Cowan's Corner

Now That’s Worth Framing! Tiffany Metalwares from the Early 20th Century

By Wes Cowan
Posted 5/2010

One of the most common of all household accessories is the picture frame. Enter nearly any home, and you will find at least one framed photograph adorning any mantel or tabletop. The act of framing prized photographs has been around as long as photography itself, which by all accounts was invented in 1826 by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Some thirty years later, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s artistic creations would forever change how photographs were framed.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) is often associated with Tiffany & Co., the firm founded in 1837 by his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902). From an early age, Louis Tiffany had natural artistic ability; he was a master painter, a designer and maker of elegant furniture. He then graduated to designing stained glass windows, which he considered a form of painting. In 1894, Tiffany registered his trademark for Favrile glass, meaning handmade, and applied this term to all stained window glass, blown glass and mosaics. This term Favrile was intended simply as a guarantee to his customers and to future collectors that the glass was of the finest quality.

1920’s Tiffany Studios eight-piece desk set in the Zodiac pattern,
sold for $1,955 in 2005 by Cowan’s.

In 1897, Tiffany opened a foundry and metal shop as an expansion of his Corona New York Tiffany Furnaces glass company. The first important exhibition of products from the Tiffany foundry was held in London in 1899. All metalware produced at Tiffany’s foundry was made of bronze and carefully handworked by either chasing or etching and then given a patina finished in silver, gold, brown or green. Each piece was individually numbered in succession of style; by 1900, the numbers were already running into the tens of thousands, prompting the addition of a mark reading, “Tiffany Studios, New York.”

13-piece Tiffany Studios Zodiac pattern desk set, including picture frame,
sold for $3,220 in 2007 by Cowan’s.

As the list of successive numbers rapidly grew, so did the styles and types of metalware being produced. By 1920, a complete desk set would comprise a total of approximately 26 different items, from letter racks to stamp boxes and even clip holders. Sets as complete as these are difficult to find on the market now, as they were typically broken apart through the years. A smaller set, which is more easily found, would have a minimum of nine items. Not only were there many different objects to choose from, but there were also a variety of patterns, fifteen in all, with some of the more popular being the Grapevine, Zodiac, Venetian and American Indian. It was evident early on that Tiffany’s metalware was a success in the American and European markets—until about 1937 when Tiffany Studios bronzes were considered worthless, many being scrapped during the Second World War. Not until around 1960 was there a rebirth of interest in Tiffany Studios bronzes.

Now in the 21st century, there has surfaced a new group of collectors who consider Tiffany metalware a worthy item to add to their collection. In 1910, a Tiffany Studios Bronze photo frame would have retailed for $11. Today, that same Tiffany frame at auction would sell for $1,500 to $2,000. I would imagine that picture on your mantel is priceless—well, at least the frame! 

About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally-recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at Research by Janet Rogers.




Tiffany Studios stamp box in the Pine Needle pattern with green slag glass and bronze doré metal overlay, sold for $412 in Cowan’s June 6, 2009 Fine and Decorative Art Auction.

Tiffany Studios patinated bronze counter-balance lamp with Favrile Linenfold shade, sold for $6,613 in 2005 by Cowan’s.











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