E’RE great lovers of antique and 20th century glass chez nous, but I confess, none of what we own comes from the Bohemian factory of Loetz... that is, as far as I know.
World renowned for its exotic iridescent wares, the company’s earlier accomplishments and many of its products were a mystery, until recently.
Mike Moir is one specialist dealer with at least some of the answers and he invites readers of this column to visit his stand at the upcoming Antiques For Everyone at the NEC in Birmingham (see panel below).
Founded in 1836 in the Southern Bohemian town of Klostermühle, today part of the Czech Republic, the glassworks first came into the hands of the Loetz family in 1852.
Little is known about these early years, but in 1900 they took their new wares to the Paris World Fair and astounded visitors from around the globe. Their success was relatively short-lived, however.
By 1925, they were desperately trying to re-invent themselves. Their glass had gone out of fashion, and by the time of the outbreak of the First World War, this once-thriving business was effectively finished.
“Loetz’s status suffered an equally bumpy ride among dealers and collectors,” Mike tells me.
“During the 1970s and 1980s, iridescent Loetz stood at the pinnacle of collectable glassware, which resulted in most pieces of fine iridised Bohemian glass being marketed under their name.
“These pieces were avidly sought out, and often commanded massive prices. As research methods improved, it soon became apparent that much of what was labelled Loetz wasn’t Loetz at all.
“However they were not fakes. In fact, they were glass made by Loetz’s many neighbours and competitors, some of whom were almost as skilled as Loetz.
“In the confusion, prices of the better pieces of Loetz plummeted.
“But then something rare occurred: instead of a total collapse, the brand resurrected itself, albeit with a new emphasis on correct identification.
“Today, fine samples of Loetz glasswork are priced highly, and the collectors’ market is stronger than ever,” Mike says.
Loetz – or to give it its correct name, Loetz Witwe (“the company owned by the widow Loetz”) – saw its fortunes turn in 1880, when the widow appointed her nephew, Maximilion Von Spaun, as head of the glassworks.
Max realised quickly that to make this ageing company successful, he would have to do something radical.
His biggest competitors in the world market were Harrach in central Bohemia, and Josephinenhütte in nearby German Silesia. They were accompanied by a multitude of smaller enterprises, both finishing houses and glassworks, situated in Bohemia and worldwide.
It was a time of aesthetic and artistic change, leading to an increased focus on the arts of China, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East, particularly Persian and Islamic imagery.
Closer to home, there were strong revivals in Classicism, Rococo and Gothic styles.
Developments in glass-making were similarly dramatic. Brighter and more varied colours were developed, and enamelling and gilding methods increased in sophistication.
Hot working became easier, enabling two or more differentcoloured pieces of glass to be fused while still hot.
Perhaps most importantly, new techniques allowed the “flashing” of colours onto vessels, meaning one colour could fade into another, giving an entirely new look.
Von Spaun utilised these modem practices to make commercially viable glassware and within a few years, his attention was alerted to Louis Tiffany’s marvellous “Favrile” glass, which he realised his company could replicate and potentially improve on. By 1898, Loetz was making iridised glass that could compete with the world’s best.
“It is only recently that Loetz’s early secrets have begun to be revealed,” Mike said. “Literally tons of Victorian coloured and decorated glassware flooded the UK, and every other country, in the late 19th century, most of it essentially unmarked, so it made determining the country of origin a nightmare, and establishing an original maker impossible.
“To make things worse, some wholesalers gained UK copyrights for the more successful designs, meaning a piece could be marked with a British copyright number and still have been made by an unknown Bohemian glassworks.
“Factory records in Bohemia and Silesia have been accessible since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, even though these records still exist, they are mostly plain outline drawings with little extra information,” he said.
While amazing discoveries have been made, the archives are truly massive and largely unsorted. In contrast, much if not all of the glass sold by Max Emanuel of London has proved to originate at Loetz.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg though,” Mike said. “Many more exciting discoveries are still possible.”
Adding to the confusion, most Bohemian enamelled glassware bears ciphers and marks on the bottom.
“They are not maker’s marks as such. They were probably put there to tell the enamellers what pattern, image, size, shape and so on, to decorate the vase or glass with,” Mike said.
“There is a wild diversity of symbols and for years they have been considered indecipherable. In many cases they remain a mystery, but slowly, over time, eminent researchers have determined certain styles of format that were unique to certain glass houses.”
A capital letter followed by a two or three-digit number is now known to be a shape code for Harrach. This is often followed by a strange fractionlike squiggle that seems to identify the Harrach enamel pattern.
More recently it has been discovered that a Roman numeral, followed by a slash and a number, often unreadable, was uniquely used by the Loetz in-house enamelling department to identify patterns.
This, combined with other recent Loetz discoveries, has led to the identification of a gigantic new amount of Loetz glass from 18801900.
Things are not as simple as they appear though. Loetz was known to finish blanks from diverse houses (Harrach among them).
Also, as Loetz sold on their own blanks for finishing, there is high chance that a significant proportion of these so-called ‘Loetz’ glass pieces are actually collaborative works.
“It is still early days. Bigger and more important discoveries await us in the future, and no doubt corrections will be made to our existing knowledge. Meanwhile, enjoy this fine glass in light of knowing who made it,” Mike adds.