Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I would have never known..

On the day I almost bumped into Lady Gaga Seeing her was not my biggest surprise that day. That said, when I noticed a small crowd gathered around the entrance of the Helmsley Hotel, I suspected a celebrity had drawn them there. Initially, I’d thought that a tall bald guy, at least a head taller than anyone else, was the attraction. Camera in hand, I approached. That’s when I heard someone begin a question with, “Lady Gag, do you…” With that clue, I looked down and spotted her solid blond mop of hair slowly making its way curbside to her huge black SUV. All smiles, she climbed in and was whisked away. That happened in less than a minute as I walked past the Helmsley toward the Plaza Hotel. And beyond. I was in a hurry to see what promised to be a sizable collection of Tiffany stained glass lamps. As I neared the Macklowe Gallery at 667 Madison Avenue, I had no idea I would enjoy a private viewing. “Are you Barry?” When I answered, I was buzzed into the glass front door and immediately faced a second one. Seconds later, that one was buzzed open too. “You called earlier?” “Yes,” I answered, although I had a difficult time focusing on the smiling woman in high heels who had greeted me. To my left were three Tiffany Lamps on display a little more than an arm length’s away on my left. I steered my attention to the sales lady. “I saw that you have a basement floor with a large collection.” “Indeed,” she said, as she led me to the stairs behind her. No one was down there; she switched on the lights. I followed her. Halfway, on a landing, I saw what I had imagined I would find. Original Tiffany lamps of all shapes and sizes stood on the floor, sat on shelves and rested on ledges that served as tabletops. In that wonderland of genuine Tiffany creations, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to look first. Prices for small desk lamps with turtleback glass inserts started at $7500; many of the full sized beauties with intricate patterns were hundreds of thousands. Each! For about ten minutes, I had the place to myself. Since prices were coded, I didn’t bother looking for that information. Instead, I studied the more than century old American art. And I was impressed. “Would you like to be on our mailing list?” I answered, “Of course!” despite knowing the question was meant to be a gentile way of getting me to leave. Moments later, someone buzzed me out. Immediately I headed for Lillian Nassau, a much smaller genuine Tiffany store on 220 East 57th Street. I recognized the store immediately; my partner and I had visited it a few months ago. While there, we had met the owner, a woman I knew I’d recognize when I rang the bell to enter. Because there was only one door, I almost felt like home. But the owner, Arlie Sulka, wasn’t the woman who greeted me. “I’m Doris, may I help you?” She was so polite that I wondered whether she might be Arlie’s mother. “I’m looking for a banker’s lamp,” I told her, “an original Tiffany.” At first, she appeared puzzled. “Do you mean a desk lamp?” she asked. As she saw me nod, she walked toward a row of shelves in the back of the store. “Here’s one,” she said, “solid metal, and it works.” She sat the lamp on what looked to be a dinner table in the middle of the room. “Is it signed?” I asked. Although I didn’t mean to be difficult, I knew that mattered, especially if the lamp was to fetch its price of $9500. She turned it upside down. I saw scratch marks. She told me that someone had tried to scrape off a felt covering on the bottom. I looked closely. There was no Tiffany signature, just scratches. “We’ll guarantee that’s real,” she told me. “And maybe we can come down on the price a little.” I thanked her, then turned to a huge piece that was big enough to have served as a room divider. I marveled at the craftsmanship. She told me that they had sold it long ago, and were selling it for the second time. The family didn’t want to keep it any longer. The size of it reminded me of the amazing stained glass window my Dad had made for our Temple. Doris seemed fascinated when I mentioned that story. I wasn’t surprised. She’d told me she had sold stained glass for more than thirty years. “You might want to go to the Armory,” she suggested. “We have a booth in the Art and Design Show there.” When I thanked her for her kindness, she asked me to wait for a minute. “Did you know that many of the Tiffany lamps were made by women?” I didn’t. I’m sure I looked surprised. “Let me get a book for you,” she insisted. I helped her reach it from a stack on a top shelf. She handed me a copy of Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland. “Thanks,” I said. “I’ll send you one of mine.” She seemed pleased. I know I was. Eventually, my partner and I reached the Armory and found Lillian Nassau’s space. It was elegant, but warm. Less than half a dozen Tiffany lamps were there. One of those, a beautiful green stained glass floor lamp, was one we had seen months earlier. Arlie Sulka seemed to remember us. “Did Doris give you a ticket to get in?” she asked. I told her that she hadn’t been able to find one. Arlie apologized. Then she answered our question. “That green lamp is $65,000. We sold it years ago. Now the current owner has brought it to us.” We were glad to see Arlie, but we were also impressed to find that her lamp was one of the least expensive items in the show. I must admit I fell in love with an impressionist painting that sold for “Something in the six-fifties,” as in $650,000. But that wasn’t my biggest surprise. That would come on my flight home when I began to read Clara and Mr. Tiffany. I discovered that, although Tiffany made the glass he used for his creations, he didn’t make any money. In fact, his stained glass business was losing money. Changing that was only possible because Tiffany heeded many bits of advice from Clara. One of them startled me. She told him that he really ought to make stained glass lampshades. B.Koplen 11/20/13