Solving the mystery of the Lalique birds

My name is Kelley Elliott. In March, 2012, I began work as the curatorial assistant of modern glass at The Corning Museum of Glass. Part of my job as curatorial assistant is to make sure that the information we have related to the Museum’s permanent collection is accurate. One of the more enjoyable aspects of my job is the research and mystery solving I undertake in order to learn more about our collections. This blog post explains one recent story I uncovered about a pendant that is currently on view at the Museum, and how I was able to solve a mystery related to it.

In 1990, the Museum acquired a unique pendant from Glenn and Mary Lou Utt, collectors of Lalique perfume bottles. The glass pendant depicts two black and orange birds facing each other, beaks touching, with a baroque pearl hanging from their joined claws. The pendant is unsigned.

Pendant with Birds, René Lalique

Pendant with Birds, René Lalique, Paris or Clairfontaine, France, about 1900─1905. (Gift by exchange of Mr. and Mrs. Glenn S. Utt Jr., 90.3.37)

According to our records, when the pendant came to the Museum in 1990, it was thought to have been made between 1900 and 1903, and it was attributed to René Lalique (French, 1860─1945), the well-known Art Nouveau jeweler and designer of Art Deco glass. The Utts acquired the pendant at a 1985 Paris auction. The specialists at the auction house were unsure of exactly how the pendant was made. They said that it was either made using built-up layers of vitreous enamel, or by using a glass pâte de verre technique.

After the Museum received the pendant, investigations took place to determine if it was in fact by Lalique, since it was not signed. Susanne K. Frantz, the curator of 20th-century glass at the time, asked jewelry experts throughout the world for their opinions. Some experts agreed that the pendant appeared to be designed by Lalique based on its symmetry and the subject of birds, both elements commonly seen in Lalique designs of the early 20th century. But some experts had doubts that the pendant was designed by Lalique because he rarely used pâte de verre, and because so few of his pendants, made between 1900 and 1903, were made solely out of glass.

Dr. Robert Brill, the Museum’s research scientist emeritus, also examined the pendant to see if he could determine how and when it was made. The back of the pendant has a thin backing of copper covered with fused dark glass, and a metal crossbar that connects the pendant to the chain. When held under ultraviolet light, no repair marks could be seen on the pendant, so Dr. Brill knew that it had never been broken. Uncertain as to exactly how the pendant was made, Dr. Brill surmised that it was pâte de verre, with some finely polished surfaces, and that it was indeed created in the early 20th century.

The research by Frantz and Brill did not prove that the pendant was by René Lalique. However, the Museum recognized that the necklace was a unique piece of Art Nouveau jewelry made out of glass, and that it was an important piece to include in the Museum’s permanent collection.

In 1994, an auction of original René Lalique design drawings took place in Paris. The auction included an ink and gouache drawing of a pendant with two birds, attributed to Lalique, and dated to sometime between 1885 and 1912. It looked just like the necklace in the Museum’s collection! Even though they are not holding a baroque pearl in the drawing, the birds on the pendant are identical. Although the design drawing is unsigned (Lalique did not sign all of his work), the style of design, the paper used, and the fact that this was part of a large collection of Lalique design drawings, provide strong evidence that the drawing was indeed made by René Lalique. Therefore, because this drawing was known to be by Lalique, the pendant in the Museum’s collection was then able to be positively attributed to the artist. This drawing was purchased and is now in the collection of the Museum’s Rakow Research Library.

Original design drawing of pendant with two birds, René Lalique

Original design drawing of pendant with two birds, René Lalique, Paris or Clairfontaine, France, about 1885─1912. Rakow Research Library (Call number: Unit 13, Drawer 1).

But even though the artist had been identified, there remained questions as to what type of birds are depicted on it. One of my first assignments was to see if I could solve this mystery. Since the pendant came to the Museum with no documentation, and since there is no inscription on the drawing identifying the birds, I searched for clues based on the information I had: the Museum’s object file, and the physical appearance of the birds.

The catalogue for the 1985 auction (where the Utts acquired the pendant) described the birds as “a pair of Javanese fighting cockerels.” In 1988, the pendant was featured by Patricia Bayer and Mark Waller in their book, The Art of René Lalique. They described the birds as “Javanese fighting roosters.” So, I did an image search on the internet for “Javanese fighting cockerels” and “Javanese fighting roosters.” The results for these searches both showed birds with red beaks and faces, not black ones like the birds on the Museum’s pendant.

In the 1994 auction catalogue, which illustrated the Lalique drawing of the pendant, the birds were described in French as “deux (two) pigeons.” But the birds on the pendant do not look like pigeons. The pendant was also featured in the 1998 exhibition catalogue, The Jewels of Lalique, in which the birds were described as “two cocks.” This could be a generic term for male birds, but it could also mean roosters. The birds on the pendant do not look like roosters. At one point the Museum labeled the birds on the pendant as “kingfishers.” Other Lalique objects in the Museum’s collection have kingfishers depicted on them, but the pendant’s birds do not resemble kingfishers.

Exhausting all known references to the pendant, I decided to use the internet to search for images of “orange and black birds.” This search brought up images of many different types of orange and black birds, which I compared to the birds on the pendant. I looked at the shape, size and color of the bird’s beaks, where the orange feathers stopped and the black feathers started, and if the neck feathers were puffed up like the birds on the pendant.

Screen shot of image search for “orange and black birds.”

Screen shot of image search for “orange and black birds.”

One particular bird in the search results seemed to be a match: the bishop bird. The black areas on the bishop bird’s head are the same shape as the birds on the pendant, and the orange and black feathers all seemed to be in the correct place. The bishop bird (Euplectes franciscanus) genus is a species of the weaver (Ploceidae) family, known for their intricately woven nests.  And during mating season, the male bishop bird puffs up his neck feathers, just like the birds on the pendant.

Bishop bird (Euplectes franciscanus)

Bishop bird (Euplectes franciscanus) at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Michigan, July 25, 2009. Photo taken by Ltshears, and posted on Wikipedia commons.

I also discovered a book published during Lalique’s lifetime that reproduced the bishop bird in color, Richard Lydekker’s The Royal Natural History published in London and New York by Frederick Warne & Company in 1893. Lydekker observed that the bishop bird, a bird native to North Africa, “is often imported into Europe as a cage-bird. The adult male in nuptial plumage has the upper-parts, throat, and vent, brilliant scarlet; the wings and tail are brown, and the forehead, cheeks, and chin black.”

Color plate of bishop birds, The Royal Natural History, p. 363

Color plate of bishop birds (bottom two birds) on page 363, Richard Lydekker, The Royal Natural History (London and New York: Frederick Warne & Company, 1893)

So, perhaps Lalique saw this publication, or, maybe he saw imported, caged bishop birds in Paris. We may never know what inspired Lalique to make this pendant. This part of the story still remains a mystery, until more information is uncovered. But, even though I do not know why René Lalique chose these birds for his design, I am thrilled to be able to say that the birds on this pendant depict bishop birds.

Now, on to the next mystery. The Museum is full of them!

3 comments
Dan Maher
Dan Maher 5pts

Very interesting story and beautiful piece. Also nice to be able to see the piece with the drawing. Thanks for your work on this and the interesting article.

meg richardson
meg richardson 5pts

I was going to say what Christine said, but thought saying it again was worthwhile- you have my dream job- I am an artist, but have a deep love of history and mystery. I am also a birder, and was ready to catch you out if the bird you ended up with did not have a finsh's beak! I'd love to hear about more of your researches! Thanks. I do live in Central NY, and it is time for me to visit the Museum again...

Christine B
Christine B 5pts

Wow! What an interesting job you have! Good work, and thanks for writing about it for all of us who wish we'd chosen a museum career earlier on. :)