Whose job is it to safeguard one of the most hated designs in decorative history? In the case of the Tiffany lamp, it fell to a New York City orthodontist and immigrant from Austria who happened to be furniture shopping in Greenwich Village in 1935 when his wife spotted a “strange, old-fashioned lamp”. Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife Hildegard didn’t know it then, but by acquiring that first lamp, they were about to build the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass, which would become the only archive and existing association dedicated to the preservation, study and revival an under-appreciated all-American treasure. We sought out that archive, located on a quiet old industrial block in Queens.
I’ve wanted a Tiffany lamp for years, but my other half won’t let me put one in our home. I brought him with me to my appointment with the Neudstadt Collection on a sunny autumn morning in Long Island City, hoping that perhaps this might help sway him to the other side. But as soon as I stepped inside that warehouse in Queens, I quickly realized that there was far more to Tiffany lamps than a naïve appreciation for kitsch furniture.
The next two hours (I’d only scheduled for one) flew by. I was schooled on the endangered and complicated artistry of Tiffany glass; all the forgotten and fascinating history that had never occurred to me to look every time I’d walked into an antique junk shop and lusted over a dusty glass lamp; glowing at me with its warm, mysterious colours.
I think I expected the Neudstadt Collection to be cared for by an eccentric bohemian antiques roadshow type, but curator Lindsy R. Parrott is more like a cross between a high-powered Manhattan art gallerist and a passionate archeologist. She’s glamorous, kind, patient and incredibly knowledgable, not just about Tiffany glass, but history in general.
As one of the two guardians of the Neudstadt Collection, Lindsy leads the monthly visits to this little-known archive, which has recently been opened its doors to the public this winter. The other guardian is Susan Tomlin, a quiet but brilliant woman, who may just be the most qualified, if not the only person in the world who knows how to perfectly restore and recreate an original Tiffany glass lamp. Because of course, not all “Tiffany” lamps are really Tiffany lamps.
Louis C. Tiffany was the son of the founder of luxury retailer renowned for jewellery and silver, Tiffany & Company. He was a painter and a well-travelled man, who’d been privileged enough to see the stained glass windows of Notre Dame and Europe’s most treasured medieval sites. He developed an interest in glassmaking from about 1875 and did the interiors of Mark Twain’s house and added Tiffany glass gaslight fixtures, windows and floor-to-ceiling glass screens to most rooms in the White House, (which were all removed during the Roosevelt renovations of 1902).
America was a new country without set traditions and rules of artistry, which presented the opportunity for Tiffany to do things a little differently. Inspired by the Art Nouveau artisans he’d seen in Paris, Louis developed his own “copper foil” soldering technique, which enabled a level of detail previously unknown in glassmaking and contrasted with the method used for hundreds of years in Europe. His signature lamps and mosaics became the marker of refined taste, wealth and the toast of Gilded Age high society. He won numerous design awards and critics made him one of the most celebrated artist of his time.
There was a true artistry to the laborious process of combining the colours, textures, patterns, and opacities that made it uniquely Tiffany. He hired the finest artisans and chose the-then rural setting of Corona, Queens for his factory to safeguard his secret glass formulas. But as with all luxury products in high demand, cheap imitations became big business too. And what happens when you have too much of a good thing? It goes out of style– real quick.
By the 1930s, when Dr. Neustadt and his wife had their first encounter with a Tiffany lamp in a second hand store, the decorative item was about as popular as a 1990s lava lamp. After nearly 40 years in business, the company had shuttered in 1933 and closed its factory in Corona, Queens, located less than 2 miles from where the current archive lies today. The world had become so sick of seeing Tiffany lamps, they were left in dumpsters and thrown out with the old.
Vienna born Egon Neustadt was the earliest collector of Tiffany lamps after their decline (purchasing his first just one year after the company went bankrupt), seeing ahead of the curve, he single-handedly initiated its eventual recognition as an iconic object. Not even the Tiffany studios had classified the different types of lamp designs, but Dr. Neustadt did, giving them serious collectible credibility.
By the time of Dr. Neustadt’s death in 1984, his Manhattan apartment was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of Tiffany lamps and windows. World renowned jewellery brand and iconic Fortune 500 company, Tiffany & Co, has so far made no known contribution to the ongoing efforts of the Neustadt Collection.
Today, the archive holds over a quarter of a million examples of Tiffany glass, from large uncut sheets, salvaged straight from the factory and passed through various buyers over the years, to tiny shards unearthed during the construction of a new elementary school in 2013 (the glass was donated to the collection and the school was named The Tiffany School). The lamp bases were also a key part of the design and the archive holds an important selection genuine bronze examples made at the original foundry in Queens.
Lindsy and Susan are currently working on an upcoming travelling exhibition embracing the story of real vs fake Tiffany lamps, the latter of which likely far outnumber the former. Lindsy tells me its impossible to know how many real examples exist in private collections around the world.
Only the keen eye of a specialist like Lindsy or Susan can tell a good fake from an original, and while the lamp may be marked ‘Tiffany Studios’, this is no guarantee of originality.
Some of us may very well be in possession of a rare and genuine Tiffany lamp. The most valuable Tiffany lamp ever sold, “The Pink Lotus” reached $2.8 million at a Christie’s auction in 1998. So if like myself, you want to convince your other half to take home a Tiffany lamp, you’d better get yourself down to the Neustadt Collection in Queens and train your bargain-hunting eye. Because you never know where you might find a forgotten Tiffany treasure.
For enquiries about a behind-the-scene visit to the Neustadt archive in Long Island City, Queens, NYC, make your way here.