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René Lalique pre-war Car Mascots article

by Tony Wraight

tony@finesse-fine-art.com

Contents

Spirit of the Wind - Victoire
Picture of a Victoire Mascot


Brief History

René Lalique was born on April 6th 1860, in Ay in the French province of Champagne. In 1862 the family moved to the outskirts of Paris, and he received his early education at the Lycée Turgot. It was here that he won his first award, for drawing, at the age of 12.

In 1876, perhaps due to the death of his father, he was apprenticed to the renowned Parisian jeweller and goldsmith Louis Aucoc, and also enrolled at the École des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. Two years later he moved to England and studied at college, probably the School of Art, in Sydenham. Returning to Paris in 1880 Lalique completed his education at the École Bernard Palissy, studying sculpture, and at the same time designing wallpaper and fabrics for a relative.

René Lalique in 1903
Picture of René Lalique
In 1881 he began work as a freelance jewellery designer, working for some of the top Parisian jewellers. Late 1885 saw Lalique purchase his first workshop at Place Gaillon, and by 1886 he began production of fine Art Nouveau jewellery. Another workshop was rented in 1887, until in 1890 he acquired premises at 20, Rue Thérèse, with a staff of about 30. His fine innovative craftsmanship drew the attention of many notable people, including other leading designers of the day, but his most celebrated client was the actress Sarah Bernhardt. It was at Rue Thérèse in 1893 that Lalique began to experiment with glass, a material already used in his jewellery, producing a perfume vial using the cire perdue method. He went on to exhibit at the Exposition Universelle Industriel of Paris in 1900, where he was a huge success. To meet the demands created by this success new workshop premises, to include exhibition space and living accommodation, were acquired at 40, Cours La Reine in 1902. At the same time he further continued his experiments with glass, working in a small atelier on an estate in Clairefontaine, 24 miles outside of Paris. With a staff of 4 he worked here for about 10 years.

Three years later his first retail shop was opened at 24, Place Vendôme, adjacent to which were the premises of François Coty, the perfumier. In 1907 Coty commissioned Lalique to design labels and perfume bottles for his flourishing business. Unable to meet such demands with his small workshops, pieces were initially manufactured by Legras and Company for Lalique until, in 1909, he rented his first glassworks at Combs-la-Ville, which a year later he purchased. At this time production was limited to perfume bottles, flacons and powder boxes for Coty and other important perfumiers, as well as for Lalique himself for sale in his shop. Closed during World War 1, and reopened in 1918, demand for his works increased so much that new glassworks at Wingen-sur-Moder were opened in 1921.

It was in the 1920's that Lalique began to manufacture the vast range of objects in glass other than perfume bottles and related items, as previously. Along with vases, clocks, statues, lighting and tableware, a range of car mascots was added in the late 1920's. By the 1930's the company had grown so large that 600 workers were employed and outlets were offering Lalique glassware in N. and S. America, Europe and Great Britain. Lalique died in May 1945, but the company continued under his son Marc, and, today, his granddaughter Marie-Claude.

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Production Range

Victoire on pre-war car
Picture of a Victoire on pre-war car

Lalique was always experimenting, producing vases, statues, dinnerware etc., and adding car mascots to his production in the late twenties. A full range of the Twenty nine mascot designs were produced to grace the sleek cars of Hispano Suiza, Isotta Fraschini, Bugatti, Bentley, etc. All were made from high quality glass, and provision was made for them to be illuminated by special metal mounts.

The popularity of the car mascots was such that Lalique commissioned the Breves Gallery in Knightsbridge to supply them to British customers, and their name was placed on the side of the mounting. Priced from 2 pounds twelve and sixpence, for a mounted Victoire or 'Spirit of the Wind', Breves had the world rights to market Lalique mascots. Though the range of car mascots numbers 27 in the 1932 Lalique catalogue, Breves gallery offered the Small Mermaid in their own catalogues as a car mascot, and also are believed to have offered the larger Mermaid, making a total of 29 in all. These two pieces were actually offered as paperweights from Lalique, but the bases are exactly the same two sizes as all others in the range, and appropriate for use with any fine car; these are especially pleasing in opalescent glass.

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Mounting

All mascots were mounted with Breves Gallery mounts of two basic sizes- Larger bases to fit the larger size mascots, and a smaller version to fit the smaller mascots. The full Breves Gallery Knightsbridge address was always impressed on the outside of the illuminated base types- I have encountered bases in ten different styles- most were simple tube design of slightly different heights, some were flared outwards for larger mascots, some were flared inwards. Two different mounting rings were used- Virtually all had a cut to accommodate the types of mascot that obviously were too big to allow a solid ring to pass over the body of the piece. To actually fit this ring, one has to prise the ring gently to position the ring around the base, then grip tightly and hopefully line up the ring thread to the base. The problem is that with the mascot being glass, and the ring being made of brass, then nickel or chrome plated, it is very difficult to complete this operation without damaging the lip of the base, thus spoiling the piece forever. Simple red rubber washers were provided to assist the mascot to sit snugly on to the base, but over the years these usually perished away, and were then discarded. The danger of damage is also great when finally tightening the ring even when fitted over the base- obviously when the mascot was used on the car whilst driving on the road, the slightest pressure on an over tightened or slack mount would result in a serious base fracture. Add to this the obvious problems associated from heat generated from the inside bulb, and one can see why so few pieces actually used on cars whilst driving have survived intact.

Various examples of Breves Gallery mounts
Picture of Breves mount 1 Picture of Breves mount 2

Some of the Breves mounts were fitted with a solid ring, as some pieces like the Small Dragonfly, Frog, Coq Houdan, Five Horses, would allow a solid ring to pass over the body of the mascot, then simply screw into the base without the need for any awkward fitting procedures. There are two exceptions to solid ring size- the Falcon, and the Five Horses - the rings were thicker and larger on these pieces, as the bases on the mascots were thicker- on the Falcon the base was actually tapered inwards - this allowed an ever finer fit for the mounting to this piece- perhaps a reason why so many Falcons have survived in perfect condition to this day !

Sometimes mascots were used as deskpieces, so Breves Gallery also offered a wider mounting with a well designed triple interior clamp arrangement, to enable the mascot base to be inserted and removed from this base. The deskpiece mount was also supported on three oval knobs, to allow heat generated by the 12 volt battery to dissipate away from the mounting when left on for a few hours. Talking about illumination- a 6 or 12 volt festoon bulb was supported by brass fork connections into the base of the mount, then usually wired directly into a simple brass plug in the side of the mount, this was then wired directly into the car wiring. Sometimes you will find bases without illumination, and sometimes you will find these have been drilled to take a wire underneath this base to mount the mascot as a simple deskpiece. Sometimes the owner commissioned Breves Gallery to supply a simple mounting without illumination- this was just a simple collar and base that was about one inch high, compared to the three to four inch high illuminated base. The beauty of interior illumination was further enhanced by an assortment of coloured filters available at extra charge in blue, red, green, mauve, white and amber. These were made in thick plastic, but of course over the years most warped then were consumed by heat generated by the bulb inside the mount. For those wishing the ultimate in lighting spectacle, the Breves mount could be fitted with a separate purpose built dynamo, sending various intensities of light through the mascot as the car gathered speed- thus producing undoubtedly the most spectacular adornment to a car bonnet that could ever have been devised.

If one can imagine the effect produced for both the driver of the car and to opposing traffic on the highway, it is little wonder that few mascots were used on a regular basis- many of the mascots were very large and must have given the driver quite a challenge in driving the cars at night- in fact I actually wired up a Victoire to the front of a 1929 Bentley 8 litre and drove this car through central London at 3 am on a Sunday night to try it out- The effect was truly awe inspiring, but it was just as well there were few cars driving that memorable night !

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Mascots of particular note

The first Lalique mascot was commissioned by the Citroen company in 1925, the '5 horses', for the model 5CV. There followed 27 more depicting horses' heads, various bird and animal forms, nude figures, and even a shooting star. The mascots were made mostly in clear glass, satin finish, frosted finish, varying degrees of tinting of amethyst and pink hues, and in a variety of colours: purple, blue, amber, brown topaz, grey, and also in opalescent glass ranging from deep blue to milky white opalescence. Sometimes a yellow opalescence was used with even a ruby topaz central core being used on the Small Cock. Sometimes staining was added to enhance the line of the piece.

Only one mascot was produced in two versions - the Horse's head, Longchamps - unfortunately this can cause much confusion as they are actually quite different, but only one was shown in the 1932 catalogue. The other, more angular, piece was produced later and probably in smaller numbers as very few have survived. The third horse's head, Epsom, is one of the horse thrusting forward as if to pass some race finishing post, and obviously appealed to many 'gentlemen of the turf' of the time.

The rarest production mascot is certainly the fox with only a few known examples surviving. The most famous and largest is the 'Spirit of the Wind', which epitomises Art Deco styling, and was used in the 1928 Paris Motor Salon, mounted on a Minerva. At 10in long it would grace the bonnet of even the largest limousine of the day. The most infamous mascot is certainly the Eagle's head, only because it was often fitted to Nazi officers' staff cars. The Greyhound is a non-commercial model originally designed (according to the Catalogue Raisonne) for presentation to the Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII, son of King George V, was Prince of Wales from 1910 until 1936). The example shown in the reference book by Felix Marcilhac is unsigned. The 1931 Yearbook of The Studio states that this model was designed for a younger brother of the Prince of Wales, Prince George (Albert), who later became King George VI and father to the current Queen Elizabeth II. It is the rarest of all Lalique mascots. At least two examples exist, one signed example is badly damaged on the base and foot.

Specially commissioned greyhound
Picture of Specially commissioned greyhound mascot

The best design for illumination is the Large Dragonfly, the veining of the wings standing out particularly well when used in conjunction with a Breves mount and coloured filter. For lovers of the female form two fine models were designed, Chrysis and Vitesse. Vitesse is a sensuous nude leaning forward in the wind, symbolising speed, coming to best effect in blue opalescent glass. Chrysis is a backward leaning nude designed in sensuous abandon, her fingers entwined in her streaming hair.

Some of the mascots were used more as paperweights. The Small Cock is actually far more suited for this purpose as the claws extend over the base, thus making it very difficult to fit to the Breves mounts. Three pieces were produced in a flat disc plane, and are very different from the rest of the range: The St. Christopher, of course, the patron saint of travellers and possibly the commonest piece; the Archer; and the Greyhound. All three of these have the smaller base size, and would use a split collar mount.

René Lalique used much insight in producing such a wide range to choose from. One can see that the Boar was obviously meant for the hunting fraternity. The Fish for the fishermen, and so on, but some were very odd choices, like the Frog; but again, the humorous and fertile mind of René Lalique was used to continue to interest potential clients with very unusual adornments to their cars.

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Rarity

The actual numbers produced are unknown, with, unfortunately, no records existing at the present day Lalique factory. Over the past decade, many have turned up at auctions or in antique shops and are now eagerly sought after by glass and decorative art collectors world-wide, plus car enthusiasts wishing to own a part of motoring history. Often they turn up in auction from deceased estates, having lain in dusty corners in lofts or motor houses when the once proud owners no longer had need for them. Nowadays, they are very rare indeed and fewer and fewer are turning up in auctions, as the new owners do not wish to discard their treasured acquisitions. As the range was great in the 1930's, the original purchaser had a large choice, and, of course, in their day they were expensive. The more costly pieces were obviously produced in lesser numbers, including, of course, the fox, the owl, the guinea hen, the Epsom, the comet, the peacock's head and the ram's head. All others were bought in greater numbers with possibly the falcon, boar, St. Christopher and the small cock being the most common.

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Blue Peacock's Head
Picture of a Blue Peacock's Head Mascot

Colour and Tinting

As so few were produced in colour, the chance of obtaining one is very minimal and it is a quest that could go on for a lifetime. Slightly easier to find are the tinted examples, though again few were very strongly tinted. Not many were made in opalescent glass, though again here the subject matter is the deciding factor in present day prices. When two pieces sometimes found in opalescent glass differ greatly, i.e. the humble fish and the stylish Vitesse, then obviously the Vitesse is the greater prize, and the value considerably higher.

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Damage

As they are so beautiful and rare compared with today's mass production, these mascots are greatly sought after by fastidious collectors who seek only perfect examples - this is now beginning to force the rarer examples to higher levels. Three factors govern their value - the rarity of the actual piece, the colour or tinting factors, and, of course, the condition.

As the mascots were made specifically as car ornaments and not as paperweights, and were usually mounted on the radiator, many were damaged by careless owners opening their bonnets without care and thus chipping the piece. The Spirit of the Wind hair tip is especially vulnerable in this area and its value varies greatly with even the minutest chip taking many hundreds of pounds from its value. Many pieces have suffered damage in their lives and many have been ground by skilful hands over the years, and it takes an experienced eye to spot this. Sometimes pieces turn up for sale offered as perfect by their owners, who are quite unaware of their imperfections; it is wise to tread carefully when contemplating a purchase. In time, if you are lucky enough to handle these at auctions or from antique dealers, you will soon be able to spot the vulnerable points. Usually the piece most likely to have had some damage or grinding are those pieces designed originally with delicate points or thin edges. The Breves mounts were also the cause of many problems as it needed careful handling to fit the mascot to the mount and then on to the car; many owners unfortunately tightened the metal collar too tightly onto the mount, thus causing damage to the base of the piece. Also, when used on a car in their appropriate manner, now and again they loosened in the mount and when the car passed over bumps, you could see how many chips occurred to the base.

Of course, damage on any Lalique also represents a factor in the final price of the piece, so it is always advisable to remove mounts from mascots to examine bases minutely for defects there. It is actually a miracle that some survive in perfect condition to the present day.

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Signatures

Most mascots are clearly marked on the base with 'R. LALIQUE' either moulded or etched, or sometimes sandblasted on to the piece. Some of the pieces have 'LALIQUE' moulded; the Small Dragonfly is one such example. Post-war Lalique car mascots were also made by the Lalique factory, the glass usually frosted and 'LALIQUE' sandblasted onto the bases; sometimes 'FRANCE' was also used. The Chrysis and Perch are very commonly found but were really sold as paperweights and not for use on cars. In this respect, the Chrysis soon had the mounting base made totally solid without the need for an insert 'ring' in the glass; the pre-war examples needed this for use in conjunction with the Breves mount.

Picture of Signature 1 Picture of Signature 2 Picture of Signature 3
Relief Moulded Intaglio Moulded Etched in script

As the Lalique factory still produces seven paperweights today, which were originally made as car mascots - Chrysis, eagle's head, small cock, boar, perch, St. Christopher, and the cock's head - then inexperienced novice collectors are sometimes fooled by unscrupulous sellers into parting with money on modern pieces worth between 70 and 150 pounds, and available from high quality glass retailers. They are of course all marked clearly by the Crystal Lalique factory 'LALIQUE FRANCE' in script lightly etched on the bases of the pieces, and the glass is usually frosted and whiter than the pre-war ones. Very easy to spot after handling pre-war examples, which has a greyer effect. One exception is the St. Christopher made in the 1930's in clear glass with the 'R. LALIQUE' moulded signature, but still continued in production until 1987. This was still using the same moulded signature with the addition of the modern etched signature as well. It is now produced from a new mould in the same design but, luckily, without the moulded signature - these are also slightly thinner than their pre-war counterparts, and of course made from modern crystal glass.

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Copies

Red Ashay Vitesse
Picture of a Red Ashay Vitesse

As with all successful products, it was not long before other rival firms decided to cash in on Lalique's success, sometimes blatantly copying his designs. In the UK. Red Ashay and Warren Kessler produced their own designs, some being loosely based on Lalique pieces - the Red Ashay Vitesse being an obvious example.

In France the Sabino, Etling and Model companies were also starting to produce glass mascots in small numbers, but they were all again inferior and none matched the perfection of Lalique production techniques and design genius. Other variations are also sometimes encountered, with some as probably as rare as some of the rarer Lalique pieces themselves - there is a Horses head, Spirit of the Wind and Eagles Head that was marketed in the thirties by the 'Persons Majestic Manufacturing Company' from Worcester, Massachusetts USA, as a direct rival to Lalique and for the US market. These mascots were actually made under licence in Czechoslovakia at the time, and some examples also carry the ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ sandblasted signature under the base. These are now collectors items in their own right, and are found in highly tinted yellow/green glass. They have ‘Persons Majestic Company, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA’ in a raised moulded factory stamping around the top edge of the base, and have a most noticeable cut out on the base section of the Victoire version, where the shape of the lower edge of the hairline is noticeably different where it meets the neck.

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Fakes

Be aware also today of a few modern Czechoslovakian design pieces - these are being imported into department stores world-wide and are loosely based copies of the original Lalique designs. So far two types - horses heads and Spirit of the Wind - have appeared, always mounted on black square resin bases and priced at around 50 pounds each. Of course, even here devious dealers have removed the glass from its base, added spurious Lalique signatures and tried to pass them off as genuine. Luckily the Spirit of the Wind lower hair line curve differs totally from the Lalique original, and of course the finish is abysmal, cheaply mass produced, badly moulded and finished frosted modern glass.

Fake Ram's Head
Picture of a fake Ram's head

With items as desirable as Lalique mascots, there are bound to be attempts made to copy his mastery of fine glass, and in 1990 saw the first; a ram's head in a multicolour opaque glass with even an 'R. LALIQUE' moulded signature inserted in the glass. The designer of this piece obviously did not know how to produce an exact copy of Lalique's version, so he designed his own ram, complete with similar style to the horns and even encased the lower portion of the glass in a metal mount. Luckily this piece has now been examined by a reputable auction house and it is doubtful if similar items will ever appear.

During the past few years, a few deep purple coloured pieces have appeared at auctions in the UK, USA and France. These apparently started life in Australia and filtered into the French, Japanese, USA and UK trade. This odd colour was produced by sending Cobalt 80 irradiation through authentic Lalique clear glass mascots, turning them into an extremely deep purple colour. This was publicly exposed in a High Court action on 14-12-98 in London. Buyers should be very wary when they are offered perfect purple mascots - I myself have encountered examples produced using clear glass examples of the Cocks Head, Coq Nain, Eagle's Head, Frog, Falcon, Small Dragonfly, Sirene and the Victoire - there are doubtless more types hidden somewhere in the world. But as now all top auction houses and reputable dealers are aware of this problem, hopefully very few will turn up in the future.

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Conclusion

Should you wish to enter into the Lalique marketplace please proceed with caution, but also with the knowledge that should you be lucky enough to own an original René Lalique car mascot, that even the humblest example is a part of history and represents the style and grandeur of motoring history never to be repeated. For a detailed view of each individual mascot click here on The Twenty Nine mascots.

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