Antique Stained Glass

Antique Stained Glass

Who among us, at one time or another, has not marveled at the beauty of stained glass? Perhaps our attention was drawn to a church window, a Tiffany lamp shade, or a framed artwork. From the Gothic churches of the 12th Century to artworks by 21st Century masters, the patterned, translucent glass' ability to color and shape light has transfixed viewers for centuries.

Antique stained glass items are in demand. Collectible glass-works by well-known artists, that have established provenance, can bring top dollar (even if they are in questionable condition) eBay lists over 28,000 stained glass items sold in July 2016 (not all were antiques), the highest price ($29,000 USD with 114 bids) being achieved by a floor lamp in admittedly poor condition, showing "Numerous cracks and losses to glass shade, losses and wear to gilt"

In December 2015, a Tiffany Dragonfly table lamp from the collection of Andrew Carnegie brought $1,750,000 USD, even though it displayed "approximately 15 cracks to the glass tiles dispersed throughout, as well as 4 tight hairline cracks to the jewel cabochons."

Stained glass works by lesser-known crafts persons that are in good condition regularly bring prices in four figures. Clearly, collectors with a trained eye and access to a pricing database can achieve both pleasure and profit by seeking out stained glass works. Pricing databases are easy to access; one simply has to pay the subscription price. Kovel's and WorthPoint are both authoritative valuation sources. More vexing is acquiring the "trained eye" needed to avoid being taken advantage of in today's marketplace.

Below I offer a few "broad strokes" to assist novice collectors in identifying stained glass objects. Of course, there is no substitute for experience and education, so collectors new to the subject are encouraged to read extensively and watch as many videos as are available.

First, know that price is not always a good indicator of quality. As with other in-demand collectibles, fakes and frauds abound. Modern manufacturing techniques and materials seem to be able to replicate almost anything. Plastic "stained-glass style" lampshades and windows are commonplace and sometimes carry a higher price tag than real glass (because many consumers can't tell the difference). Don’t be fooled by headings that read "Tiffany", "Victorian", "Arts & Crafts", or other period or style designations. Chinese manufacturers make authentic-looking stained glass products using real glass that are less expensive that some plastic products, due to the manufacturing process used. These factories cut colored glass using abrasive waterjets, and line workers assemble the precisely-cut pieces by hand using traditional methods. Then, they label their products "hand crafted". Just because an item's label reads "hand crafted" and is real glass doesn't mean that it was created in an artisan shop. Neither should you assume that a real glass item is an antique because it was described as such; it may have simply had the import stickers removed. Of course, no reputable dealer would remove stickers and present an item as genuine; but, items passed through estate liquidation are sometimes hard to authenticate.

Secondly, be certain that you can differentiate between glass and plastic. Novice collectors might abstain from buying an item because they believe it to be plastic, and others may buy a plastic item that they believe to be glass. Typically, their mistake is in the approach used to test the glass: tapping with a fingernail. Both plastic and glass works will give a dull thud when tested in this manner. A standard glass window will ring when tapped because the glass pane is secured around its edges and is free to vibrate, producing a distinctive percussive attack followed by a ring. Stained glass is assembled in small pieces surrounded by lead solder (or a combination of lead, copper, and zinc). The tightly held small pieces cannot vibrate freely, so they produce a dull thud. The "thud" of plastic and the "thud" of glass are similar.

How, then, can one differentiate between glass and plastic? Collectors typically use four methods:

  1. Lift the item (remove the shade if it is a lamp). Glass is much heavier than a plastic product of similar size and construction.
  2. Tap the glass (lightly!) with a coin or metal object; the tones of glass and plastic will vary slightly.
  3. Scratch the glass with a razor knife (in an inconspicuous place). Plastic will scratch, glass will not.
  4. Using a cigarette lighter, pass a flame across an inconspicuous glass section. Plastic will react by discoloring or softening.

Of course, if you don't own the item, I'd avoid numbers three and four above. But if you own it and you must be certain that the item is glass, you can perform whichever test suits you.

Third, look for signs of good workmanship. These include:

  • Lead lines (between the pieces of glass) are uniform in width, regardless of the product used to secure the glass. Minor artistic variations are acceptable. Lead lines that widen briefly and then return to the original size are an indication of imprecisely cut glass where solder has been used to fill gaps between the glass pieces. Such assemblies may begin to sag and come apart in a year or two.
  • Solder beads should be smooth and uniform in color, with the underside of a line not visible from above.
  • Opposing lead lines meet with no offset and appear as one line. In other words, when a line beginning on the right side and a line beginning on the left side meet in the middle, they will be straight and give the appearance of one continuous line.
  • Outside edges are well supported or reinforced. For artworks, outside edges should be made of zinc or brass and contained by a solid wood or metal frame. For windows, there should be no rotting or damage to the sashes.

Well-maintained antique stained glass items will likely have been repaired. Typical repairs include cleaning, re-grouting and cementing a panel, replacing pieces of glass, solder joint repairs, and flattening bowed panels. Workman-like repairs will be virtually unnoticeable, but poor repairs will be obvious. Poor repairs will always have to be re-done by a competent craftsman. If you intend to buy a glass work that has been poorly repaired, be sure to get a repair estimate before you agree on a sale price.

Well-maintained antique stained glass items will likely have been repaired. Typical repairs include cleaning, re-grouting and cementing a panel, replacing pieces of glass, solder joint repairs, and flattening bowed panels. Workman-like repairs will be virtually unnoticeable, but poor repairs will be obvious. Poor repairs will always have to be re-done by a competent craftsman. If you intend to buy a glass work that has been poorly repaired, be sure to get a repair estimate before you agree on a sale price.

Dating antique stained glass requires an understanding of roughly nine-hundred years of glass-making techniques and the history of stained glass artworks. Such a comprehensive history is beyond the scope of this article, but an excellent primer can be found on the website of the UK’s Norfolk Stained Glass.

New or antique, a collection of stained glass objects can transform the quality of light within one’s living space, and provide years of collecting pleasure.

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