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Sorting Out Early Stained Glass Lamps
by Bob Brooke


Between 1895 and 1915, a huge variety of mosaic glass lamps came out of New York and Chicago to satisfy a growing demand for stylish lighting designs. While Tiffany Studios set the industry standard, other companies produced excellent designs as well. So while Tiffany made all his lamp shades of stained glass, Tiffany Studios wasn’t the only company to make stained glass lamps.

Electricity, the new energy source that would soon sweep the country, demanded a new type of lamp, one that would shield the viewer from the harsh glare of the early incandescent bulbs and at the same time add Victorian beauty to a room. It was the mid-1890s and the Victorians weren’t ready just yet to give up their lavish designs, so Louis Comfort Tiffany worked with that and developed lamps in the avant garde Art Nouveau style that complemented the decor present in middle class and upper middle-class homes of the day.

Companies such as Duffner & Kimberly and Gorham made lamps of a quality that compared with those made by Tiffany Studios. They created styles that appealed more to the prevailing Victorian taste. Some companies, like Wilkinson, made high-quality bases, but took short cuts with their shades. Others, like Unique, focused on creating complex shades and paired them with simpler bases. Many copied Tiffany’s Art Nouveau designs and many copied each other which creates a challenge for collectors trying to identify their lamps.

So how do you tell the difference between authentic Tiffany lamps and those made by these other companies? Most of the time it’s difficult. Learning how to spot the best lamps could take years of study because many lamp manufacturers didn’t sign their pieces, and the differences are often subtle between a quality lamp from this period and a modern reproduction. You also have to keep an eye out for “made-up” lamps, composed of both old and new parts. But there are a few things you can look out for.

Tips for Authenticating Early Stained Glass Lamps
Look for hairline cracks in the glass. It isn’t unusual for hairline cracks to appear in the panes of old stained glass shades. This is the natural result of the glass expanding and contracting as it heats and cools when someone turns the lamp on and off. In fact, a lamp that doesn’t have any “stress” or “heat” cracks may be of more recent construction.

Pay attention to glass color. Look at the colors of the glass pieces. Are they subtle, gaudy, bright, or soft? Overall, the colors should match in tone and intensity. If the shade has a “Crayola crayon” look to it—with overly bright, gaudy, or clashing colors—it could be of more recent construction, or have had some panes replaced.

Pick up the base and feel the weight. Although the quality of workmanship and materials can vary greatly on these lamps, the best lamp bases are heavy and well-cast. Finer lamps will have cast brass or bronze finials and bronze bases.

Step back and gauge the overall design. The shade and base should not only fit together properly, but there should be an overall sense of balance between all the design elements, from the finial to the base plate. The shades should have some complex elements of design or thoughtful use of color. The overall design should be crisp and clean.

Lastly, talk to a reputable dealer or appraiser. A reputable dealer or appraiser who specializes in early 20th-century lamps will be familiar with these lamps and their characteristics and will be able to help you identify a lamp you own.

Antique Tiffany lamps remain the golden standard of mosaic glass lighting. However, don’t ignore well-designed, handcrafted, beautiful, and very collectable antique mosaic lamps from a wide variety of other manufacturers.

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Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

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