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  Out of the Ghetto! The Historical Importance - and Unimportance - of Blenko Glass
Newsletter No. 5
crystallo wine glass at the corning museum of glass vanitas painting Hans Holbein painting
Cristallo Wineglass. Venice, late 16th to early 17th century. Blown.
H. 21 cm
The Corning Museum of glass, 2003.3.11
Example of memento mori painting with glass
Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill
, 1628
Pieter Claesz (Dutch)
Oil on wood; 9 1/2 x 14 1/8 in.
portrait of a wealthy merchant, featuring a glass vase
Hans Holbein

Georg Gisze, a German merchant in London, 1532
Oil on wood

Part I

I said this in the last newsletter and have touched on it in my recent Modernism Magazine article and now I want to expand on it; I don't really like glass. At least, I don't like Blenko (or Empoli) simply because it is glass but rather because of its important and historic designs. Understanding the Blenko Glass Company's historical and cultural importance outside of the ghetto of glass specialization is the key to understanding its true value.

Don't get me wrong, glass in itself can be seductively beautiful and visually compelling - as Historic Period Blenko is. I have great respect for glass' long and distinguished history of technical innovation associated with the peak periods of various cultures (also something Historic Period Blenko glass embodies). Until as late as the Renaissance glass was often the most valuable luxury material. It was also a great rarity as comparatively few cultures made glass, only technologically advanced and wealthy ones (whereas even the most primitive cultures produced ceramics). But I do not love all things glass any more than a car collector loves all things made of steel.

There is such a thing as the "glass ghetto" just as there is the "mud ghetto" (for ceramicists). This ghetto is a mindset where everything is about glass first and foremost. For me it is about glass lastly. I have nothing against specialization, but specialization too easily becomes fixation and can unduly monopolize one's worldview. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not the entire message - it is a material and process for achieving a result, one element intrinsically connected to a larger continuum; history, technology, culture, design, art and craft. Historic Period Blenko glass has the most profound and fascinating of ties to all of those elements of the continuum.

I am interested in ideas over material. This is no doubt a result of my education in art, with a focus on contemporary conceptual art. Circa 2000 I reached a definitive crisis and stopped being able to take for granted a clear and universal distinction between contemporary art and design, to say nothing of the pejorative "craft". After years of research and re-education I now I find the distinction laughably obscene and narrow minded. It is also a very Western dichotomy, hardly universal. In the end everything is about ideas; their various expressions and manifestations are merely their evidence. Historic Period Blenko glass is nothing if not a stunningly beautiful placeholder for some very important ideas.

Bauhause school Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe glass house by Philip Johnson
The Bauhaus school in Germany Farnsworth House, built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951 and located near Plano, Illinois Phillip Johnson's "glass house"
completed 1959

My particular message on Vintage Modern glasshouse is not "Glass," it is instead "Mid-Century Culture, particularly American, as expressed through Art and Design using glass." (Note that "glasshouse" for me is a reference to the revolutionary and iconic International Style house by Mies van der Rohe and that of his follower Phillip Johnson - just try buying any one-word URL to figure out why I added "Vintage Modern"). The dominant story in mid-century design that the general public is aware of has been about the high-modernist aesthetics of the Bauhaus as quintessentially expressed in America by the Eamses. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg and I would like to draw your attention to the mountain underneath. An important place on that mountain of American culture is occupied by the Historic Period work of the Blenko Glass Company.

Jackson Pollock painting
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956)
White Light, 1954.
Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas
48 1/4 x 38 1/4"
Jasper John Painting
Jasper Johns (American, 1930)
"Map", 1961
Oil on canvas
Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe Painting
Andy Warhol
(American, 1928-1987).
Gold Marilyn Monroe,
1962. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas
6' 11 1/4" x 57"
George Nakashima table
George Nakashima
Arlyn Table, 1988 Redwood, American Black Walnut, East Indian Laurel, Madrona Burl
Wendell Castle sculptures
Wendell Castle
Lights from the plastic collection, circa 1970
Paul Evans buffet
Paul Evans
Sculpture Front Cabinet, 1977
Steel, slate, wood

So much of what happened in mid-century America, post WWII, had very little to do with machine-made high-modernism or was in fact diametrically opposed to it. Only now are we beginning to see that story emerge more fully, and I would argue that this "other" story is in fact the true source of American cultural influence. The American story is not the art of the expatriate European modernists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or even Marcel Duchamp, it was instead the Americans who incorporated and expanded their ideas; Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Alan Kaprow, George Nakashima, Wendell Castle, Paul Evans, Dale Chihuly. And this is exactly where Winslow Anderson, Wayne Husted, Joel Philip Myers and John Nickerson fit in.

