Lot 18
  • 18

TIFFANY STUDIOS | A Rare "Turtle-Back" Diver’s Floor Lamp

40,000 - 60,000 USD
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  • Tiffany Studios
  • A Rare "Turtle-Back" Diver’s Floor Lamp
  • base impressed TIFFANY STUDIOS/NEW YORK/430
  • favrile glass, patinated bronze
  • 55 in. (139.7 cm) high7 in. (17.8 cm) diameter of shade
  • circa 1905-1910


Macklowe Gallery, New York
Alice Lawrence Collection
Christie's New York, The Modern Age: The Collection of Alice Lawrence, November 6, 2008, lot 405


Alastair Duncan, Tiffany Lamps and Metalware, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2007, p. 211, no. 826


Overall very good condition. The turtle-back tiles all appear original and undisturbed and present with strong, luminous iridescence. When viewed with internal remitted light the turtle-back tiles display a rich emerald green glow; when viewed with outside reflected light the iridized tiles display a wide range of luminous jewel-tone hues. The base is in very good condition with occasional scattered minor surface scratches and abrasions consistent with age and gentle use. With some light surface soiling and traces of oxidation. The socket and pull chain appear to be original and undisturbed. An extremely rare and dynamic form displaying a superb glass selection.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Tiffany’s Turtleback Tiles

Tiffany Studios’ “turtleback” glass tiles are an ingenious invention.  When seen in ordinary light, their irregular surfaces reflect with iridescence.  When transmitting light, the effect is mysterious—bright where the glass is thinnest, dark and brooding where the glass is thickest.  In either circumstance, it suggests an organic substance, a natural material rather than one that is man-made. Their undulant surfaces and even their rounded rectangular shapes recall an aged tortoise or turtle shell, more so than might be imagined.  Indeed, from the start the turtleback tiles were known by this name.

The history of Tiffany’s turtleback tiles can only be surmised.  When electric light bulbs were first introduced, even though they had low wattage, their intense brightness was considered too harsh.  Thus the idea of filtering the light through chipped glass was a natural outcome. The highly praised sconces that Tiffany designed in 1884 for the balcony walls of the Lyceum Theater in New York featured just this idea.  Turtleback tiles were introduced less than a decade later, and by then Tiffany had his own glass factory where he could not only make the glass to his specifications but he could also iridize it. His 1899 brochure, Lamps and Fixtures, featured two lamps with turtleback tiles: a small table lamp and a hanging lantern.  The table lamp featured a hood that swiveled allowing for unobstructed light to be focused on the book being read, while the turtleback tiles shaded the reader’s eyes from direct exposure.  This same configuration was utilized in other turtleback lamp models, such as the turtleback floor lamp in the Geyer Collection (lot 18). The hanging lantern in the 1899 brochure was square in shape, not unlike two examples in the Geyer Collection (lots 19 and 20).  This model offered in 1899 came in two variants, one with turtleback tiles on just three sides that provided “a soft light” and the fourth side was left open to spotlight pictures on the gallery wall; an alternate model had turtleback tiles on all four sides and was intended for halls or vestibules where direct light was not needed.

Beyond their beauty, the turtleback tiles were so effective at restraining and controlling light that they were adapted to a number of different lighting configurations.  The most common are those where the turtleback tiles are used decoratively as an accent, and are often trimmed to a smaller, more rectangular format. Quite the opposite are hanging shades with turtleback tiles covering the entire surface—shades meant to send light downward but not laterally.  Likewise, all sorts of variant hanging lanterns were introduced in different formats: triangular, hexagonal, pyramidal, spherical, etc. Some are with whole tiles, others with cut sections pieced together. Various bases for table lamps incorporate turtleback tiles, and those which incorporate such tiles both in the base and the shade create a wonderful harmony of color and texture.  Turtleback tiles were used as decorative weights on the arms of counter-balance lamps. The variations of their employment are seemingly endless. Louis C. Tiffany himself clearly delighted in their versatility and stunning visual impact. Lamps with turtleback tiles in different iterations adorned the interior of his Laurelton Hall estate.

The use of turtleback tiles soon expanded into the realm of fancy goods, objets d’art that were some of the firm’s most distinctive products.  Sections of turtleback tiles were inlaid in candlesticks, fern dishes, and inkwells, always to great effect.  The Geyer Collection is particularly rich in this area. The use of turtleback tiles was presumably more economical than mosaic inlays whose intricate designs and small cubes of glass were labor intensive and thus more costly.  On the other hand, one should not minimize the work and the difficulty involved in chipping through the thick, irregular glass. Turtleback tiles proved an expensive luxury and thus it is not surprising that in 1910, when many of the early and labor-intensive designs were discontinued, turtleback tiles were dropped from the company’s offerings.  All of the candlesticks, inkwells, lamp bases, and shades with turtleback inlays were discontinued. Simpler designs replaced them, marking the end of Tiffany Studios’ halcyon days.

—Martin Eidelberg