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Tiffany treasures: the sky turned into glass

Locked away in a warehouse in Winter Park, Fla., are some of Louis Comfort Tiffany's finest works, which Hugh and Jeanette McKean saved from destruction 23 years ago. In all that time since, many of the huge translucent windows, detailed mosaics, and delicate lamps have never seen the sunlight they were painstakingly created to enhance.

Now Mr. McKean has completed his book, "The 'Lost' Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany" (New York: Doubleday. $60), which not only gives the reader a look at this collection through scores of color photographs, but also provides a sense of the creative thinking that gave turn-of-the-century American art these notable calling cards.

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These Tiffany works were never really lost, as Mr. McKean is quick to point out. Many of them have been on display from time to time either at Rollins College in Winter Park, or in special exhibits at museums around the country. But many of them have been hidden from the public, he said, simply because their massive size has precluded moving them from the warehouse.

Even now that Mr. Tiffany's work has come back into vogue, Mr. McKean says he still does not know what he's going to do with the collection.

"I'm not keen about breaking it up into little parts," he says. "We bought these things because they fit together to show the work of an important artist. The collection becomes a teaching tool that describes a whole period of art."

As a young artist 50 years ago, Mr. McKean was accepted at an institute Mr. Tiffany founded at his Laurelton Hall estate on Long Island.

For two months Mr. McKean got to know Mr. Tiffany. But by 1930, the elder artist's reputation was already beginning to decline. While Mr. McKean professes to admire the man, he says he had dismissed Mr. Tiffany's work at that time as "dated."

After Mr. Tiffany passed on three years later, his fortune depleted by the depression and his work repudiated by the art world, Laurelton Hall deteriorated , and in 1957 it burned.

By the mid-1950s, however, Mr. McKean had become president of Rollins College , a small liberal arts school, and he was married to the daughter of a Winter Park family. Mrs. McKean took a fancy to Tiffany glass, and she persuaded her husband to put on a small exhibit at the college.

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The Tiffany heirs learned of the McKeans' interest, and they invited the Winter Park couple to sift through the Laurelton Hall wreckage to see what could be salvaged. Furniture and small windows were scattered around the lawn, Mr. McKean recalls. Vandals had destroyed much of the delicate work, but the McKeans decided to acquire what remained intact.

"Some of the treasures weighed tons," he says. "All were fragile. None would prove easy to move. The art world had little interest in them. We did not really want to own them, but Jeanette thought they were beautiful and could not abide their being destroyed."

In his book, Mr. McKean portrays Mr. Tiffany as a man who loved art for the sake of beauty and color, and for what it could do to uplift human spirit. Any art that depicted the seamier side of life or that harshly treated nature or man Mr. Tiffany rejected.

He spent years perfecting his techniques for creating the colored glass he exactingly shaped into forms to make his windows and lamps.

"It was as though he had cut up the sky, melted down a flower garden, tossed in some jewels, and made it into glass," Mr. McKean writes of the favrile glass Mr. Tiffany used for his work. But it was this positive, beautiful view of the world that a new generation of artists scorned, especially after World War I, when the art began to reflect the trauma of a confused age.

But Mr. Tiffany's work has come back into style. His workshop churned out thousands of pieces in its years of production because Mr. Tiffany believed that the average person should be able to purchase beautiful objects. Those pieces, which had been relegated to attics and secondhand shops, now command high prices. Why?

"It is interesting to see," Mr. McKean writes, "that the more footloose this country becomes and the more obsolescent its housing, the more Tiffany lamps it seems to want, and the more fascinated it becomes with his wonderful windows."

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