Centuries’ worth of technique meet modern aesthetics to create the incredibly beautiful and complex pieces of 20th-century and contemporary glass art that Venice is famous for.
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It’s 1926 in Italy, on the legendary island of Murano. Your family name is one of the oldest and most revered in the history of Italian glass-blowing, dating back to the 14th century. Your father and your uncle have delighted the world by updating Roman-era techniques to make breathtakingly gorgeous and complex works of glass, but now it’s your turn to lead. Can you live up to your family’s storied reputation?
Fortunately, Ercole Barovier proved himself worthy. Born in 1889, son of Benvenuto Barovier and nephew of Giuseppe Barovier, who were both stars of the 19th-century revival of Murano’s glassworks, Ercole did not train as a glassblower himself. But in 1926 he became artistic director of his father’s company, which bore the family name, and marched forward with confidence. He navigated the Art Deco era, World War II, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and several Venice Biennales and World’s Fairs before retiring in 1972, two years before he died. “He was an amazing guy,” says Jim Oliveira of Glass Past, a New York gallery founded in 1995 and devoted to Italian glass made between 1870 and 1970. “All of those decades, he did incredible work and it never looked tired. It was always fresh and playful, and at the same time, there was a serious consideration about design and about the design sensibilities of the moment. His work was always on the cutting edge.”
Oliveira and his Glass Past cofounder, Sara Blumberg, consulted on a historic June sale at the Chicago auction house Wright that included perhaps the greatest concentration of Ercole Barovier works within the largest, most important auction offering of Barovier glass ever—about 120 of the 212 lots emerged from Barovier furnaces. In fact, there was so much Barovier that Oliveira, Blumberg, and auction house officials had to grapple with the question of whether it was best to disperse everything in a single event. “It was risky to bring them out,” says Oliveira, “but we believed in the material, and it did exceptionally well.”
Held on June 13, the single-owner sale became the second-highest grossing auction of Italian glass ever recorded, its total falling just short of $3 million. It’s an especially strong number considering how few pieces from Venini, Barovier’s great 20th-century rival, appeared in the lineup. The highest-grossing auction of Italian glass, which topped $4.1 million, took place at Wright in May 2014, and that sale boasted many more Venini pieces, including almost two dozen by the much-sought-after Carlo Scarpa. Top-quality 20th-century Italian glass is tough to find regardless; the owner of this collection, who was well-known in the collecting community but didn’t want his name publicized, pursued the material for more than 20 years before consigning it.
The sale’s top lot was not the handiwork of Ercole, but it’s doubtful that he would mind losing the honor. A unique vetro mosaico vase created circa 1918 and credited to Giuseppe and Benvenuto Barovier fetched $137,000 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000. The 7.5-inch-tall vase, graced with a landscape-like image dominated by shades of blue, includes murrines, colored patterns imparted to the glass through a tedious, challenging technique that was first recorded in the Middle East four millennia ago. A more detailed explanation of how the vase was done would require a multi-paragraph detour, so instead, let’s let Oliveira cut to the chase: “There are so many steps involved. It’s an insane process and it’s emblematic of Italian glass generally.”
There’s no telling how many attempts at vetro mosaico failed for every piece that survived the inherent hazards of the production process, but their beauty made them worth the trouble. “Murrines don’t have to be a difficult technique,” says Tina Oldknow, senior curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y., “but the level [of skill] required to make some of these things is very high. Even within the Barovier studio, they had glass-blowers who were specialists in this. People aren’t looking to do this sort of thing now.” Richard Wright, the owner of Wright, has seen only three other examples of the sort of vetro mosaico vase that he sold in June. “The physicality of making those delicate objects is unbelievable,” he says. “Technically, there’s no margin of error. It’s artistic and painterly and wonderful to see. It really is a marriage of art and craft.”
Pieces done on Ercole’s watch could be just as taxing, albeit in different ways. The monumental (14.25-inch) clear Rostrati vase from 1938 is an example of how a photograph and a catalogue entry, while perfectly accurate, can fail to capture how powerful a piece is. “In person, it’s wildly dimensional and heavily sculptural,” says Blumberg. “Spikes are coming off of every conceivable part. It’s magnificent. It’s really an extraordinary example. It caught everyone’s attention, and it certainly caught ours.” Also not quite covered in the lot description of “glass with applications” is that said applications involved individually pulling the spikes by hand from a massive blob of molten glass as it hung from the end of the glass-blower’s pipe. Consider that Wright estimates that the vase “probably weighs about 40 pounds,” and your arms should ache in sympathy for the team of Barovier artisans who realized the design. Oldknow likens the task to “holding a bucket of water on the end of a two-by-four.” Estimated at $10,000–15,000, the Rostrati vase commanded $100,000.
The lots in the auction served as a temporary museum of Ercole’s techniques and of of Italian glass of the past few centuries. The sale started with a series of 19th-century pieces, including some from Salviati and Co. The firm was founded by Antonio Salviati, a former lawyer who breathed life back into Murano’s glass-blowing industry and employed Ercole’s father, uncle, and grand-uncle Giovanni. “They [the 19th-century pieces] are really the roots of the field we’re discussing—how it began, the reinvention and rebirth of this particular applied art,” says Blumberg. “But those pieces are inconsistent in terms of their reception.” The majority of those that drew bids went for sums within their estimates. “It’s a smaller market and harder to sell,” says Wright, explaining that “the aesthetic is more 19th-century than 20th-century. The forms are much more traditional.” Collectors of today are simply not as enamored of ewers, chalices, and the other old-school shapes that were in vogue before World War I.
