Sources from left: Lalique, Christie's Images Ltd. 2016
Design

How a Bunch of Antique Vases Came to Be Worth More Than $1 Million

At an all-Lalique auction at Christie's in February, a lot of old glass will sell for a lot of money. When many of the items are available new from Lalique, cast from the same historic molds, why are the prices so high?

On Feb. 9, a green art deco Languedoc vase by Lalique, the famous French glassmaker, will hit the auction block at Christie’s in London. One of 120 Lalique objects in an auction expected to bring in a total of $1.07 million, the nine-inch tall vase is estimated to sell for $21,300 to $35,000. Designed by René Lalique in 1929 (but made, in all probability, several years later), it carries the "R Lalique" signature and, other than a few tiny bruises, is in excellent condition.

Unlike most art and collectibles auctions, in which objects are valued—at least in part—for their rarity (paintings by Tintoretto sell for millions, in part because Tintoretto, who died 442 years ago, isn’t in a position to make more of them), you can buy the same Languedoc vase, new, at any Lalique store for $6,800.

This hasn’t deterred collectors at Christie’s previous Lalique sales, and it seems to make little difference to potential buyers today. “It’s a very, very international collector base,” said Joy McCall, director of Christie’s London design department. “The demographics tend to be from Europe, North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the Middle East.” Basically, everywhere but Antarctica contains hordes of Lalique collectors willing to spend five times the retail amount for an old, gently "bruised" antique.

Here's why: The older objects vary in specific ways that are well-known to collectors, who can be fervent in their devotion to the brand.

Let’s begin with a very brief history of Lalique’s production. “René Lalique started with his glasswork in the early 20th century, and he was very productive until his death in 1945,” said Silvio Denz, chairman and chief executive officer of Lalique. His business truly took off in the 1920s, and by the late 1930s he had designed the lighting columns and chandeliers in the first-class dining room of the iconic SS Normandie ocean liner, the interior decoration of the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express carriages, and even glass doors for Prince Yasuhiko Asaka's residence in Tokyo.  Through this period, said Denz, “the Lalique factory only produced glass. There was no crystal.”

After René’s death, his son Marc took over the company. By the early 1950s it had reversed course and totally eliminated glass production. Today, Lalique is synonymous with crystal. Along with regular lines of vases, tableware, and decoration, the company makes limited-edition and one-off pieces, collaborating with the artist Damien Hirst, the architect Zaha Hadid, and even the Macallan Scotch distillery, for whom Lalique made a series of decanters. (A six-liter "M" decanter sold in 2014 for $632,000 at Sotheby's in Hong Kong.)

Lalique, in other words, has helped shape the perception that crystal is more luxurious than glass. “Crystal is easier to sculpt and it’s easier to engrave,” Denz explained, “and it has a much higher luminosity.” Which is to say: Crystal looks shinier and fancier than glass. Even a casual observer can tell the difference. Lalique's antique glass vases look almost matte, while the new vases glisten, almost as if they're wet.

Potential collectors can also distinguish old and new Lalique by weight. Pre-1945 vases are significantly lighter. “There’s a difference of maybe 200, 300, even 400 grams,” said Denz.

Beyond weight and color, most of the vases at the Christie’s sale are valued by collectors for their age. “There’s an historical element,” said McCall. “These have survived a length of time, and they were known to have been made by Lalique himself, or at least under his guidance.”

The collectors drawn to this siren song of heft, age, and muted beauty are, surprisingly enough, “generally men,” McCall explained. “Generally of a certain age as well, somewhere between 40 and 70,” said McCall, though she hastened to add that “there are certainly younger people who do come to participate.”

Denz, who in theory should trumpet his company’s newer products (i.e., products that he can sell), argued that those men of a certain age are making a smart buy. “René Lalique died at the age of 85. Everything he did in his rich life was really in glass,” he said. “And those pieces have value.”

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