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The Fragrant World of Vintage Perfume Bottles

A perfume bottle expert tells us about the incredibly beautiful items in an auction launching today.
April 29, 2016, 8:10pm
Palais Royal vanity set, 1850s. All photos courtesy of Kenneth James Collection.

Do you smell that smell? Is that the smell of love in the air? It is, indeed, for collectors of high-end perfume bottles. This evening, a huge auction of over 240 vintage perfume bottles takes place in New York, facilitated by the Kenneth James Collection. The auction features bottles, powder boxes, and other vanities from the 1850s to the 1950s, with starting bids ranging from $200 all the way up to $10,000. Spanning multiple countries and artistic movements, the collection is a feast of eye candy for anyone interested in glass design and vintage accoutrements. On this occasion, The Creators Project speaks to Christie Mayer Lefkowith, perfume bottle expert and author of several books on collecting, including The Art of Perfume, about these beautiful pieces. Lefkowith, in turn, offers insight and advice into the world of perfume bottle collecting.


Baccarat for Gravier La Cascade, 1926. Clear crystal perfume bottle.

Calling from Paris, Lefkowith explains a bit about the origins of this style of perfume bottle seen in the auction. “The perfume industry developed in France in the 19th century, and it really developed quite a bit after the middle of the 19th century, and it’s still going on today.” She explains how, even though this auction only covers 100 years, there are great leaps in style. “You have a tremendous amount of different styles because look what’s happening to the decorative arts between the mid-19th century and today. You have a lot of different styles of art. The perfume bottles really follow those different kinds of styles. So you have something from the 19th century that looks very much like an object created during the Napoleon III period, because that’s what it was. And you have something created in 1925, and it looks very much gilded. And there are some surrealist pieces… All of that fits into the perfume bottle world.”


Armand Rateau for Lanvin “My Sin,” 1920s. This piece is entirely gilded on top of black glass.

Of all the bottles on display, Lefkowith says the pieces that interest her most are in the second part of the auction. Those, she explains, are “the perfume bottles that were produced for perfumers. Here we have two types of perfume bottles, there was the type of perfume bottle that was sold empty, as a decorative object. And there’s another type of perfume bottle that was sold with perfume inside because it was the bottle that was produced for a specific perfume, and they’re two different types of objects.”


Though many may gawk at the beauty of these pieces, there are actually a few auctions like this each year. When asked about which specific bottles most interest her in the auction, Lefkowith calls to attention the bottles of René Lalique, a designer working in France in the early 20th century. “Lalique was the number one creator and artist in his field, and many people after tried to copy him but no one was at his level—ever.” Lefkowith’s been studying Lalique for over 35 years and is now the author of a book on his work, The Art of René Lalique, flacons and powder boxes.


Palais Royal, 1870s. Gilt metal and turquoise crystal.

And what does she think of the starting bids and quality of the pieces? “I personally don’t have an opinion, unless I have the pieces in my own hands, you know what I mean? Because there is a lot that can go on with a perfume bottle that you cannot see in a photograph. Just like how an expert of painting, they really would want to see the piece and examine it closely.” Finally, Christie Mayer Lefkowith gives advice to those who may be tempted to get into collecting: “If you really want to start collecting anything, you should learn about it. You should read everything you can about it.”


Galeries Lafayette “Terre de Retz”, 1920. Hand-painted paper mache composition.


French cut crystal vinaigrette/scent bottle, 1850s.


Hector Guimard for Millot Kantirix (Flower of Mexico), 1900. The bottle has the highest starting bid at $10,000.

To learn more about this auction (and place a bid yourself), visit the collection’s liveauctioneers page.


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