Collectors of today are also spared the paucity of knowledge that prevailed 30 years ago, when the secondary market for more recently made Italian glass started to take shape. When Blumberg and Oliveira hung out their shingle in 1995, there was very little information about 19th- and 20th-century Italian glass out there, published in Italian, English, or otherwise. They schooled themselves directly by gaining entry to private libraries, rummaging through auction catalogues and Venice Biennale records, and picking brains. The companies’ internal documents helped, too, but that help was limited. “It’s important to recognize we are talking about Italy as opposed to Scandinavia,” Blumberg says, adding that her and Oliveira’s hard-won expertise “really required piecing together from various sources.”
Some things cannot be known with certainty. For instance, it can be difficult to confirm exactly how many examples of a given piece were produced. The concept of the limited edition didn’t really exist in Murano before 1970, but these objects were generally created in small groups, and if a group sold out, the company might eventually make more. The scarcest pieces are those for which six or fewer are known; the next level up represents examples for which about 18–20 survive; and the biggest hits, the ones that were reissued again and again, might number in the hundreds. The hand-made nature of even these super-popular designs ensures that they aren’t abundant. “It’s more along the lines of studio glass,” says Blumberg.
Blumberg and Oliveira draw their line at 1970, and many collectors do as well. After that point, the Murano brands start to lose their mojo, and creative dominance shifts to independent glass artists. Some of this devolution is connected to an inability to let go of old strategies that once protected Murano’s industry but no longer do. Jealously guarding glass-making secrets made sense centuries ago; today, it just guarantees that the knowledge remains with its discoverers until they take it with them to their graves. Oldknow relays a telling anecdote: In the 1960s, Dale Chihuly wrote to 40 glassworks on Murano, asking to come over and learn their techniques; the only company that responded was Venini. It was founded in 1921 by a man from Milan, Paolo Venini, and that Milanese legacy—Italian, yes, but not Muranese—was enough to grant the company outsider status on the island. But arguably, Venini’s openness to outsiders and outside perspectives helped raise its profile with collectors and the world at large, cementing it as the prevailing favorite.
Another issue with post-1970 material is the fall-off in quality, even at the most storied Murano names. “In the ’50s, they [the company artisans] were super-skilled. In the 1960s, they were still skilled,” says Oldknow. “By the late ’60s to the early ’70s, they began to lose skill rapidly, and the quality control was not as strict.” The situation has not improved in the decades since. “There are amazing people, but they’re not working at these companies,” she says. “The skill has really gone down, partly because they were never teaching and training.”
The last four lots in the Wright sale were made by one of those “amazing people,” a living artist upon whom Oldknow and other experts heap praise. Yoichi Ohira, born and trained in Japan, initially relocated to Venice in 1973 to study sculpture and fell under the spell of Murano. He served as artistic director of the de Majo glassworks from 1987–1992, when he struck out on his own. He has since collaborated with some of the island’s most highly respected masters, including glass-blower Livio Serena and glass-cutter Giacomo Barbini. “Ohira is one of the very few who actually still channels the great technical mastery of Murano,” says Wright, explaining that Wright Italian glass auctions never include contemporary artists, except for him. Oldknow of the Corning, which bestowed its 2001 Rakow Commission on Ohira, speculates that collectors of mid-century Italian glass love his work because “it’s still vessel-based, the scale is similar and the complexity is similar, and there’s a lot of the surface patterning that you get in 1950s glass.”
Ohira also carried forward the flame of creativity rekindled by Murano’s revival by rethinking and transforming old ways of making glass. “He’s so innovative. He takes a technology used since antiquity and does something no one has seen before,” Oldknow says. “He shows us a totally new way to conceive of this ancient technique. No one else makes anything even close to this. It only comes from him. While he certainly has imitators, he has a strong, clear vision for something very different in glass.”
Barry Friedman, Ohira’s longtime New York dealer, holds nothing back when speaking about the man, who retired in 2010 and returned to his native Japan after 38 years in Italy. “He’s the most innovative artist working in glass for the past 100 years, in my opinion,” Friedman says. “He’s always changing, always inventing new things.” Almost by definition, Ohira’s works are technically difficult to produce, but Friedman does not hold with the notion that the difficulty is inherent to Ohira’s aesthetic. “It’s not that he likes complexity,” he says. “Sometimes he needs it to get the results he wants.”
The quartet of Ohiras appeared at Wright less than a year after Christie’s London set a world record for the artist at auction. A 13 ½-inch tall Nostalgia vase from 2005, executed with Andrea Zilio and Barbini, featuring berry-like spots of red against a field of blue ringed by a flourish of green, sold for £170,500 ($272,460) against an estimate of £20,000–30,000 ($31,900–47,900) in November 2014. While none of the Ohiras in the Wright auction soared quite as high as that, they all beat their high estimates and garnered five-figure sums. The sale’s final lot, a nine-inch-high vase Ohira executed with Serena in 2003 that resembles a flowering field under a night sky, took in $20,320 against an estimate of $7,000–9,000.
With a fourth healthy single-owner sale under their belts (Wright has been holding Italian glass auctions, with Glass Past as consultants, since 2011), Blumberg and Oliveira are thinking about 2016 and are confident in where the Italian glass market is headed. “I think it’s going to keep growing,” says Oliveira, citing how the Wright auctions and museum exhibitions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Carlo Scarpa show in late 2013 and early 2014, are keeping the material in the public consciousness. “Collectors are better informed, and there’s more information about the field in general. I think it could go where the Tiffany market has gone.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley