Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) began creating his famous lampshades in the early 1890’s. The public got its first glimpse of these at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in
Tiffany began selling his blown glass shades in the mid-1890’s, then leaded glass shades in 1898, which actually began as a by-product of the stained-glass windows that preceded them. Tiffany used the several thousands of pieces of glass that remained after cutting individual elements for his windows.
Genuine Tiffany Lamps routinely sell for $10,000 or more. Many sell at auction in the six-figure-range up to a staggering $2-million-plus for a single lamp! Not bad considering in 1900 the average Tiffany lamp sold for $100 with some of the smaller examples bringing as little as $40.
A major downside to super-high-priced antiques and collectibles though, is that they continually bring out a fresh crop of reproductions that flood the market. Most are well-intentioned copies not meant to fool anybody; however, there are unscrupulous dealers and out-right forgers that add maker’s marks and use aging techniques to bilk unsuspecting collectors and interior decorators out of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Identifying a Fake Tiffany Lamp
It is estimated that for every genuine Tiffany lamp there is a fake one. Now, when I use the term “fake” I’m not referring to a newly created Tiffany-style lamp based on an original Tiffany Studios design—I’m referring to a lamp created or altered specifically with the intention of being passed-off as an original coming out of either L. C. Tiffany & Associated Artists, L. C. Tiffany & Co or the Tiffany Studios in New York during the mid-1890’s through 1930’s. Without deliberate attempts to deceive, a newly created Tiffany-style lamp is not a fake in the sense that no one is trying to pass it off as genuine—it’s simply a nice piece of decorative art.
So how can we tell? Well, you first need to realize that it is much easier to tell if a lamp is a fake rather than if it is genuine. This is because true Tiffany originals were hand-made and were not consistently marked and some lack marks altogether. There is no hard-and-fast rule to follow that says they did it “this way” or “that way”. Therefore, you’ll have a better chance of revealing a fake by catching the tell-tale signs of the many methods used to deceive, and eliminate those characteristics from the lamp in question.
Characteristics of a fake Tiffany lamp:
- POOR QUALITY AND SHODDY CRAFTSMANSHIP. It’s safe to say that if your lamp was manufactured with low-grade glass and sloppy soldering, or if the base was made of pot metal, chances are it’s a fake. Tiffany only used high-quality materials and expert craftsmen.
- APPLIED ANTIQUING TO THE SHADE. Take a look at any dust-soiling or grime covering your lampshade. Was it purposely sprayed on or coated? You should be able to take a Q-tip with some acetone (nail-polish remover) and swab the glass without any dirt or grime coming off that couldn’t also be taken off with soap and water. No coloring should transfer to the Q-tip from any Tiffany leaded glass shade.
- ABSENCE OF CRACKS OR LOOSE ELEMENTS. It is rare to find an authentic Tiffany leaded glass shade without at least few cracks. This is because the heat generated by the light-bulb stresses the glass causing it to crack. Also, it is unusual for no pieces to become loose over the years. You can gently tap the individual elements and notice that some will rattle. If all the pieces are tight and without cracks, it doesn’t mean it’s a fake, but I’d be skeptical.
- UNEVEN MAKERS MARKS. Although some Tiffany shades were not marked, many were, and almost all lamp bases were. Also, note that there was no consistent method of marking Tiffany lamps, so this can be quite confusing. At any rate, the one tell-tale sign on marked pieces is that all letters and numerals in a single line mark should be of the same height. Forgers sometimes use two different sets of stamps to mark their fakes resulting in uneven markings. Some bases were marked with the TGDCO logo and TIFFANY STUDIOS NEW YORK. If the logo appears without the text, it is likely a fake.
- FRESH MAKERS MARKS. When pieces were marked, they were usually die-stamped, and they were usually stamped before the patina was applied. Therefore, if the mark does not have the same patina as the surrounding area, I’d be skeptical. Usually when a fake piece is stamped after the patination process, the marks appear shiny with fresh metal exposed. Be aware too that many of the newer forgeries have the mark casted in the base during the molding process which would mean they would pass the patina test; however, stamped marks have a sharper appearance than molded pieces, and after a while it is pretty easy to tell the difference.
- MARKED WITH A MIXTURE OF UPPER AND LOWER CASE LETTERS. All original Tiffany Studios marks are in full capitol letters. If there are any lower case letters, beware.
- MARKS CONTAINING SERIFS ON THE LETTERS. Serifs are the little tails or hooks on the letters of some fonts (such as Times New Roman). All original Tiffany Studios marks contain only sans-serif letters—the “T” in Tiffany should consist of only two lines without any little accents. An authentic TGDCO logo however, if it should appear on your piece, does have serifs in its letters.
4/23/2007: I found a Socket Tutorial that may prove useful for identifying the year your lamp was made.