The Blenko Glass Company's early work was utterly banal; primarily imitating common forms and classical sources, even directly copying Italian glass (particularly Empoli, equally intersting glass for which I have already posted some history on the Empoli Newsletter). The company's first unofficial designer, and an important transitional figure, Carl Erickson, was Swedish born (emigrated to the US at about age four) and, via his father and grandfather, had one foot in the European tradition (Kosta) of high-end glass. The company's first official designer, the one I credit with starting everything, Winslow Anderson, was trained at one of the country's foremost institutions, Alfred University, in both the art of European Modernism and ceramics. But he did not linger in that realm. Instead it was his launching pad for creating something utterly new and uniquely American.

The Blenko Glass Company's connections to pivotal elements of art, craft and design, from Anderson in 1947 to Nickerson in 1974, are incredibly significant and profound. When one looks at the history and influences of the designers a web of relationships quickly reveals itself. A small sampling of this web includes the most important museum in the US; the Met, MoMA, Guggenheim, Corning, Toledo, and the most influential retailers; Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Bloomingdales, and Gumps, and many of the biggest names of the time, Raymond Lowey, Donald Deskey, Edgar Kaufmann Jr. This is a web of the highest order of importance as it is one that tells the story of America's cultural coming of age, its golden age wherein it found its true, unique voice that influenced the world. (I am perhaps giving short shrift to a key element of my story here but it is just too big a topic to handle meaningfully in this forum, a book would be better...)

Tiffany Wisteria Lamp Tiffany favrille vase Blenko floor decanter by Wayne Husted Ruhlmann desk
Sotheby's Sale 8454 lot 21
Tiffany Studios
"Apple Blossom" Table Lamp, 1905
26 1/2 in. H
$932,500 hammer

Christie's sale 1245, lot 103, A Decorated Favrile Glass Vase
Tiffany Studios, circa 1901
10¼in. high
$107,550 hammer

Blenko elaborate baluster form floor decanter design design #5929L in Lilac by Wayne Husted, designed 1959, made for only 2 years in this color, 36.25in.H

Christies Sale 1676, lot 71, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933)
An American Burr Walnut, Gilt-Bronze and Doe Skin 'Ambassade' Desk, circa 1925
$296,000 hammer

What is particularly interesting about the Blenko Glass Company's work is its inversion of the dynamics of the market presence of other names of comparable design significance like L. C. Tiffany and Emile-Jacques Ruhlman. Both those figures represented the pinnacle of their fields; Art Nouveau glass and Art Deco furniture respectively. They worked in the highest end, with items largely affordable only to the very rich. And that is completely appropriate in periods known as the Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties; ages of excess and immense wealth - and disparity of wealth (like we have today too). But, partly because of their extreme and unique nature, their products fell dramatically out of favor and went through a period of comparative worthlessness. Hard to imagine today when a decent Tiffany lamp or Ruhlman table sells for well over a quarter of a million (whereas Tiffany vases seem to max out at a mere $100,000+).

Blenko glass however was never marketed to the ultra-rich, it was a luxury instead aimed at the middle class, perfectly suited to the post-war boom era of the GI Bill. Like the adventurous and extreme designs of Tiffany and Ruhlman, Blenko glass also fell out of favor. What does one do with a 3 foot tall bright purple crazy shaped glass decanter (as in photo above) when the moment has passed and tastes turn? "Well, it didn't cost me that much so I'll stick it in the wreck room or closet (where it gets broken) or throw it out." I dare say the vast majority of it did not survive. Throughout the 1970's, 80's and much of the 90's Historic Period Blenko glass was essentially worthless and forgotten. We know that has now changed (though I think it's still cheap), and I must say that precious few things, art or design, ever come back so strongly from such an ignominious fate - only the chosen few. I believe Historic Period Blenko's trajectory will continue to mimic that of Tiffany and its ilk.

But of course, there are still Tiffany vases for $1,000 and Tiffany vases for $100,000 - they are not all created equal. My interest is particularly in the Blenko Glass Company's Great pieces. These are the treasures; these are tomorrow's paperweight vases. But the secret is not really out yet - not even among collectors. Even some of the most advanced do not see what I know is a blazing line between the Great pieces and the good pieces (though the generic shapes now thankfully seem to have been distinguished as being of lesser importance by most).

