He bought swan for a song, sparking an artistic journey

Art: A flea-market find looked like kitsch, but would it prove valuable?

May 11, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Everyone hopes to find that unnoticed masterpiece languishing under layers of dust at the local flea market. I thought I had found one the other day when, on impulse, I purchased an Italian glass swan for a piddling sum.

Well, there are bargains and then there are bargains. It turns out mine wasn't exactly the great deal I thought. But it did lead me to learn something about the fascinating art of glassmaking, which dates back to pre-Roman times, and about the intellectual adventures the most ordinary objects can launch.

The fellow at the market told me my swan was 1950s-vintage Murano glass, which takes its name from the suburb of Venice that has been a major glassblowing region since the 13th century.

On the way home, I picked up some books on glassmaking, from which I learned that Murano is an island about 20 minutes from Venice by modern transit boat. During the Renaissance, it led the world in the manufacture of fine glass and exported its products throughout Europe.

Still, when my wife saw the swan she winced.

I explained that it was a modern piece, part of the great post-World War II revival of Venetian glassmaking by such masters as Paolo Venini, Alfredo Barbini and Ermanno Toso. Their bright colors and whimsical designs anticipated American Pop art of the 1960s.

"Of course, it might look a little kitschy to our eyes," I argued. "But isn't that part of its charm?"

"Not really," she replied.

Knowledge is the prerequisite for connoisseurship. So I threw myself into study of the glassmaker's art. I learned that glass is made from sand melted with soda or lead. The resulting mass -- called metal -- is actually a liquid in solid state that continues to flow throughout its lifetime.

Armed with these and other facts, I asked the curators at the Walters Art Gallery to throw more light on my swan. They were very polite. They didn't wince when they saw it. But the subtle smiles that played on their lips did not bode well.

I was beginning to have my own doubts. Maybe it was my swan's beady glass eyes, or the kitschy blend of its bright green and opalescent white. It really didn't seem very old at all.

I showed the piece to my friend Richard, who has a wonderful collection of old glass on Baltimore's Antique Row. He looked at it and said it was probably made after the 1950s.

"You mean like 1960s or '70s?" I asked.

"Actually, maybe later than that," he said.

Richard turned the piece over and examined it. A 40-year-old piece should show some scratches and abrasion from normal wear, he said. But my swan's base was perfectly smooth.

A few days later, during a visit to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, I checked out the Venetian glass there.

There wasn't anything remotely resembling my swan among the important and impressive pieces in the museum's collection.

Afterward, I stopped by a gallery on Madison Avenue that displayed antique glass in its window. Again, no matches.

When I got back in town a few days later, I schlepped the piece over to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where a curator took pity on me:

"I would think this is exactly the kind of piece we might very well use at some future date for, say, a period room illustrating decorative arts of the 1950s," he began.

The man was choosing his words carefully. I could see trouble ahead.

"I wouldn't," he finally said, "necessarily anticipate we would do such a show during my lifetime, however." OK, so my swan isn't a long-lost Michelangelo. I've had a lot of fun with it, discovered whole new worlds of art and craft in seemingly commonplace objects and learned to recognize the truly important art glass one still finds around town if you're willing to look.

For example, the other day at Savage Mill I happened to see a very small vase by the French designer Emile Galle, who produced wonderful Art Nouveau glass around the turn of the century that is highly sought after by collectors today.

An attendant who wasn't familiar with Galle showed me the piece. Perhaps he'll let it go for a song, I thought.

Alas, whoever owned the vase knew its value. It was out of my price range.

But I was gratified to have recognized it. I may yet find something really good in the bargain bin.

Meanwhile I've sharpened my critical eye and developed, if not true connoisseurship, at least a much more informed appreciation of glass as art.

Besides, time is the greatest arbiter. My curator friend says the BMA could do a '50s retrospective with my swan as early as 2050, which is just around the corner to an optimist like me. By then I'll be exactly 100 years old, a living antique in my own right -- and proud of it.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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