Rapaport Magazine

Fair Exchange

International gatherings of what was new and novel, world’s fairs represented the very best of the decorative arts.

By Phyllis Schiller

Gold, onyx, lacquer, rock crystal and diamond brooch,
1925, French, by Jean Fouquet, Toledo Museum of Art,
Mr. and Mrs. George M. Jones, Jr. Fund.

Before the worldwide web was even a blip on the horizon, world’s fairs offered an international showcase for participating countries to share with a global audience what was considered cutting edge at the time. They celebrated ingenuity and creativity, as embodied in the thousands of objects put on display.

A new exhibition, “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs 1851–1939,” is co-organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It offers a rare look back at the wonders that were offered at the world’s fairs and international expositions from the London Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851 through the New York World’s Fair of 1939.


“Jewelry was an essential component of the world’s fairs from the very beginning,” says Catherine L. Futter, Ph.D., The Helen Jane and R. Hugh “Pat” Uhlmann curator of decorative arts for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The world came together in one place at these fairs and presented what Futter describes as extraordinary “top-of-the-line” objects.

For jewelers, it was an opportunity to showcase not only current design trends or new manufacturing techniques but also new materials. Tiffany & Co. started showing at world’s fairs early on and had huge displays, says Futter. “The 1939 New York fair had lots of jewelers. Tiffany was promoting champagne diamonds and we have in the exhibition the floral brooch with white and yellow diamonds that illustrates that.” 

These world’s fairs were also about nationalism and international competition — “our things are better than your things,” says Futter, who co-curated the exhibit with Jason T. Busch, curatorial chair for collections and The Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman curator of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

For example, Futter says, “a beautiful iris brooch by Louis Comfort Tiffany, included in this exhibit, showed off Montana sapphires, proving at the time that America had gem-quality minerals and you didn’t have to go farther afield.”


The Nelson-Atkins exhibit concentrates on the specific time frame that starts with the first world’s fair held in 1851 in London, organized under the auspices of Prince Albert and Henry Cole, and ends with the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “The reason we end with 1939 was because after that you had World War II, so there’s a big gap before the next one was held,” explains Futter. “But also, even by 1939, world’s fairs started to focus less on objects and more on ideas. So we felt 1939 was a logical break.”

Illustrating the range of unique items on view at the fairs, the exhibit presents 200 decorative objects, 19 of which are jewelry. While the curators tried as much as possible to display the actual object that was exhibited, sometimes the item shown is the same model. And in a small number of instances, a representative piece “stands in,” says Futter, for a manufacturer or a particular technique shown at a fair.

The exhibit is divided into five chronological periods: 1855-1873, 1876-1897, 1900-1911, 1915-1925, 1929-1939. But within those categories, says Futter, there are thematic divisions that include “technological innovation and revived techniques, nationalism, cross-cultural influences and historicism. Jewelry can be in more than one section — most of the objects in the exhibit tell multiple stories.”


“We looked at literally tens of thousands of things,” says Futter. “I think every one of the objects in the exhibition invites visitors to learn more about them. And once you do, they become even more intriguing.”

Because world’s fairs themselves were interactive, says Futter, the Nelson-Atkins installation is also interactive. Included are vintage stereoscopes and View-Masters people can experience firsthand as well as twenty-first-century 3-D technology where participants can virtually handle objects and view short films detailing their importance.

In the gallery devoted to works from around 1900, a low-tech interactive display allows visitors to view their reflections in a three-sided mirror “wearing” the Tiffany & Co. iris brooch, or Jean Fouquet Art Deco brooch (shown below), the Castellani diadem or a Lalique grape necklace.


To bring the best examples to the exhibit, the curators reached out to museums, dealers, collectors and companies that were the original exhibitors. “The Carnegie had an aluminum and gold bracelet which, while it probably wasn’t exhibited at a fair, illustrates the fact that aluminum was used in jewelry. There are local collectors here who owned some of the historicist jewelry that we borrowed. Some of the circa-1920s jewelry was lent by New York City jewelry dealer Lee Siegelson. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore was another source — Henry Walters bought pieces at the Paris
1889 fair, including the Tiffany iris brooch and, in St. Louis in 1904, the Lalique plique-à-jour pansy brooch and the Lalique grape necklace. Tiffany & Co. also was a very generous lender,” says Futter. 

The names of the designers who exhibited at these fairs reads like a who’s who of the jewelry world. The exhibit pays homage to them with an array that includes a Lalique “wasp” stickpin, a Fabergé tiara, a Cartier Art Deco Egyptian faience belt buckle with diamond accents, a Georges Fouquet corsage ornament and a Maison Boucheron bracelet that shimmers with pavé diamonds.


Does having been exhibited at a world’s fair add to the luster — and value — of jewelry? Perhaps. “I think in the past ten years, there’s much more of a consciousness about world’s fair provenance,” says Futter. “Before that, people were ‘oh, that’s nice.’ But now there’s a heightened awareness of something that was shown at a world’s fair. And it’s definitely elevating the prices of all sorts of decorative arts. Just recently, in January 2012, there was a matchsafe sold at Christie’s. Because it had been exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and it was quite lovely — in the form of a stylized Native American raven’s head with semiprecious stones and inlaid mother-of-pearl — the price it sold for was very strong. If you look at auction catalogs now, they will say, “shown at a world’s fair.’”

According to Siegelson, who lent several pieces to the exhibit, “The world’s fairs brought together the best examples of art and design with advances in science, architecture and technology. Thousands of visitors toured the exhibitions. Designers such as Cartier, Boucheron and Templier pushed themselves to create masterful designs. The world’s fair venue freed the artists from making jewelry for consumption and gave designers the opportunity to create beautiful jewelry and objects that showed the skill of the maker. The pieces exhibited at the world’s fairs are valuable today because those that survived are often the absolute best examples of the era.”

“Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs 1851–1939,” runs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, through August 19, 2012; at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from October 13, 2012 to February 24, 2013; New Orleans Museum of Art, April 14 to August 4, 2013 and The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina, September 22, 2013 to January 19, 2014.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - July 2012. To subscribe click here.

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