Lalique's Glass Menagerie, Too Cool to Ride on Radiators

March 4, 2012 12:00 am

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PART weird bestiary, part alien zodiac, the crystalline characters of René Lalique appear far too ethereal to ride on the noses of mere motorcars. Perhaps that is why these automotive mascots -- "hood ornament" is too mundane a characterization -- are among the most treasured automotive accessories.

A complete set of Lalique mascots is being offered at an RM Auctions sale on March 10 in conjunction with the Amelia Island Concours d'Élégance in Florida. The 30 glass figures come with a lighted and climate-controlled display case; the presale estimate is $800,000 to $1.2 million.

Only three sets are known to exist, said Alain Squindo, a specialist at RM. "For a collector of automobile accessories these are the most desired of objects," he said.

Small metal sculptures began to replace the thermometers and safety valves topping automobile radiators in the early days of the motorcar. The most famous of these, the Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy, also known as the Flying Lady, arrived in 1911. Well before manufacturers offered their own hood ornaments, affluent owners personalized the family car -- Bentley or Bugatti, Hispano-Suiza or Isotta-Fraschini -- with favorite designs, usually of metal.

René Lalique was already a famous jeweler when he began to shrewdly court wealthy automobile owners. In 1906 he created gift plates for the winners of the Targa Florio races. Soon he was adapting some of the imagery of his 250 perfume bottles and paperweights into mascots to sit above the radiator.

Lalique's decision around 1910 to focus on glass provided the foundation for his luxury empire. "Lalique was an immensely talented artist with an entrepreneurial bent," said David McFadden, chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. "He realized that by taking a mundane material like glass, and adding artistry, he could reach a wider audience."

The auto mascots gained momentum in 1925 at the Art Deco exposition in Paris. André Citroën, a supporter of the exposition, used the occasion to introduce a new version of the 5CV car, also called the Cinq Chevaux (five horses). He ordered a special mascot from Lalique.

First Published 2012-03-03 23:06:15

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