Inexplicably, as a friend recently pointed out to me, many collectors would still rather buy a second or third 5929L in Tangerine (iconic, sure, but in production for 9 years, and always in that color) than a similarly priced seminal design, the Portrait Vase #552, of which only a few examples are known, for considerably less. Value is not determined "by the inch," rather it is determined by history and aesthetics as well as by rarity (the last criteria being the most difficult to accurately judge but see related Newsletter). Welcome to the next level of the Blenko glass collecting game. There are not a lot of the Great pieces around - in fact with my many years experience and research I promise you there are alarmingly few. At some point soon today's prices for the Great pieces will look like a laughable bargain and I look forward to saying "I told you so." In fact, I said that 10 years ago and have already been proven right once. As a well known Tiffany dealer ominously told me last year with a somewhat pained expression "I only regret the ones I didn't buy." Ouch.

When you buy Historic Period Blenko, particularly the Great pieces, not only are you buying and protecting history, but history of established and deep cultural significance to America. If you put Blenko in the "glass ghetto" you will miss half its value - I invite you to step out to a broader historical and cultural context to see just how important the mid-century work of this company is. I say this with an ounce of foreshadowing; if you are familiar with Dr. Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, then you know that we are soon to be done with the "tail" of collecting interest and into the heady, stratospheric days. Be forewarned; carpe diem!


Part II; The Quagmire

Whereas Part I of this newsletter was about what exactly is great and important about Blenko glass, Part II is about what is bad and unimportant. It may sound a bit perverse when put so bluntly, but at the end of the day collecting is about discriminating. Usually we don't think about it that way because collecting is largely intended as a positive, feel-good endeavor, a process of selecting the things we love. But the flip side to the coin, recognizing what is bad, is just as important and indeed inevitable. For some things to be good, others must be bad; yin-yang, a relative dichotomy.

I can imagine that some of you may well find my position perplexing. How is it possible for some of the Blenko Glass Company's work to be so very important (and hence very valuable) and others to be inconsequential? And how, one might ask, can one only value pre-1974 Blenko glass - what about the three decades of work the same company produced after that?

The first question is easiest to answer and, as mentioned in Newsletter #3, the answer is on a case-by-case basis. Each case is an opportunity to consider a design and its context fully and then construct a reasonable argument that goes beyond the simplistic "it's pretty." A reasonable argument is rooted in more than just opinion on beauty; it involves citations, precedent, history and technical information. Typically the very best pieces are the easiest to spot, they stand miles apart from the merely good pieces, that is a standard situation in connoisseurship. The few items at the top become a white-hot point of focus; everyone always wants "the best" and obsesses over it. The difficult arguments are about what is merely "good" and what is "bad." In the end, being able to distinguish quality is an art; there are no hard and fast rules although logic, skill and knowledge are essential to practicing the art.

For me, Historic Period Blenko glass designs fall into 3 categories; the few dozen designs of striking innovation and importance that I could discuss at length; the few hundred that range from good to great because with varying degrees of success they each demonstrate key strengths and themes of each designer; and finally the rest, the generic and simplistic items that do not particularly relate to the designer's or company's strengths. I include in the latter category all ashtrays (which are universally tasteless), all cast designs, which look, and indeed were meant to be, cheap, and the 384 water bottle with or without the handle it came with for at least 5 years. And yes, I have been lectured endlessly about my dislike of the 384. Suffice to say I do not find it particularly functional, it lacks any elegance, it is cheaply and quickly made, and has been made in the millions. And no, I do not believe its commercial success equates with aesthetic or design success. It sells well because of the low price, the great colors and it's illusion of functionality, not because it is a great or important design. Note that the logic of my argument is devoid of sentimentality.

To answer the more polemical and perhaps less obvious question about why I only value pre-1974 Blenko glass, let me begin by prefacing my comments: I know this will eventually get to the good folks at the Blenko Glass Company and I want to be clear that although I want the best for the company I can not be a mindless cheerleader. It is my role as a collector, a dealer and a recognized expert to think critically and the following is my opinion based on my research, firsthand knowledge of the company and considerable experience in art and design. I have had many sincere and hopeful discussions with various people at the company including detailed proposals and suggestions; this is a continuation of that dialogue. I believe in constructive criticism and consider this an open letter and invitation to find new solutions.

