Rediscovered Masterworks from the Muriel Karasik Gallery
By Jim Oliveira
Looking through catalogs from the 1980s—the decade when the market for 20th century Murano glass truly came into its own— one wonders what became of all those masterworks. Masterworks, because in the 80s every major auction and sale seemed to unearth spectacular examples of 20th century Murano glass which hadn’t been seen for generations. Of all these catalogs, one in particular stands out: The Venetians: Modern Glass 1919-1990. Staged in the fall of 1989 at the Muriel Karasik Gallery in New York City, this exhibition and sale contained at least a dozen of the rarest and most valuable pieces of 20th century Murano glass in existence. A number of these were by the American artist Thomas Stearns, who at the time was relatively unknown, including The Sentinel of Venice and the five Facades of Venice which have collectively gone on to sell for millions of dollars. There was a world class mosaic vase by Ercole Barovier, and an impressive number of fantastic vases and bowls designed by Carlo Scarpa, and in general everything in the sale was thoughtfully chosen and of the highest technical and aesthetic quality. There were also important pieces of contemporary glass in the Karasik exhibition made by American studio glass artists who had been trained in Murano, including Dale Chihuly, Dan Dailey and Dick Marquis. Overall, this tightly curated retrospective attempted to demonstrate a continuous lineage of Murano glass technique and style which existed throughout the 20th century, and its success elevated the exhibition to a level which continues to inspire.
Overall, this tightly curated retrospective attempted to demonstrate a continuous lineage of Murano glass technique and style which existed throughout the 20th century, and its success elevated the exhibition to a level which continues to inspire.
In the years that followed, most of these pieces were accounted for, that is to say they were acquired by high profile collectors who regularly exhibited these works, and eventually brought them back onto the market. Pieces from the Karasik sale were cornerstones in the collections of Dimitri Levas, Martin Cohen, Francesco Carraro and many others, and when they appeared at auction during the last decade they achieved record prices. But there were several prominent pieces from the Karasik exhibition that seemed to have disappeared after 1989, most notably two masterworks by Napoleone Martinuzzi—a red and black cactus sculpture (Lot 121), an important, two handled green Pulegoso vase (Lot 120) and a Lattimo vase by Carlo Scarpa (Lot 122), and for more than thirty years people speculated about where these might be.
The Martinuzzi cactus appears in photo no. 1 of the Karasik catalog, along with a rare black Tomaso Buzzi vase (which was exhibited at the Stanze del Vetro exhibition in 2015) and the famous Carlo Scarpa Lattimo vase with tarnished silver leaf and tiny loop handles. Photo no. 2 in the Karasik catalog features the tall green Pulegoso vase which even in 1989 was recognized as rare and important (to this day, only two or three others are known: one resides in the Olnick Spanu collection and another was owned by Francesco Cararro and later appeared at auction). It therefore came as a real surprise to discover that the two Martinuzzi pieces, the Scarpa Lattimo vase, and a number of other rare and interesting works had been quietly assembled over a thirty year period by a discerning and determined New York collector. Suddenly these lost Karasik pieces had reappeared and with them a rare MVM Cappellin fish (Lot 128) and a world class Fulvio Bianconi mermaid figure (Lot 141) executed in red glass with white a rete netting.
Above all, the Karasik catalogue and sale are important to Italian glass scholars and collectors because of the people involved and the exacting standards which they imposed on the presentation of the objects.
Above all, the Karasik catalogue and sale are important to Italian glass scholars and collectors because of the people involved and the exacting standards which they imposed on the presentation of the objects. By 1989 a great deal of scholarly research had been done on the history of 20th century Murano glass. The fact that Franco Deboni, a pioneer in the field, was deeply involved in every aspect of the Karasik sale is significant. As a scholar, author and critic, the efforts of William Warmus were also crucial to the success of the exhibition, and his introductory essay established a clear context for 20th century Murano glass in terms of world art. As a gallerist and collector, Muriel Karasik had spent the previous decade working with many of the most aggressive and knowledgeable dealers in the field and used her considerable resources to assemble this a world class collection. It is also interesting to note that Muriel contracted Thomas Stearns to write an account of his time at Venini (1960-1962) which allowed him to solidify his own legacy. His heartfelt essay stands as one of the most revealing, poetic and influential first-hand accounts of glass history in the making. And all of this archived in one exhibition catalog.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the physicality of the catalog itself is meaningful. Beautifully designed and photographed, the catalog has stood the test of time and continues to set the standard for auction and exhibition catalogs, especially for those that deal with high modernist design. As we move deeper and deeper into the digital age it is sometimes reassuring to know that the source documents of our most fervent desires still exist in physical form, and that once in a while lost masterpieces still appear out of nowhere and when we least expect them.
Born on Murano in 1892, Napoleone Martinuzzi was the son of an accomplished glass blower. He attended the Belle Arti in Venice and was part of the Ca’ Pezzaro Secessionist group where, in 1908, he began to exhibit his sculptures. Over the next decade Martinuzzi exhibited widely in Europe, eventually becoming one of Italy’s most influential Novecento sculptors.
In 1921 he became Director of the Murano Museum and in 1925, the Artistic Director at Venini. Martinuzzi’s bold use of experimental, semi-opaque glass (Pulegoso, Lattimo, Calcedonio) brought a new sculptural materialism to Murano. His use of large-scale forms from classical antiquity executed in vibrant colors set a new standard for Murano glass design.
In 1932 Martinuzzi left Venini to found his own firm, Zecchin-Martinuzzi. While the company only lasted for a few years, its highly refined production had a profound influence on Murano glass for decades to come. Between 1937 and 1947 Martinuzzi once again dedicated himself to sculpture. During the post-war period he returned to glass design and did notable works for several companies including Alberto Seguso’s Arte Vetro, Vetreria Cenedese, Alfredo Barbini and Pauly & C.
But the simple facts of Martinuzzi’s life fail to capture the lasting power of his work—his name alone evokes images of remote elegance and archetypal glory. A lasting tribute to this haute-grandeur can still be seen at the Vittoriale—poet Gabriele D’Annunzio’s lavish home and mausoleum where many of Martinuzzi’s formidable sculptures and monumental glass vessels still reside.
Auction Results Napoleone Martinuzzi