Art Nouveau pieces by the Daum factory excel in eye appeal and technical wizardry.
When Philip Chasen readies his booth at a fair, he has firm ideas of what ought to go where. Chasen, who has dealt in Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass and lamps for more than four decades, gives the choicest real estate to the Art Nouveau-era works of the Daum factory. “The showcase goes from front to back. Daum is always in the front of the case,” he says. “There’s more interest in Daum than anything I sell. I get the most inquiries about Daum.”
That wasn’t always true. Earlier on, Chasen’s clients favored art glass by Emile Gallé, the renowned Art Nouveau artist-wizard who lived in the French city of Nancy (which also happens to be the site of the Daum factory). But things have changed. “When I started, it was 60-40 Gallé, but now, the interest is 60-40 Daum,” he says, and he has a notion as to why. “When you look at my booth and put Gallé next to Daum, the contrast is pretty stark. Daum has more details, and sometimes there are more colorful subjects on Daum versus Gallé. It’s the level of detail and the level of color.”
It’s an impressive achievement for a family who got into glassmaking pretty much by accident. Daum came into being in 1878 after French financier Jean Daum accepted a glass factory as payment after it failed. Jean died in 1885, leaving his sons, Auguste and Antonin, to lead the glassworks to its Art Nouveau heights. Daum outlived Gallé’s company and is chugging ahead happily today, but its most sought-after pieces are still those that it made between 1890 and 1914, when World War I forced factories to close or repurpose to serve the war effort.
It’s hard to pin down just how productive Daum was during that span of time. Even if factory records were kept and survive, Daum dealers and gallerists do not depend on them as heavily as they might for other types of company-made antiques. “Judging by how much is available on the market today, I would say that their production was considerable,” says Tina Oldknow, former senior curator of modern and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. “Both Gallé and Daum had their larger-edition, more commercial products, and then the rarer, high-end pieces that were made in limited edition.”
Daum may not have shaped the visual style of Art Nouveau to the extent that Alphonse Mucha or Gallé did, but it did make its own distinct contribution. “One thing I see in Daum glass designs is more of an emphasis on landscapes, as opposed to individual flora, as one sees in Gallé,” Oldknow says. Daum’s landscape vases draw collectors just as powerfully now as they did when they lured buyers into boutiques more than a century ago. Coveted Daum motifs include Prairie scenes, which unite a pale pink sky with green lawns full of flowers that are as distinct and identifiable as any in Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring. The artists who painted Daum Prairie scenes varied the sizes of the wild flowers to create perspective, placing the largest blooms at the bottom of the form and smaller ones above them to give the viewer the impression of looking out over a lush field.
More prevalent is the motif known as the Winter Scene, which depicts an ember-orange sky, barren trees, and snow-covered ground. “What’s nice is the white of the snow adds color and a lot of depth to the composition,” says Ludovic Rousset, sales consultant at M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans, speaking of a 10-inch Daum Winter Scene vase on offer. “If you take the same piece and turn it around, all the sides are different, but they have the same depth of composition, which is fascinating.”
Daum’s artisans would splash these motifs and others across a breathtakingly broad variety of shapes, from footed bowls to pitchers to vases that were round and bulbous, rigidly rectangular, cylindrical, or urn-like and classical, and others that defy easy description. “Daum has beautiful forms as well as beautiful decorations, and they’re both varied,” says Jack Seidenberg, president of Seidenberg Antiques in Manhattan. “They made a lot of different styles, just as Gallé did.”
That said, Daum collectors do not tend to whip themselves into a frenzy over a rare shape. In general, motifs, details, and colors matter more. Shapes can even put collectors off a prized motif in some instances. Chasen reports that he had a Prairie pitcher that lingered in his stock longer than it strictly should have. “I thought it would go out immediately, but it took a while to sell,” he says. “I gathered from interactions I had that many people didn’t care for the shape.”
While they assumed the forms of pitchers, lamps, and vases, Daum pieces were regarded as works of art both by those who bought them when they were new and those who collect them today. “Daum believed it was making contemporary artistic glass. They [the Daum brothers] didn’t believe they were making functional art glass,” says Ben Macklowe of the Macklowe Gallery in Manhattan. “The pieces are relatively small in stature. You can take them in your hands and gaze upon them. They’re portals of contemplation, to look at and think about.” The strength of Macklowe’s argument becomes clear when you take a piece of Daum glass into your hands. “The more expensive pieces feel fantastic,” he says, noting that those decorated with effects accomplished through the wheel-carving technique, an extra, labor-intensive step, “…are very soft to the touch. Like frozen butter.”