I have already presented my argument above for why Historic Period Blenko is both great and important, now it is time to explain my rationale for believing that the Blenko Glass Company's post 1974 work is, at best, not important and, too frequently, even bad. On that note, it's good to get the bad stuff out of the way right off the bat; The Blenko Glass Company today seems to be a marginal and struggling concern. It has no unique product, no identity, no market presence and its brand has eroded dramatically as a result of abandoning their core values. The company has been shrinking for over 10 years and appears to exist today more out of inertia and sheer determination than as an indicator of a viable business model. I wish it weren't so because it is very painful to behold. The good news is that though history can not be rewritten, it is never too late for change if change is wholeheartedly embraced and properly done - half steps are useless.

Time for a bit of background: In Blenko's Historic Period, 1947-74, there was a confluence of historical factors of great significance that laid the foundation for the company's success; the emergence of the professional designer, high Modernism, the budding Craft Movement including the Studio Glass movement, and the economic and political dominance of the United States to name but a few. It was a moment of cultural expansion, change and blossoming in America . The company was fortunate to have been able to take advantage of these factors and to have had a president who saw value in the specialized skill of designers and trusted them completely.

Of course Mr. Blenko's choice of designers was also extremely fortuitous no matter how deliberately it was done. William Blenko Sr. was by all accounts a great man with both charisma and skill. Now, I believe that a company is more than an amorphous entity; it is the product of the people who run it, and Bill Blenko Sr. was the Blenko Glass Company. He was the source of the company's true success from day one until the day he died. And indeed it was in 1969 when he died, that was also Joel Philip Myers' last year as designer. Myers' replacement, John Nickerson, was fortunately found by simply imitating the successful process that Bill Sr. had consistently used to find the previous designers (by seeking the recommendation of the best ceramics and applied arts school in the nation). Note that abandoning that process (and the rationale behind it) marks the single biggest step towards the company's downturn. But, in all fairness, some things were out of the company's control, socio-economic changes can conspire against a company's best efforts.

The company's next president, Bill Blenko Jr., the third generation, had a very different outlook and personality from his father's - and quite rightly so; a new attitude for a new period. By the time of Bill Jr.'s tenure the cultural and business climate had dramatically changed with growing labor and manufacturing costs, overseas competition, a globalized economy and very turbulent cultural waters. The company could no longer be what it once was, it was simply not possible, the context had changed, and the market had changed. Merely doing the same thing it did before could no longer guarantee the company's success. They could have chosen a completely different path for the new times - but radical change comes easily to no one. It's easy for any of us to sit in our armchair and fault them in retrospect for not being proactive and for not evolving their business model, there is no point. I credit the company with doing everything they could and everything in the best interest of the company given the information and resources they had at the time. One decision I am unrepentantly critical of however is their choice of designer post-1974. This was the nail in the coffin that made the Blenko Glass Company go from great to irrelevant in a matter of years.

I apologize in advance for speaking ill of the dead (even if only on a professional level), yet I can't avoid it and still make my point, which is a critical point to my understanding of the Blenko Glass Company. Don Shepherd was chosen as designer not because of great skill or recommendation, but because he just happened to be knocking around the factory having some of his own work made there. He was easily available and casually and tentatively took the job. He was not the company's first choice. He was also the first designer who, from day one, did not live full time in West Virginia or work exclusively for the company. He was not very invested in it. He had his own business to run and several projects on the go. Designing for Blenko was just something he did on the side.

On a formal level, his designs for the company also show absolutely no relationship with the prevailing sensibilities of the time. It's like Postmodernism just didn't happen in Shepherd's world! And what a movement that was - so perfectly suited to the brash forms and loud colors of Blenko glass. But instead, under Shepherd conservatism reined and the company stagnated. No other designer at at the company ever worked with such a dramatically limited color palette or so emphasized the use of colorless glass. For 10 years, from 1974 to 1983 Shepherd only added 3 new colors to the line; Grass (much like Peacock), and Saphire (a less elegant version of Persian) and Antique Green (washed out Sea Green); clearly color was not his thing. No other designer made such widespread use of cast and heavily molded items. Both these decisions were totally counterintuitive to the company's strengths. Perhaps as a result, Shepherd's tenure completely lacks for a defining or iconic design that myself or other collectors reliably covet.

