Tiffany: ‘The pinnacle of glass’ for an Aspen collector

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyAspenite Carl Heck, with a piece from his collection of Tiffany stained glass. Heck has three pieces in a Tiffany exhibition opening in Paris this week.

ASPEN – After some 17 years, Carl Heck got tired of retail. He was tired of the hours, the ever-increasing rent. In the late ’80s, he shut down his Aspen shop, Country Flower, from which he had dealt antique jewelry, chandeliers and more.

The one thing he still has not tired of, even after making it his business for four decades, is Tiffany stained glass. Stained glass has been by Heck’s side virtually his entire life: On the Missouri farm where he was raised, there was a stained-glass window in his bedroom from the time he was born. In college, at Northwest Missouri State, he began buying windows and other pieces. When he first came to Aspen, it was for a ski trip; when he came to stay, in 1970, one of the things that attracted him was the wealth of stained glass around the town.

Heck’s tastes have become refined over time. As a private dealer for the last 18 years, he has focused, in the stained glass realm, almost exclusively on the Tiffany brand. Three pieces from his collection will be featured in “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Color and Light,” an exhibition at Paris’ Musee du Luxembourg that opens on Wednesday, Sept. 16; it is the first Paris show in more than 100 years devoted exclusively to Tiffany pieces.

Heck is thrilled to bring his 19-year-old daughter with him to Paris for the opening of the exhibition, and amazed that the two have been invited to a formal dinner at the French Senate in honor of the show. He is psyched that one of his pieces – “The Mermaid,” a window with six panels that stretch to almost 9-by-9 feet – is a centerpiece of the exhibition.

But Heck gets no less enthused about the glass itself – the material, the techniques, the history. The small Aspen apartment he has lived in since the mid-’80s is packed with stained-glass lamps, catalogues from various exhibitions that have included pieces he owns, Tiffany vases and bowls – and a small number of Tiffany stained-glass works. (The rest of his 30-piece collection is in vaults from Denver to New York.)

“Tiffany is the pinnacle of glass. It’s the Rolls-Royce. Tiffany was painting in glass. His talent in selecting glass, in design, in craftsmanship are second to none in the world,” said Heck, who counts himself as one of perhaps 10 dealers in the world specializing in Tiffany stained glass. Heck recalls a window, “Wind-Blown Peonies,” he stumbled upon in a funky hotel on Maui, in 1976, that took him a year to purchase and eventually transport to New York, where he sold it. “Boy, I’d like to have that back. It was mind-boggling.”

As Heck tells it, Louis Comfort Tiffany had a long leg up on any competitors: He was the son of the wealthy jewelry designer and businessman Charles Lewis Tiffany. But the younger Tiffany knew how to spend his father’s dollars – first, studying glass design in Europe in the 1870s and ’80s, and then bringing the best Italian, German and Austrian glass artists to New York, where he set them up in studios and factories. Heck adds that Tiffany didn’t just have a knack for buying up talent. While he was a mediocre painter, he had an eye for glass, for design and for innovations in the field, and he kept high standards.

“With his group, they experimented, and produced this favrile – a term that means handmade. He was making handmade glass,” said the 63-year-old Heck. Among the hallmarks of Tiffany is material that has color through the glass – not merely painted on – and the use of thick glass, or layers of glass, that add depth and shades of color. Tiffany also approached glass the way a sculptor might see a raw slab of marble,” Heck said. “The glass came first. Then he looked at it, and made a window from it.”

The brand was launched, in essence, at the 1900 World Expo in Paris. “He exhibited his glass and became world renowned,” said Heck. “Collectors and museums all sought out his work right away.”

Heck joined the world of stained glass collectors in his college years, spurred by the simple beauty he recalled from his childhood bedroom. In the ’70s, Aspen became a mecca of stained glass, in part through Heck’s Country Flower, which supplied many of the windows still seen in West End Victorians. (Another eager set of buyers: the rock stars who passed through Aspen.) The most public collection in Aspen, at Mead Metcalf’s Crystal Palace, was procured, in part, by Heck. “People here loved stained glass more than anywhere else I’d ever been,” he said.

Heck, who doesn’t have many local clients these days, spends most of his time in detective mode. “Looking,” said Heck, who also does a lot of appraisal work, and writes for several publications that specialize in antique prices. “Searching for really rare pieces. Investigating leads. You just never know where these things will turn up. And when you find a piece, you spend a lot of time on the whole provenance. You want to know the whole history of the piece.”

That legwork sometimes pays off, and sometimes doesn’t. Heck recalls buying an unsigned Tiffany piece, covered in dust, from the window of an antique shop in Kentucky, then selling it for 10 times what he paid. But such finds are extremely rare: “It’s so hard to find a great piece of Tiffany. You can go months and months and months without finding anything,” said Heck, who also deals in American Western painting.

About every four years, an exhibition of great Tiffany work is put together. Pieces from Heck’s collection have been shown in exhibits in Japan, Long Island, and in Southern California, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In 2003-’04, a touring exhibition hit Seattle, Toledo, Dallas and Pittsburgh.

The upcoming Paris exhibition will feature three works owned by Heck: “The Mermaid”; a collage with the image of a clock face; and a lantern that he bought six years ago that has never been shown. The opportunity to show “The Mermaid” has him particularly excited. The exhibition director, he said, was “blown away” by the piece, thanks to its size, and its subject matter – a topless mermaid, underwater. “And ocean scenes are very rare for Tiffany studios,” said Heck, who values the piece, made in 1899, in the seven-figure range. Mostly, “they did landscapes and florals and big religious windows.”

And Heck can’t wait to see, in person, pieces that he has seen only on a computer screen, if he has seen them at all.

“This will probably be the best exhibition of Tiffany ever,” he said. “The Met’s involved, a lot of other museums. They’ve kept a lot of it a secret, but from what I’m hearing, there’s going to be a lot of things there.”