Tomorrow’s sale of Important 20th Century Design at Sotheby’s in New York has some wonderful pieces (Lot 60, Rateau’s three-panel screen, is marvelous, as is the Ruhlmann reading desk, lot 59) but, if I had the means, my bid would go to the Tiffany Studios, “Dragonfly” table lamp (lot 4.)
I am not the type of gal that fawns over Tiffany’s work; I usually prefer design that is more masculine, so I am surprised that this lamp is my favorite lot in the sale. Perhaps it was those fabulous Tiffany-inspired backdrops that I saw at the “American Woman” show, at the Costume Institute, that struck a chord with me. Or perhaps I just love the story behind the lamp but regardless, it’s a winner.
My favorite part is the dragon fly motif that appears on the shade and on the base of the lamp. Not all of Tiffany’s lamps had such intricate decoration on the base (however soon after the creation of this lamp, in 1898, other lamps were also produced with a matching shade and lamp) but this lamp is different. This lamp model was designed by Clara Driscoll, who has posthumously become a celebrity figure in Tiffany’s circle of designers known as the Tiffany Girls. Driscoll worked for Tiffany Studios for about twenty years, beginning in 1888. A wonderful exhibition “A New Light on Tiffany’ at the New-York Historical Society, in 2007, uncovered the truth about Driscoll’s involvement with the famous lamps. Her role was much more important than just the being the head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department, she was, in fact, responsible for the innovative designs that featured natural motifs, like flowers and insects, that Tiffany’s lamps were known for.
This “Dragonfly” lamp has another very important attribute, other than the design, and that is its exhibition history. This lamp was part of the seminal exhibition of Tiffany’s work at London’s Graton Galleries, organized by Siegfried Bing, the most renowned promoter of Art Nouveau, in May of 1899. This exhibition was to familiarize serious collectors with Tiffany’s work which would be exhibited at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was at the Exposition that Driscoll’s lamp won acclaim. According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, we know that it was designed by Driscoll because all show participants (companies especially) needed to indentify individual artist-designers. While it was Tiffany’s policy to not recognize individual designers, he had no choice but to meet these terms. And so, Driscoll’s lamp won the Gran Prix and was featured in the NY Daily News, on April 17, 1904, with the caption “Mrs. Driscoll’s Paris Prize Dragon Fly Lamp.”
Interestingly, Driscoll left the firm in 1909 because she got married, and married women could not be employed at Tiffany Studios! Not so progressive, was he?
The specialists have estimated that this piece will sell anywhere from $300,000-$500,000 tomorrow but I’m curios to see if it will supersede their expectations. I’ll let you know tomorrow…