Collecting Italian glass

by Will Farmer 


When people talk about Italian art glass, they are usually referring to the vases goblets, and decorative objects produced in the city of Venice and the adjacent island of Murano. Indeed, Murano is the heart of Italian glassmaking, the place where, in the late 13th century, glassmakers were banished to avovid their furnaces setting fire to the glorious city.

Even though the middle of the 19th century was a time of much innovation for Venetian and Murano artisans, the periods of interest to most collectors of antique and vintage Italian art glass are the years between the two world wars and the post-war decades of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ercole Barovier was perhaps the most influential figure of the 1920s and 1930s. His family’s glassmaking roots went all the way back to the Renaissance, and his family’s first company, Artisti Barovier, was established in 1878. In 1920, the firm changed its name to Vetreria Artistica Barovier & Co., which lasted until its merger with Ferro Toso in 1936. Before Ercole Barovier took over the firm’s designs, his family’s company hired some of the best glass masters in Murano, including future Venini legend Vittorio Zecchini. 

For its part, Ferro Toso was known in the 1920s and early 1930s for vases that combined classic Venetian forms with bold coloration. Toso’s Primavera series from this period is particularly prized, as are the pieces that were made using a new technique developed by Toso for coloring hot glass.

The post-war years were unquestionably Murano’s most glorious period. In the 1940s, Barovier & Toso produced thick, clear pieces with textured surfaces called Lenti, as well as the exceptional and highly colorful vases in the now-rare Oriente series. In the 1950s, Barovier & Toso would introduce flat-side cylindrical vases in basketweave cane patterns or checkerboard designs.

Seguso Vetri d’Arte was another firm that made strides in the 1930s but really came into its own after the war. Some of its thick, organic-shaped vases were three-sided, others were twisted and pulled until they resembled an elephant’s trunk. Salviati’s Dino Martens brought a more painterly sensibility to Murano glass, using vase and jug forms as canvases for vividly colored abstract-expressionistic statements that were perfectly in tune with the Mid-Century modern aesthetic of the day.

Of the post-war Murano glass factories, Venini is perhaps the most highly regarded, and certainly the best known. In addition to boasting the talents of Paolo Venini himself, who perfected the sommerso technique in the 1930s and used the traditional technique of inciso to create vases that appeared to glow from within, the company attracted architects and artists such as Carlo Scarpa, Fulvia Bianconi, and Gio Ponti to Murano.

Scarpa was considered the Frank Lloyd Wright of glass, which is to say that he injected modernism into the look of this traditional medium. After Scarpa left Venini in the 1940s to devote himself to architecture, his son, Tobia, joined the firm. Bianconi took his background as an illustrator and applied it to glass, using the emphatic forms produced by Venini’s glassblowers as armatures for his witty explorations of color—patchworks, horizontal stripes, and polka dots were particular favorites.

Ponti was an architect by training but Venini brought out the painter in him. For Venini, he designed flared vases constructed of nothing but multi-colored lengths of cane, or bottles wrapped in frilly spirals to suggest the lines of a skirt. Even his most ostensibly conservative pieces contained colorful twists, such as a bulbous-bottomed bottle whose body is perfectly bisected by a shift from red to green.

Where to start.....

There are several criteria to reflect on when first considering collecting in any field, but especially Art Glass. Firstly and most importantly DO YOU LIKE THE PIECE? Far too many people fall into the trap of buying the name rather than viewing a piece of glass as an individual item. 

You may want to collect glass from a specific period in time, or glassware produced by a particular designer or company. Before starting out it may be advisable to find out how easy it is to find the sort of glass you want to incorporate into your collection. This should be informed by both the price and availability of any particular type of glass. There can be little more frustrating than having a sum of money put aside to expand your glass collection, only to find nothing to buy. Finally, and most delicately, you need to study the amount of money you are going to have to invest in new acquisitions. At one end of the spectrum you can find some examples starting at less than £50.00, whilst at the other extreme you can expect to pay £10,000 and higher for highly rated and rare pieces of glass. So obviously the cost of a particular type of glass can be a very important consideration indeed.

Condition is also a very important factor, and although it would be nice if each piece of glass in you collection were a perfect example, the reality is often far different. As a general rule of thumb, you should expect and accept fair wear and tear, after all the glass from this period can often be heavy, relatively old, and indeed initially functional. 

You may not ever consider putting a bunch of daffodils in your glorious new vase, but rest assured there might well have been a time when it did hold flowers. Water damage, scaling or sickness, is one of the glass collectors worst enemies. Although a small amount may be acceptable, heavy staining is most definitely not. A scaled vase is almost impossible to clean. In contrast, scratching and fine wear to the base is not only to be expected, but can provide a good indication that an item of glass is genuine. Whilst some exterior damage may be acceptable, try to steer clear of examples of glass with serious scratches or chips. Although such items are sometimes restorable and it may be worthwhile having the work done, it can be an expensive and time-consuming job, with no guarantees of success.

Finally, and most importantly, enjoy the time you spend both learning and collecting and you will develop a collection of glass that will not only give you pride and pleasure, but also a great potential for future profit. After all 20th Century design is the field with the biggest proven growth area in the entire antique and collecting market.

Posted on 1 June 2019 in: Auction life

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