” says Michael Whiteway, of London-based, 19th-century arts-and-crafts-design specialists Haslam and Whiteway. “Some were being used to create focal points in blocks of flats.”
Since then, the market has come full circle, with some dealers buying back pieces they sold 30 years ago for 10 times the price – and today, the warm glow, jewel-like colours and beautiful translucency of stained glass are being appreciated in a new light. Buyers include specialist collectors and new churches in search of a piece of ecclesiastical history but, increasingly, it’s also individuals who want to make a design statement in their homes.
The briskest business is concentrated at the top end of the market – 19th-century windows selling for over £5,000 but going up to about £50,000 – says Wales-based antiques dealer and stained-glass restorer Drew Prichard, adding that these projects are usually very ambitious. His commissions have included installing five, 10ft-tall, 19th-century stained-glass doors in an apartment in Kensington – in triple-glazed casing to ensure soundproofing – and several full‑stained glass ceilings, the most memorable of which was a starburst exploding, in a house in Wimbledon.
But installations need not always be so dramatic. Dr Nancy Membrez, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and an independent film-maker, began collecting 10 years ago and has bought six or seven framed Victorian windows in the past year, including an angel, for which she paid $1,400. “I like to prop them against the windowsills – I love the way the light moves through the panes throughout the day, and I am especially drawn to windows with reds and blues,” she says. Indeed, leaning these works of art in front of a modern window is a popular way to display them, says John Payne, one of the largest dealers of English stained glass in the US (examples range from a simple $80 Victorian panel to a stunning $6,000 hand-painted winter and summer scene), who adds that stained glass is a creative alternative to curtains.
Fiona Baker, a senior specialist in 20th-century decorative art and design at Christie’s, confirms a noticeable increase in the popularity, and value, of Victorian stained-glass windows in recent years, particularly those by well-known designers. William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (of Morris & Co) are considered the masters, and are among those who command the highest prices. A sale of their work was held by Haslam and Whiteway, who sold 39 of the 40 windows in its 2008 catalogue over a three-year period (the remaining one has a price tag of £35,000 and features Burne-Jones’ design of St Andrew). ”One man bought eight for a six-figure sum to put in his kitchen,” says Whiteway, “while an 80-year-old woman took one home because it reminded her of the church she got married in.” The most expensive piece sold for £60,000 – it was made by Morris & Co, but after Morris’s and Burne-Jones’s deaths. “Those made during their lifetime can go for more,” adds Whiteway.
Aside from Morris & Co, notable names worth looking out for include Franz Mayer, Henry Holiday, Harry Clarke and the studios/workshops of Clayton and Bell, and Heaton, Butler and Bayne. Anything unusual or quirky will also command a higher price: “Look for vibrancy of colour, quality of lead line and jewels – pressed pieces of glass – which are cleverly set into the windows,” says Rolf Achilles, curator of Chicago’s Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows. He also counsels: “Make sure the restoration has been competently executed – sometimes three or four sheets of glass should be the same colour, but on closer inspection don’t quite match.”
Of course, after purchase there’s still the question of how and where to display the window, particularly if it’s from an awkwardly shaped church building. A recent project by London-based specialist Michael Fennelly was the repair and installation of a Victorian church window in a house in Hampstead, but the ideal scenario is to be approached while the house is still on the drawing board. That way, says Mark Slotkin, president and founder of Antiquarian Traders in Beverly Hills – who sells American stained-glass pieces from the Victorian period, currently including a $82,500 window by Louis Comfort Tiffany – the architect can design the landing, hall or bathroom to fit the window, as opposed to the other way round.
If there’s a shortage of natural light, however, the next best thing is to mount the glass onto a light box – something Tom, a 49-year-old partner in an Illinois investment firm, has done. “I’ve got three stained-glass windows in my home. The largest is of a court jester holding a glass of wine, which I bought from London dealers Tomkinson Stained Glass for just under £2,500. Because this piece was for my wine cellar, I had no choice but to back-light it. It’s perfect as it creates the feeling that you are at ground level.”
As for how to choose a window, Slotkin says, “When a piece works, it just has that certain luminescence about it, where colour and design come together to create a feeling of serenity.”