It was high drama at the Martin House Restoration Corporation offices on Thursday, December 18 (2008), as a rare art glass laylight from one of the pier clusters of the Martin House unit room was offered at auction through Sotheby's in New York. The laylight is an outstanding example of Wright's art glass designs for the horizontal plane, with a symmetrical array of iridescent and opalescent glass squares and rectangles that reflect the rhythmic geometry of the Martin House floorplan.
Martin House staff and advisers were on the phone that morning to bid in the auction when the lot came up, with funding promised by a generous local benefactor. The action in the salesroom was lively and, unfortunately, our maximum bid was surpassed in a matter of seconds. In the end - within less than a minute - the fray coalesced to two other phone bidders, and at the hammer, the successful party paid an amazing $180,000 for the piece.
We believe that this is the highest price paid at auction for a single piece of Martin House art glass to date. Other Arts and Crafts items in the same sale fetched high prices as well: $270,000 for a pair of Gustav Stickley andirons, for example (yes, andirons...you know, those metal brackets that hold the logs in your fireplace). David Rudd of Dalton's American Decorative Arts in Syracuse said he was "floored" by a few of the prices from this sale. All this suggests that, despite the widespread downturn in the economy, the market for big-name Arts and Crafts and Wright items is still strong.
Such sale results make our challenge of securing original art glass and returning it to the Martin House all the more challenging. With the many needs of our ambitious restoration effort, it is simply infeasible to pay such prices in the public marketplace. Thus, we must encourage other collectors to consider the benefit of returning such items to their original context. In many cases, this can be accomplished by taking advantage of the tax benefits of donating these items to the Martin House.
Donald Hoffmann makes the case against commodifying components of Wright buildings out of their original context most pointedly in his article "Dismembering Frank Lloyd Wright" (Design Quarterly, No. 155 - Spring, 1992, pp. 2-5):
But the forces most insidiously ruinous to Wright's architecture are a misguided museum world and its twin sister, the errant art market, both of which encourage the dismemberment of his buildings, physically and intellectually, into mere fragments.
Hoffmann may be making his point from an ivory tower high above the marketplace, but it remains a compelling admonition to those who might ignore the integral, organic nature of Wright's compositions.
Let's hope that the new owner of this laylight will consider the value of his or her prize beyond the balance sheet and return the art glass to its home in the Martin House.