Lamps, which started out as purely functional, found their utilitarianism joined by aesthetism in their design and production. Today, antique and vintage lamps have become highly collectible as exemplars of form and function, since they reflect the artistic movement and technology of their times. The value of lamps varies significantly, and prices can range from a few dollars to many thousands, and reproductions are abundant. Potential buyers should carefully research pieces prior to buying them, particularly when names such as Tiffany and Handel are being attributed to pieces.
Candles were the main form of lighting until the 1850s, when oil lamps were mass-produced and became readily available. These were commonly used in rural areas into the 1930s. Urban areas had converted to gas in the early 1800s and electricity later that century, with the invention of the electric light bulb.
The earliest lamps consisted of simple vessels with absorbent wicks. As mass production took over, manufacturers commonly made the metal bases and burners, and glassmakers supplied glass globes. In the Victorian era, oil lamps, candles and electric lamps coexisted. In the early 1900s, Aladdin Industries produced its Aladdin lamp, which was brighter than any of its competitors. Aladdin was so confident in its product that the company offered $1,000 to anyone that could make a brighter lamp.
Oil lamps are particularly desired by people who are decorating in the Victorian style. Prices can range from around $50 to a few hundred. Specific Aladdin lamps can be even more collectible. J. W. Courter's book "Aladdin The Magic Name in Lamps" will help buyers and sellers value specific lamps accurately.
Louis Comfort Tiffany's name is synonymous with beauty and quality craftsmanship in lamp making, and the company's Arts and Crafts style copper foil lamps have become the most desired lamps of all. The first Tiffany lamp was created around 1895, and the company prided itself in making each intricate leaded glass lamp by hand. These highly collectible lamps can fetch hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars, and this makes them some of the most commonly reproduced.
The Handel Lamp Company was a rival of Tiffany Studios, matching them in quality but undercutting them in price. Handel’s products were very popular, but they failed to move with the times and closed in 1936. Only 10 percent of the leaded lamps attributed to Handel that are sold today turn out to be authentic. Originals can fetch tens of thousands of dollars but more commonly fetch in the region of $5,000.
More modern lamps are increasing in popularity with collectors. Invented in 1963, lava lamps have recently seen a resurgence in popularity. These icons of the '60s and '70s combined heated wax, chemicals and dyed water to create lavalike imagery and were more decorative than functional as lighting. Original lava lamps can fetch around $300 at auction.