|ASPEN, Colo. – As a young farm boy, with a propensity for daydreaming, little could Carl Heck imagine how far the splendors of Louis Comfort Tiffany would take him.
Heck’s passion for the stained glass art windows, art glass lamps and magnificent mosaics would take him all over the world, far from the northwest plains of 1950s Missouri.
He would buy and sell some of the most prestigious pieces of art glass in the world, meet with the private owners and institutions of the world’s greatest collection, and have his pieces recorded in many of the seminal publications regarding the work of Tiffany (1848-1933), the great Renaissance man and his studio.
One of the highlights of his more than 35 years collecting and dealing Tiffany works is the prestigious exhibition Tiffany: Color and Light, one of the most celebrated shows to come out of Paris in the past 100 years, based entirely on Tiffany’s original and spectacular effects in hand-blown vessels, lead glass windows, lamps and other sparkling decorative beauties. The American premiere – with around 200 original Tiffany pieces – will be held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) beginning May 29, and running through Aug. 15.
The exhibition had its debut at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris in September, more recently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts between Feb. 11 and May 2.
Heck will have three pieces in the show, including The Mermaid, an 1899 9ft by 9ft Tiffany masterpiece created for the Joseph Cooke mansion found by Heck in Hawaii.
The topless, underwater mermaid (valued in the seven-figure range) just “blew the exhibition director away” at the Paris show, where the 63-year-old Heck and his daughter were invited to a state dinner at the French Senate, in addition to a private concert at the Monet Museum.
All of this from a boy with a stained glass window in his bedroom of a small farmhouse outside Maryville, Mo. During those 20 or so of his formative years, Heck watched the sunbeams stretching out over the wide-open plains play with the reds, yellows and ambers of the window.
“It was a simple floral design,” he says, “I spent hours looking at the different lights … I still have that window … you could say that’s what started it all.”
Although majoring in agriculture at the Northwest Missouri State University, he still couldn’t get away from the stained glass.
“Attending church at a beautiful Baptist Church in Maryville, the pastor mentioned that it was going to be the last service in the church,” he recalls. “He said they were going to completely raze the structure – stained glass windows and all – and build a new structure.
“After the service, I just had to go up and talk with him. We ended up striking a deal on the windows. The windows were beautiful – there were about 25 of them – I got them for a dollar each. For $25, I had started a whole barn full of stained glass windows.”
In 1970, Heck and a partner opened an antique shop in the then-small but growing town of Aspen, Colo. It wasn’t long before he was pulling some of those “painted windows” (“that’s what my dad called them,” he says) out of the barns and selling them. “They were just beginning to sell like hot cakes,” Heck says. “Dad was always after me … he’d say ’when are you going to get all those painted windows out of here.”
“The moment I saw my first Tiffany, I knew it was something special,” Heck says. “There’s just an aura about the work … I can’t explain it, but it’s something within the glass, itself. To look at the color in something as small as the petal of a flower; there’s just a natural beauty you don’t see elsewhere.
“Then, there’s the workmanship. The Tiffany studio was built on perfection, and by hiring the finest glass artisans. And their floral designs were unmatched, as well as their ground breaking work in Egyptian Revival, Art Nouveau, the Arts and Crafts and The Aesthetics movements, it was a phenomenal period.”
And, for Heck himself, it became a phenomenal period.
“I was ahead of time, I admit, particularly for glass in general,” he says. “When I first started out – particularly with stained glass windows – there was hardly a market. There was sort of a market out there, but it was just starting out. What I could buy then for next to nothing would cost $20,000-100,000 today.”
Heck’s father also was eventually to see the light in his son’s penchant for his “painted windows.”
“In 1988, I had the opportunity to take my father to an auction at Sotheby’s where I sold a Tiffany glass window for $385,000 – that was about $350,000 plus the buyer’s premium. That was a world’s record at the time. He just sat there in the crowd and shook his head … I remember him remarking that you could buy about 10 farms for that much in Missouri.”
In addition to The Mermaid, Heck will be exhibiting a hanging lantern, circa 1904, which hung at Louis Comfort Tiffany’s summer home, Comfort Lodge in Miami; and a 2ft by 4ft Tiffany mosaic clock face, circa 1900-1910, similar to the mosaic adorning the Hudson Theatre in New York City.
“Tiffany has been very good to me,” he says. “I’ve always loved art and have been able to see all the great museums and collections in the world, Paris, London, Amsterdam, the Hermitage in Russia. But this show – it’s so great … this Tiffany exhibition is my pinnacle.”
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Eric C. Rodenberg