The best I can muster to say about Shepherd's tenure is that he did a few "specialty lines" of note (perhaps more appropriately called "thematic lines" as most are not that special), but the overwhelming majority of these lines were just silly marketing names added to simple and uninteresting shapes. Blue Top Mountain, Rock Collection and Big Sky are his only contribution of any consequence to me. For such a weak performance he certainly stayed there for a loooong time; fifteen years. That's five years longer than Husted with not a fraction of the innovation. I just do not understand why he was allowed to stay so long. the Blenko Glass Company was clearly on auto-pilot, and remains so today.

I do not envy Hank Adams when he took over. He surely inherited a mess and a company without keel or vision (also at a time when the next generation of the Blenko family was transitioning to become president). I think Adams is a great artist and his many professional successes and great body of Studio Glass work prove it, but the Blenko Glass Company was not the best forum for him and was just too much of an uphill battle at that point. All this to say, after John Nickerson there really was nothing of note produced by the Blenko Glass Company, nothing that was in synch with the zeitgeist, no important innovation or vision and certainly nothing that reached the right audience or had a cultural impact.

To again step back to the bigger picture, it is hard to be so critical, especially knowing that in both art and design the 1980's and 1990's it was one of the most ambiguous and difficult moments for aesthetics in recent history (with the shining exception of the Memphis movement). Even the best of designers would have had a difficult time perpetuating the company's stellar legacy. But that is not an excuse; it just means the right pieces for the puzzle were not available then. It is also all the more reason to draw a very clear line in 1974 at which time, for me, the Blenko Glass Company became a different company.

This does bring us to the present, because the company is indeed still around and at a greatly reduced rate still producing tableware. Now for a slightly more upbeat assessment, I think it is great that they have a (relatively) new manager (Update: manager now gone...), and it is a very positive step that they once again have a designer of sorts even if they are rarely there. Unfortunately, the big picture is that despite these small positive steps, ultimately the company is continuing on a failed path, weakly mimicking an outdated model. As a symbol of their inability to break from the past and as a barometer of their continued failure we have their re-hashing of old designs - badly and altered! To me that is like hoisting up the white flag for all to see and yelling "we are creatively bankrupt and cannibalizing our own legacy - look at how badly we make the old designs now." Perhaps fortunately, the reissued designs are either ones that rely on molds or are so badly made or altered that they are easily distinguished.

In light of the importance of design to the Blenko Glass Company's business it is commendable that after 5 years of not having a real designer they are working with a design team from a local Christian college (though I am not entirely clear of the logic of going to a college whose primary mandate is piety rather than design. And NB: the unfortunate title of this article on their site speaks volumes ). This team, who is not entirely without qualification or talent, has produced some pretty and serviceable designs. But, with very long odds, they would have to win the talent lottery for this venture to result in truly noteworthy designs much less change the company's fortune. Such a venture is a poor life raft for a gasping company. Not that any designer alone could solve the company's problems right now. That would require vision on a company-wide level and a commitment to change. My sense is that the company is overwhelmed just with treading water and has insufficient resources and absolutely no vision.

As I have told the people at the Blenko Glass Company; you can't compete with China, South America and Eastern Europe on price or volume. The only way to be competitive is through a unique and focused product line, good design and marketing. Clearly this is not happening. the Blenko Glass Company has not produced anything recently that hasn't been done before and can't already be had for half the price elsewhere. Sure, it might be reasonably pretty, but that just isn't enough. The world is awash in great products (not to mention pretty vases) but without the right marketing even they languish. A poorly marketed pretty product in a sea of similar ones, many cheaper, is a dead end. I've been in Blenko death-watch mode for this reason for years now and can only say I am impressed with their tenacity that seems to defy the odds - and logic.

This is a tragedy of historic proportion because yet again, 60 years later, the stars have aligned! We are again in a moment of huge cultural growth, a period where art and design are truly merging and together breaking down walls, forging a path that will be followed for decades. And this is the end result of a cycle that the Blenko Glass Company directly participated in creating - yet they will not (can not?) drink from the well of their own success. My simple suggestion to the company is to "get out of the ghetto" and think outside the box by engaging with some of the exciting developments in culture today. It was the very act of stepping out of the ghetto of preconceptions of what a glass company should make in 1947 (and in 1929 when they added tableware to their line of sheet glass) that made for three decades of groundbreaking innovation and economic success.

