The brilliant exhibit of Tiffany lamps at the New-York Historical Society couples art with history.
I had never before heard of Dr. Egon Neustadt until a docent at the New-York Historical Society mentioned the name.
While at the museum that day to see another exhibition, Celebrating Bill Cunningham, we walked into the museum’s Gallery of Tiffany Lamps, not sure what would be there. The docent standing just inside the door immediately recognized the amazed look on our faces.
We were surrounded by 132 Tiffany lamps, electrified and artfully displayed, either hanging, on tables, or on the floor. The ambient light in the room played off the vibrant colors of the glass.
“This is the largest lit collection of Tiffany lamps on display anywhere in the world,” she said.
“How did the museum acquire all of them?” I asked.
She said they were all donated to the museum by a single collector, a Jewish orthodontist from Flushing, New York (in the borough of Queens)—not far from the area where I grew up. To amass a collection like that, we imagined that Dr. Neustadt had probably put a lot of kids in braces in his day.
The docent continued telling the story: In 1935, Neustadt and his wife Hildegarde—not-very-wealthy, recently married, Viennese émigrés—purchased their first Tiffany lamp (a daffodil lamp) for about $12.50 at a second-hand shop in Greenwich Village. Stained glass lamps had fallen out of fashion so the price was right, and the style complemented the couple’s Jacobean home décor.
The orthodontist became a successful real estate developer with the passion and means to become the consummate Tiffany lamp collector. Over five decades, he amassed more than 200 Tiffany lamps of different shapes, sizes, colors, and designs.
His wife, HIldegarde, died in 1961 and Neustadt died in 1984 at the age of 87. His obituary in the New York Times reported:
“He [Neustadt] said he bought every type of lamp that Louis Comfort Tiffany made, even if he did not like it. ‘The point was to have a definitive collection that would show to others the full range of Tiffany’s work,’’ he said.”
That same year, Neustadte gave a large portion of his encyclopedic collection, the 132 Tiffany lamps and three Tiffany windows to the New-York Historical Society, the city’s oldest museum.
With a little bit of research, I later learned that the non-profit Neustadt Collection, founded by the couple arranged for another 25 lamps to be displayed in a permanent gallery at the Queens Museum.
The Tiffany Gallery at the Historical Society
Spread over two floors with a magnificent glass spiral staircase connecting them, the interactive, multimedia exhibit not only displays the lamps, each a one-of-a-kind piece of art, but also recounts the history of how they were assembled by hand at a factory in Corona, Queens.
The docent explained that the striking, contemporary space accommodating the permanent Tiffany exhibit was created about a year and a half ago. Award-winning architect Eva Jiřičná designed the renovation, part of the Henry Luce III Center on the fourth floor of the museum.
Visitors learn that many of the floral designs of the Tiffany lamps were actually created by “Tiffany Girls.” These women worked in Manhattan under a young Tiffany employee Clara Driscoll (1861-1944), whose role remained relatively obscure for many years. Men worked separately at a factory in Queens where they assembled the lamps.
Driscoll oversaw the designs executed by the women’s glass-cutting department of the company, which employed some 300 people at its peak. The Tiffany Girls carefully chose each of the pieces of colored glass to create the fabulous designs that showcase the beauty of nature. Correspondence to her mother links Driscoll with the design of the iconic Tiffany wisteria lamps, each comprised of 2000 pieces of glass. Some of them are now valued at over $100,000 each.
Tiffany lamps, marketed to the wealthy, were most popular between 1900-1910, shortly after the introduction of incandescent bulbs.
How did Tiffany (1848-1933) have the means to create all these treasures? His father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was the founder of Tiffany and Company, the venerable, luxury jewelry company for which Louis Comfort Tiffany served as the first design director.
The incredible collection of Tiffany Lamps at the New-York Historical Society in New York City is simply breathtaking. Everything is beautifully displayed with ample space to see many of them “in the round.” Descriptive placards and electronic devices next to various items provide information about their history, which is complemented by the very helpful and welcoming museum staff.
Often copied, Tiffany lamp reproductions don’t hold the same luster. If you are in New York City, this is a wonderful opportunity to see this world-class collection. Learning about the rich history of the lamps greatly enhances the experience of seeing them.
IF YOU GO
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
New York, NY 10024