It’s certainly possible to put a piece of Daum to work, but few collectors ever take that gamble. “In 12 years of visiting clients, I’ve never seen a Daum vase with water and flowers in it,” says Mike Fredericks, department head of rare lamps and glass for the James D. Julia auction house in Fairfield, Me. The only exceptions he sees are Daum lamps. They’ve always been regarded as accent lighting, and collectors place them in protected spots in a room and rewire them appropriately.
Tastes in the Daum market have shifted over time. Japanese collectors dominated so completely in the late 1980s that dealers who lived through the 1990 downturn and the 2008 financial crisis agree that 1990 was worse. “The Japanese were very big buyers in the late 1980s. They influenced the market to the extreme,” Chasen says. “What they like are the more sophisticated pieces—not the most pretty, but the most technically sophisticated pieces. Americans are more influenced by what’s pretty. They’ll go for pretty over sophisticated. I can say to an American, in general, ‘This technique took two weeks to do instead of three days,’ and they might say, ‘Yeah, but it’s not pretty.’”
“Pretty,” in the context of Daum, tends to mean bold colors and decorations that bewitch viewers regardless of whether they’re deeply schooled in the nuances of French Art Nouveau-era glassmaking techniques or know less than nothing about them. In June 2016, James Julia offered a large (more than 16 inches tall) undated Daum padded and wheel-carved vase. “Padding” involves touching a shard of molten glass to the surface of a cool vase and later cutting away and shaping the blob, via wheel-carving, into a distinct decoration. Daum’s artisans used padding to apply a splotch of white glass to the vase and relied on wheel-carving to turn the splotch into a delicate-looking flower. Estimated at $7,000–10,000, the vase sold for $17,775. “It was a really interesting piece,” says Fredericks. “It had a free-form top and it was very organic-looking.”
Daum standouts currently available through Seidenberg include a circa-1900 vitrified landscape vase that stands about 10 inches tall and depicts a single tree sprouting blazing autumn gold foliage against a deep blue background. “Vitrified” is a word that Daum seems to have coined to describe the technique of applying powdered colorants to the surface of a piece. “There’s a lot of work going on here. Different techniques all create this very unusual vase,” Seidenberg says. “It’s very much decorated on both sides, which adds to its value. As you turn it around, it just doesn’t stop. It’s really a marvelous piece.”
Chasen sold an exceptional Daum footed bowl graced with violets. “This particular example was a 10 on shape, a 10 on color, and a 10 on painting. It was beautifully detailed, with gilding on the bottom,” he says. “I wish I had it back. It was pretty great.” He also recently sold a Daum bee vase created with three different techniques: acid-etching, enameling, and gilding around the top rim and the foot. “It’s a rare subject matter and very desirable,” he says. “I saw another [Daum bee vase] recently, and this was so much better. This has really vivid contrasts. It’s a nice example of the model.”
Macklowe now has an exceptionally rare and possibly unique circa-1900 Mimosa vase, which resembles a pale pink orchid dappled with golden berries. “It’s a masterpiece. I love it both for its form and its surface decoration. It’s just fabulous. It’s the only one we’ve ever seen like this,” he says, explaining that it is comprised of four hand-blown parts—the two mimosa cups, the base, and then a tongue that folded over the base to unite it with the cups. Macklowe also has a remarkable cameo glass vase that lays a thick, deep, dark green forest over a vision of a village in the distance against a sunset-orange sky. “It creates an incredible experience, like you’re standing inside the forest,” he says.
Daum has long been yoked to Gallé in the world of Art Nouveau glass. It’s seemingly impossible to talk about Daum glass without Gallé slipping into the conversation, and there’s a good reason for that, as Oldknow explains: “Gallé was a visionary who wrote much about his ideas for art. Antonin Daum was not such a charismatic and original artist, and this is partly why Gallé glass is better known. Daum was certainly the most original and successful of the French art glass companies, after Gallé.”
If Daum keeps beating Gallé in those eye-appeal tests posed by Chasen’s booth displays, it might escape the shadow of its better-known rival for good. It certainly has the chops to stand alone. “It’s important to know that with Daum, the general level of quality is incredibly high,” Macklowe says. “Daum doesn’t seem to sacrifice on quality. You may not like the style or the color, but there are few pieces of Daum that will make you say, ‘Ugh.’”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley