One of the earliest jewels made by Louis Comfort Tiffany, known as a “holy grail” and whose whereabouts had been listed as unknown for decades, recently reappeared and set a world auction record.
Tiffany’s famed “Medusa” pendant/necklace sold at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels sale last month for $3.65 million — more than 18 times its high estimate of $200,000. Although works by his Tiffany Studios have sold for more, this amount is a record price for one of his pieces.
Made circa 1904, the Medusa pendant, 15 inches long, features gold, opal, demantoid garnet, and colored stone. Five stylized snakes emerge from the center cluster of tumbled opals, the two side ones of which are articulated, and their coiled tendrils are set with opals and demantoid garnets, accented by colored gemstones including amethysts and rubies. According to Sotheby’s catalog note, John Loring, former design director of Tiffany & Co., describes the pendant in Louis Comfort Tiffany at Tiffany & Co., as being “more reminiscent of fiddle-head fern shoots and the curiosities of a forest floor after a spring rain than of the fearsome serpent-coiffed head of a Medusa or even of a medusa jellyfish.”
The Medusa pendant was first exhibited in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and in 1906 at the Société des Artistes Français in Paris, along with a Peacock necklace, one of Tiffany's other significant pieces that's in the collection of the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
The pendant was purchased in 1909 by Henry Walters, a noted art collector and philanthropist, and founder of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1909 (which became the Walters Art Museum in 1934). According to Sotheby’s, Walters was probably the most important male patron of the jeweler’s art during the Gilded Age and bought Tiffany pieces for his sister and her daughters, his public gallery and his private, personal collection.
In 1943, the necklace was bought at a Parke-Bernet Galleries auction by Salman Schocken, an entrepreneur, business leader in retail and publishing, and an art patron and collector. It stayed in the family collection until it went up for auction at Sotheby’s in December, marking its first public appearance in almost 80 years.
Sotheby’s said the pendant has been listed as “whereabouts unknown” since it was sold in 1943 and the exciting discovery of this piece is of great significance because it is one of the earliest jewels designed by Tiffany, the son of Charles Tiffany, the founder of the renowned retailer.
“The Medusa pendant was immediately recognizable to me for a few reasons,” Carol Elkins, Sotheby’s senior jewelry specialist, told JCK. “Over several decades of researching and handling other jewels designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, I have referred to the various publications on Tiffany jewels where the Medusa pendant is illustrated and discussed. The design of the jewel is so striking and unforgettable that it sticks in the memory banks, and because of the mention of its unknown whereabouts, the hope was always that it would one day reappear. Not all jewels come with such an extensive provenance,” said Elkins. “It might be considered a holy grail of Louis Comfort Tiffany jewels for these reasons.”
The auction house said that with the wide array of unusual gemstones supplied by Dr. George Friedrich Kunz, Tiffany & Company’s chief gemologist, Louis Comfort Tiffany was able to create original designs with superb craftsmanship — and the Medusa pendant is a testament to his artistic vision and may be considered amongst his greatest triumphs in jewelry making.