There is no denying that the Blenko Glass Company today is not the same company as Historic Period Blenko; it is night and day. Historic Period Blenko has a value that new Blenko simply can not have. Thankfully we will always have the legacy of Blenko's Historic Period treasures as testament to the company's once great success of historical and cultural importance. I encourage you all to look at those special historic designs very closely; their greatness is such that the same company can not even compete with them, their own product. Greatness can not be engineered, it just happens and often it is only recognized long after the fact, once much of it has slipped away. Grab what morsels of great Historic Period Blenko you can, while you can, because it takes nothing short of a miracle for lightning to strike twice in the same place.


Part III; Whither Blenko?
February, 2009 (less than a year after the above was written...)

I loathed addressing this issue, particularly right now as it seems inappropriately premature but, in this age when insta-blog-type commentary is expected and demanded, and because of popular request from collectors I feel I must. Rather than making this commentary on the Blenko Glass Company's currently imperiled status into a Newsletter in itself, I am appending this as "Part III" to Newsletter #6 "Out of the Ghetto" in which I address Blenko's post-Historic Period decline.

On January 30, 2009 the Blenko Glass Company issued a press release that, couched amateurishly in PR-speak, indicated a financial outlook decidedly more dire than what I had become accustomed to hearing of from Blenko. In a nutshell, the company has been running on steam for about 5 years and has been unable to pay a $500K debt to their gas company and has now had their gas cut off and accounts seized in accordance with a legal judgment against them. Like others I am confused as to why, when the family made a fresh investment of $2M recently, they did not address this issue beyond a purported verbal agreement with the gas company. Either important information that explains this discrepancy has not been made public or it would seem a very poor strategic decision was made. Given Blenko's abysmal track record the latter would not surprise me.

Yet I hear that, of course, those who are invested in the company (emotionally as well as financially) have not yet given up the ghost and are exploring all options, no matter how slim and ultimately doomed. Why doomed? Well, my guess is that if they had an ace up their sleeve they would have used it when they made a $2M investment in attempting to turn the company around. Yet it seems that all they have been able to do is shuffle the deck chairs on a sinking boat; their investment was put into "more of the same," throwing good money after bad on a failed business model that they did not fundamentally change when it was screaming out for it. In the end what it comes down to is that their product was either so bad or so undistinguished that not enough people wanted to buy it. In a free market you either provide a product that there is a demand for or you close. For this reason, calls for the Governor to intervene make absolutely no sense to me. In good time, cooler heads will be able to look back upon this and make a clearer analysis.

For now, the only thing that is clear, as of February 2009, is that nothing is absolutely certain about the company's future - though it is decidedly dim. In this economy no one will be lending large sums of money to a business venture with a proven dismal track record. Were I to place a bet it would be on the immanent and permanent demise of the company before the year is out, very possibly sooner. But then again, every year for the last seven years I've expected Blenko to close and I could well be proven wrong yet again.

Why does this all matter? I like to think that most of my customers just don't care what happens to the current incarnation of the Blenko Glass Company. I like to think that by now I have made it clear that the company itself, as a corporate entity, is irrelevant. What I deal in, what I collect, what I love, is the work of the first four designers the company employed during the Historic Period of 1947-74 - and also some early work. And yet, there is a sentimental attachment to this company called "Blenko." In large part this is misplaced nostalgia; trying to hold on to a beautiful memory, blind to the fact that the shards in our hands are only a sad, pathetic shadow of what we love. Indeed these bedraggled remains only sully the greatness of what Blenko once was. The bell tolls for thee, Blenko.

Let's assume then that indeed the Blenko Glass Company will be closing its doors forever this year and its physical remnants scattered to the winds. What does this mean to us, to the collectors? Ultimately, it means many things, but not much right now or any time soon. The impact will be deep, but it will take time as well as the coalescing of other factors in order to be felt. In the short term nothing will change.

Yes, I have heard already from a number of people that values for Blenko glass are now certain to soar. Oh? Why? For all Blenko glass? Not likely! The simple and misguided idea behind this is that the supply of Blenko glass has now been permanently shut off, the fountain has run dry and so we will be left fighting for the limited supply of what has been made. To be blunt, such reasoning betrays ignorance and lazy thinking.

When functioning properly, the Blenko Glass Company would introduce a line of several dozen new designs every year and would simultaneously retire an equal amount (give or take). Limited supply was built into the business model; the average design was in production for about 3 or 4 years. The company closing will not change that; this won't in itself make items rarer. This is particularly true for those of us who are primarily just interested in Historic Period Blenko.

The company closing does however take away the threat of reissues of vintage pieces - but that was never much of a threat anyway as Blenko only ever reissued about a dozen of its thousands of original designs anyway. Even of these few reissues, they were so easily distinguished from the originals because of poor workmanship and changes to the designs and colors that the potential threat was more theoretical than real. In summary, the company closing does not make their glass rarer, so values will not increase based on a newly limited supply.

For comparison's sake, let's look at a parallel scenario in the art world; often people speculate on older artists work assuming that their values will increase when the artist dies. More often than not this strategy is a failure. The death of an artist will often bring a small flurry of publicity but the artist's market will most frequently stagnate or contract in the long run and immediate auction results can often be depressed due to uncertainty. Death of the author does not make the quality of their work better, it does however mean that the person in charge of selling the artists work (their gallery) no longer has a reliable supply to sell and as a result may well simply stop promoting and selling the artists work. Certainly if the artist's work had not been able to reach a critical mass of interest while the artist was alive to promote it and develop it themselves, then the chances of it happening diminishes dramatically further after their death. Fame (reputation) and/or value, almost without exception, must be established before the artist's death. There are many more variables that go into determining the value of an artist's worth than the artist's lack of a pulse.

Back to Blenko; how does the above story relate? Well, I shared it in an effort to discourage the very damaging knee-jerk reaction that can easily manifest in this scenario. I have already heard from some 'pickers' (the industry name for wholesale or small-time, part-time or junior dealers) that they are going to hold on to their Blenko because the values will surely go up now that the factory is closing. This "hoarding" mentality is dangerous because it can choke supply to a market and in doing so may dry it up. When no good material comes available for a long enough span of time collectors lose interest and wander away, and then in this impoverished environment the hoarders now flood the market with their goods only to find that the ground is too parched to soak it up. Double whammy; smaller customer base and greater supply, so guess what? Prices plummet.

What makes Historic Period Blenko valuable is its good design and it's relevance to important cultural developments. The company closing will not change that. What makes something worth more money is simply supply & demand; either the material becomes rarer (which does gradually happen with glass through breakage but does not happen because the company closed) or the market generates a greater number of customers for the existing pool of goods. In the case of Historic Period Blenko it is only the latter that will make a noticeable difference and this does not happen from the company closing either. If anything, without the company around to promote its current products by exploiting its historical greatness, Blenko's profile may sink. For example, many new collectors have (unfortunately) discovered Historic Period Blenko as a result of the company's promotion on PBS - without Blenko around who would fill that void?

So the constructive question is "what will make interest grow?" The answer, first and foremost is dealers like me (after all we have an economic incentive!) and also museums. Growth and interest is generated through education, which is one of the reasons I write Newsletters. Prices won't rise because one of the biggest promoters (Blenko) disappears, but if you were to hear that a major dealer or gallery was getting involved in handling the material, then yes, prices will quite likely rise.

As a dealer I can tell you that, in an unhappy way, it is a good thing for me that Blenko closes. Despite all the publicity they brought to their product, it was a double edged-sword. Their audience was being initiated into new Blenko, a sorry and often very ugly product of low quality. In the process of gaining publicity Blenko really trashed their good name by putting out third-rate stuff that relied on the reputation of their Historic Period product to make it sell. I'd rather see them close than continue being a liability to collectors and history. In a perverse way, not in the way most people assume, the factory closing can indeed have an upward impact on values (by eliminating the source of the bad PR) but only in tandem with other factors - and yet nothing is guaranteed.

In and of itself, the factory closing will not affect values of Historic Period Blenko now. In the short-term there could be a bubble if foolhardy speculative dealers and collectors drive up prices (it's happened before), but that alone does not make a market. In the long-term a strong, growing and stable market depends on having a dedicated core of educated and discriminating dealers and collectors. Education and publicity are key. In the very long term it means that prices could go much higher simply because there is no fear that the company will reissue designs or otherwise act as a liability. It is also easier to get museums interested when the company is defunct; otherwise they are suspicious of being used as a pawn to promote a company. But nothing happens overnight, especially in this economy - one, by the way, that has proved the falsehood of "easy money" and speculative buying (let that serve as warning!). The values of good and important examples of Historic Period Blenko will continue their climb that they have been on for at least a decade but not because of the factory closing.

Damon Crain

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