Tips of the Trade
Arlie Sulka and ROADSHOW host Dan Elias discuss Tiffany glass.
Tiffany sued Steuben when he saw their Aurene glass.
Tiffany signatures are easy to copy.
Tiffany's forms are more natural-looking than Stueben's.
Steuben's forms are more classic and formal than Tiffany's.
In the world of antiques, knowing whether a glass vase is an iridescent Tiffany or a "Less Relevant Wannabe" is as important as knowing whether a coveted wristwatch is a Patek Philippe or a "Patek Phony," or if that browned portrait you found was scratched by Rembrandt himself or a former safecracker named Ralph looking to get his fingers into a more creative business.
Don't know your Loetz from your Steuben? Learn how to distinguish between the beautiful but confusing varieties of fine iridescent glasswork
In all three cases, buyers who care about quality and price must hunt down clues that reveal authenticity. We can't help you today with identifying Rembrandts or Patek Philippes, but with the help of Tiffany expert Arlie Sulka, of Lillian Nassau Ltd. in New York City, we can pass along advice on distinguishing the undecorated iridescent Tiffanies from two of their topnotch iridescent competitors, Loetz and Steuben.
Origins of Iridescence
The original iridescent glass was an accidental recipe, a mixture of ancient glass, time and ground-based chemicals. When ancient glass was buried for hundreds or even thousands of years, natural chemicals in the ground would react with the glass to produce a lustrous, pearl-like finish.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, three glass giants—Tiffany, Loetz and Steuben—found a less time-intensive way to produce the appealing lustrous sheen. Many glass historians say that Tiffany was inspired by the ancients. Others argue it was Loetz, the 19th-century Austrian company whose gold iridescent glass in 1890 was one of the first examples of the style. Still other glass historians say Loetz was inspired by Tiffany.
Notwithstanding, court records are clear that Tiffany sued Steuben, the studio in Corning, New York, for what Tiffany believed was a stolen process, although the case never went to court. But Steuben's process was clearly different, and a few glass historians believe that Steuben's process pre-dated Tiffany's.
"The question about who developed the formula first is still being debated," Arlie says. One thing is certain: once the processes were discovered, iridescent glass came out of the fires at an astonishing rate from all three studios, with much of it still available today.
Don't Trust Signatures
In distinguishing Tiffany glass from the others, Arlie's first piece of advice is never to trust a signature. That's because signatures are a lot easier to fake than artistic glass. Tiffany glass is also an easy mark because the company cut or etched the mark into the glass, a far easier technique to mimic than the acid-etching process used by many other glass studios.
Arlie has seen almost everything with a Tiffany signature. "I've seen malachite glass from Czechoslovakia with Steuben signatures," says Arlie, somewhat incredulous. "And I've seen a lot of Austrian and Bohemian pieces with Tiffany labels on them."
In the 1960s and 1970s, when collectors began to pay increasing sums for Tiffany, "people would take any unsigned piece of iridescent glass and put a Tiffany signature on it," Arlie explains.
Unsavory and unknowing glass owners even added a Tiffany signature to quality pieces such as Steuben and Loetz, studios that sent out many of their iridescent pieces unsigned. "We once saw a beautiful Loetz flower-form glass vase—it screamed of Loetz—and it had a magnificent Tiffany signature," Arlie says, adding, "It's the glass you should be collecting not the signatures. I always look at forms and colors."
Subtle Color Differences
In the world of iridescent glass, Tiffany, Steuben and Loetz all produced similar styles, but distinguishable ones. "Each company made their glass in particular sizes, shapes and colors," Arlie says, offering one obvious color difference in the iridescent pieces. "Some of the earlier Steuben had a silvery cast you'd never see in a Tiffany."
Glass lovers often confuse the iridized gold glass of Tiffany and Steuben's patented Aurene glass. (The aur comes from the Latin word for gold, aurum, while the ene comes from the Middle English form of the word sheen). So the Aurene literally means "gold sheen." Arlie says that Steuben's iridescent Aurene pieces tend to have a more greenish tint than Tiffany's, which have a translucent amber sheen. Loetz, on the other hand, used a paler gold and the glass itself is more translucent.
And color alone doesn't provide clues that help to identify the maker, Arlie looks to the object's form.
While Tiffany and Steuben forms are often confused, the two makers have a very different feel. "The Steuben shape is more rigid and classical," Arlie notes, adding that another minor iridescent glassmaker, Quezal, also had a controlled style. "The Tiffany is a little more loose, a little more free-form. His look is a little more organic." Adds Arlie: "In most cases, the Loetz has a heavier feel." Loetz also played more with surface textures than did Tiffany.
When in doubt, Arlie refers to the book The Glass of Frederick Carder, by Paul Gardner, a source book that shows the shapes of all the Steuben glass laid out by star Steuben designer Frederick Carder.
In the marketplace, it's important to distinguish makers because Tiffany tends to sell for a higher price than all its competitors. "Loetz and Steuben have great iridescent glass, but they rarely reach the price levels of similar types of Tiffany glass," Arlie says. On the Tiffany segment Arlie did for the ROADSHOW in Indianapolis, she compared a blue Steuben Aurene vase worth $1,100 to a smaller compote by Tiffany worth $1,500, a difference in price that is not unusual.
That said, Arlie is reluctant to describe Tiffany's undecorated iridescent glass as of better or worse quality than that of Steuben or Loetz. "I don't know why there's a price difference, because I think the Steuben and Loetz pieces are usually just as good as Tiffany's."
For more on Tiffany glass, Arlie Sulka recommends:
The Glass of Frederick Carder, by Paul Gardner, 1976.
Frederick Carder and Steuben Glass, by Thomas P. Dimitroff, Charles R. Hajdamach, and Jane Shadel Spillman, 1998.
Louis C. Tiffany: The Collected Works of Robert Koch, by Robert Koch, 2001.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.