ART MARKET / Twentieth-century masterglass: Thanks to an American millionaire, London is offering a rare opportunity to see - and to buy - some of the finest work of Rene Lalique. Geraldine Norman reports

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The Independent Culture
THE glittering, translucent achievements of one of the greatest glassmakers of the century, Rene Lalique, are getting a magnificent showing in New Bond Street until 14 October, courtesy of an American machine tools millionaire. Since the late 1970s, Joel Shapiro, 54, has been one of the world's leading collectors of Lalique. His wife got him started by collecting Lalique scent bottles; then he bought a seriously rare Lalique vase for her, more or less by mistake, and the discovery got him hooked.

Fifteen or so years later he is rebuilding the interior of his house outside Detroit to accommodate their 400-piece Lalique collection. While the builders are in, he has lent a good deal of the collection to the Lalique Boutique, in London. And some of it is for sale.

Rene Lalique, who was born in 1860, first came to fame as a jewellery designer. His great originality lay in combining precious and

semi-precious stones and enamels into sinuous Art Nouveau designs based on naturalistic flower and animal forms. His work was appreciated for the elaboration of the settings rather than the value of the stones he incorporated into them. He showed his work at the jewellers Cartier and Boucheron and at many exhibitions, winning the Legion d'Honneur in 1897. Lalique's jewels were among the most internationally admired exhibits at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1900.

Having incorporated vitreous enamels and the occasional piece of coloured glass into his jewels, he became interested in making glass vessels from 1902. At first he modelled his vases in wax and cast them in glass by the 'cire perdue' or lost wax method; since the wax was melted away during casting each piece was unique. The vessels were decorated in high sculptural relief and, as with his jewellery, motifs were taken from nature.

It was a commission that he received in 1907 to design scent bottles for his friend the perfumier Francois Coty that changed Lalique's whole approach to his art. He began to design glass for multiple reproduction, rather than one-off exclusive creations. And he set up his own glassworks to produce them.

His fame and popularity were at their peak in the inter-war years, when he was making scent bottles, car mascots, lamps, glass plaques, vases and other vessels, adapting his designs to the fashionable geometric lines of Art Deco. He made glass fittings for several liners, including the Normandie; he designed glass fountains for the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysees.

His glass was made in moulds, either by blowing or pouring in the liquid metal, and his most characteristic colour was an opalescent milky white. From time to time, however, he also used brightly coloured glass and colourless glass incorporating contrasts of translucent and semi-opaque areas.

When Rene Lalique died in 1945, his business was inherited by his son Mark, who concentrated on the manufacture of lead crystal glass; when he died in 1976 Rene's grand- daughter, Marie-Claude Lalique, took over, and she still presides over the premises in the Rue Royale, Paris. There are branch shops in London and New York and the business continues to thrive - selling new glass. The exhibition of Shapiro's collection, which opened last week, is a most unusual occurrence.

While the show is primarily devoted to glass vessels, there is also an exceptional group of Rene Lalique designs and sketches which are up for sale. A folio containing 150 drawings, hitherto quite unknown, turned up in the Paris trade earlier this year and was bought en bloc by Shapiro. Hardly any drawings are known outside the family collection, which is never likely to come on to the market. It is thought that this group must have been hoarded at an early stage by a factory worker or family member - unless it was removed during the wartime occupation of the factory by the Germans.

There are some highly decorative watercolours of flowers which Rene clearly made from life so as to incorporate them in later designs, some miscellaneous designs and leaves from a series of sketch books. The latter, though not showy, are of great historical importance; no other sketch books are known to have survived. He seems to have carried them round in his pockets, using them to sketch acquaintances, museum exhibits, architecture and things that caught his eye. In addition, he noted down design ideas. The drawings prove, for instance, that Lalique designed furniture and architectural features for his Paris house. The 65 sketch book leaves are for sale as a group for pounds 10,000, while individual watercolours are priced between pounds 250 and pounds 6,000 - for a highly finished, and signed, design for a necklace with a masked-head pendant.

There is also much affordable glass on view since the 200 or so lots of Lalique scheduled to be auctioned at Bonhams in Knightsbridge on 20 October have been incorporated into the show. Bonhams has held one auction a year entirely devoted to Lalique glass for the past 10 years. It is organised by Eric Knowles of Antiques Road Show fame. This year 50 pieces come from the Shapiro collection; the rest were brought into Bonhams in ones and twos by private owners. The sale is particularly strong on scent bottles and car mascots, two fields that always attract specialist collectors.

It should be a good moment for anyone who enjoys glass to start collecting. Lalique first came back into fashion in the 1970s, along with the rest of Art Deco, but the late 1980s saw an exaggerated price spiral and prices collapsed in 1990. In the months after the Gulf war, if it sold at all, Lalique was fetching around 40 per cent of previous prices. Eric Knowles tells me that there was a very successful Lalique sale in New York last summer and there are indications that the market is turning around again. Price estimates for the 20 October sale, however, have been set at conservative levels; they start at around pounds 100 and go up to pounds 7,500.

The exhibition is at the Lalique Boutique, 162 New Bond Street, London W1, to 14 October. The sale at Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7, is on 20 October at 6pm.