LALIQUE VASES: A BLOOMING MARKET
Vases were important to Rene Lalique. From the French artisan-entrepreneur’s earliest attempts at the form, which date to the late 19th century, until his passing in 1945, he created 200 vase designs – a staggeringly large number. Whether the volume of Lalique vase designs reflected a genuine enthusiasm for the decorative flower-holders isn’t clear, but Lalique did grasp some basic, vital facts about them.
“He was aware of the circuit of World’s Fairs and exhibitions. I think he realized vases, and particularly, experimentation with vase bodies, got him additions to his fan base and more press,” said Jill Fenichell, a furniture and decorative arts appraiser at Michaan’s Auctions in Alameda, California. “Vases did that [i.e., captured attention] better than centerpiece bowls. Vases allowed him to play with surfaces in a very sculptural way.”
There was another truth that Lalique, being a sharp businessman, could not ignore: the public definitely wanted vases. “Lalique made a lot of them, and they were always good sellers,” said Nicholas Dawes, Vice President of Special Collections at Heritage Auctions in Dallas. “Vases were a mass-market thing, and a very big part of his production.”
Now decades and even centuries old, many Lalique vases literally qualify as antiques, and yet they look as if they could have been made last week. “Lalique was clever enough to produce timeless designs with ongoing appeal,” said Joy McCall, a Senior Specialist of Decorative Arts at the British auction house Lyon & Turnbull. “Vases have universal appeal, and there’s such a breadth of design. Few people would turn down a Lalique vase.”
In April 2021, McCall curated Lyon & Turnbull’s first all-Lalique sale, with a lineup that included several vases, and was pleasantly surprised by the result. “Definitely, things [in the Lalique market] come in and out of fashion, but ultimately, people love colored vases,” she said. “I would have said the market was slightly softer for large, colored vases, but the sale proved me wrong. Overall, there was a steady interest in the pieces. It’s a nice, reliable market that has proved itself over the decades.”
Dawes noted: “Vintage Lalique, in general, is underpriced, and can only go up. That applies to every single thing, including Lalique vases. The supply is not getting any bigger, and the demand is getting bigger. We’re getting demand from Asia, which we didn’t have before, and it’s enormous. You only need four or five people to decide to buy one, and the market goes nuts.”
Like Dawes, Albert Levy of A.B. Levy’s, Palm Beach, Florida, knows that phenomenon well, and has had the pleasure of watching it elevate Lalique vase lots offered at his auction house. In February 2015, he sold an amber Tortues (Turtles) amber-colored Lalique vase for $39,000 plus the buyer’s premium. It rocketed past its $15,000-$25,000 estimate to achieve the sum. “The quality of that vase was outstanding, and the color was outstanding,” Levy said, recalling the sale. “You don’t find a duplicate to that too often.”
Elsewhere in the lineup of that 2015 A.B. Levy’s auction was a frosted glass Nadica Lalique vase that earned a hammer price of $125,000 against an estimate of $60,000-$90,000. A Nepalese king had ordered it directly from Lalique, but Levy believes that while its provenance “didn’t hurt,” it didn’t play much of a role, either, instead crediting the robust result to the vase’s rarity and the crispness of its high-relief decorations. “I had it once in my life, and never again. It’s very special, very rare, a great piece,” he said.
David Rago of Rago Arts and Auction in Lambertville, New Jersey, also saw success with a scarce Lalique vase design. In October 2015, his eponymous auction house sold a Cluny Lalique vase for $100,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $80,000-$100,000.
“The vase is regarded as a triumph in Art Deco design,” he said. “It’s Rene Lalique’s interpretation of the mythical Gorgon, Medusa. It combines a clean and simple form with the sophistication of the bronze snake handles and the incorporated masques on either side to depict the Medusa motif in a way we’ve not seen before. And ignoring bronze stands made just to set a vase on, a Lalique commercial production vase incorporating bronze in the design is always going to be a rarity. There are only two models known, the similar Senlis vase with leaf handles being the other one.”
Though strongly colored Lalique vases find favor with collectors, clear, opalescent, and frosted examples, such as the Nadica and the Cluny, can perform just as well or better. Fenichell wasn’t present at Michaan’s in June 2013 when it offered an opalescent Bacchantes Lalique vase that romped past its $15,000-$20,000 estimate to sell for $42,500 plus the buyer’s premium, but she researched the sale and provided insight. The vase was discovered in a garage, and the Michaan’s representative who first saw it recalled knowing right away that it was something special. Fenichell said that its powerful auction performance was driven by the stenciled “R LALIQUE FRANCE” signature on the vessel. “It was all in caps, with no dot visible, all in pretty big lettering. That’s unusual and early,” she said, meaning that the appearance of the signature places the vase’s creation closer in time to the 1927 debut of the popular Bacchantes design.
A different mostly-clear Lalique vase, sold at Heritage in November 2011, shows the master at what might be his most experimental. The Tourbillons vase, decorated with black enamel, challenges the physics of glassmaking itself. “There’s extreme variation in the thickness of the glass,” Dawes said. “When you make a vessel like this, the glass is molten and cools down. As it cools, it shrinks. If you have different thicknesses of glass, it might split apart. In all the Tourbillons, the thing is kind of fighting with itself. It’s an agonizing process of cooling down, but that’s what makes it great, and that’s part of the beauty of it.” He added, “The word ‘tourbillon’ means ‘whirlwind.’ It embodies that.” The example Heritage offered in 2011 sold for $35,000 plus buyer’s premium.
Good designs and gorgeous colors attract collectors, but a Lalique vase that perfectly marries its subject with its hue beats them both. In November 2017, Heritage had a Borromee Lalique vase, decorated with peacocks, in a mesmerizing shade of deep blue. It strutted away with $32,000, plus the buyer’s premium. Dawes holds it up as an example of Lalique’s multi-faceted talents. “All Lalique vases have a name,” he said. “Some are obvious, and a lot are place names. Some are places Lalique visited himself, or read about, or wanted to romanticize. This is one of them. I believe I’m right in saying that Borromee [The Borromean Islands] is inhabited by peacocks. He’s got them all over the vase. The French for ‘peacock’ is ‘paon.’ He could have called it that, but he didn’t. That’s indicative. It’s all about marketing, and Lalique was very good at that.”
Rago is confident that the market for pieces from Lalique’s lifetime, vases included, will remain strong. “I once remarked to a Lalique dealer friend that Lalique was like Roseville pottery, but with another zero on the price tag,” he said. “I was being funny, though the comment is not without some level of merit. These are produced in multiples, fixed designs, usually offered in different colors or patinas or both, making them something of a collectible. That all said – and at this point I’ve seen and handled enough of the work, over a long enough period of time – the quality level pre-war was so consistently high. The control of production seems to have been very attentive to the evenness of the finished product, since I’ve not really seen any seconds. The molding is crisp, the colors even throughout. I think, in many ways, without reducing the import of the work by calling it a ‘collectible,’ it is really the perfect glass to collect. There is no mistaking the importance of that factory, which Suzanne and I visited a few years back. I think, especially with prices below the high point of that market 15 years ago, Lalique will prove durable.”
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