Tag Archives: Tiffany windows

“All he did was a little respiration work.”

This statement comes from one of many student essays on the case of a self-taught restorer of stained-glass windows who extracted a sagging Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum, refurbished it, and sold it to an antiques dealer (and fence) who was already under surveillance for trafficking in stolen art. For the story, you can seek out the several entries I’ve already done for sentences dealing with the case. Here’s one to get you started.

My student here is defending the window thief, one of the options for the assigned essay. She just has a strange idea of what he actually did.

It’s only a typo. Or a misspelling. Or a bad word choice…

by way of which she turned our lad from a crooked craftsman into a fitness trainer, health-care worker, or yogi.

She could have said “repair work.” She could have made a somewhat ambiguous choice and said “reparation work”—that would have gotten by. The assignment sheet, which includes a case summary, uses the word “restoration,” which, to anyone even remotely familiar with antiques and art, is the most accurate choice of the three: it describes his intention, his process, and his product.

He was a lover of Tiffany’s works, a self-taught student of the windows especially, and also a student of stained glass construction and repair (one adult-education class and then more self-education). In his job of cemetery caretaker, he noticed the forgotten mausoleum and its sagging window. Time is not kind to stained-glass windows: as the came (the lead that holds the pieces of glass in place) expands and contracts during years of summers and winters, it becomes stretched and sometimes brittle, and the glass thereby becomes looser in its setting. Given enough time, the window can release the glass fragments like a hand opening and scattering so many coins, and what was once a pictorial or decorative work of art or high craft is transformed into a meaningless pile of shards.

The window in question was nine feet tall and proportionately heavy. He painstakingly removed it, took it home, and spent six years restoring it. Where pieces of glass had been lost or cracked, he sought out and purchased appropriate replacements. He replaced the came. When a client of his purchaser’s asked if a rising sun could be inserted into the scene (said client was a “Japanese collector,” which may explain his whim), our craftsman refused to violate Tiffany’s design. The finished window fetched him $60,000 from the fence; the Japanese client in turn paid $240,000 for it. And the craftsman was arrested for (and convicted of) trafficking in stolen art, grand larceny, and perhaps vandalism.

His defenders among my students said he was a hero, saving a work of art from certain ruin and enabling it to be seen again (the purchaser reportedly gave or sold the window to a Japanese museum). Or he was a good man, heart-broken to see something beautiful decay. Or he was an art-lover whose passion had overcome his reason. Several students pointed out that the window was, in effect, worthless before he restored it, and so the charge of grand larceny seemed inappropriate.

This particular student wanted to know what the man had done that was all that bad. After all, he hadn’t harmed anyone or anything. All he did was…yes, alas, a little “respiration work.”

We are left with the picture of a man crouched over a window, or kneeling before it, breathing on it. The breath of life, perhaps? Was he sighing, panting, gasping, holding his breath, blowing dust away? All of these would qualify as respiration work, I imagine. Hard to imagine how any of those activities would do much for a deteriorating stained-glass window, though. Could he have been some kind of “window whisperer”?

If she didn’t know the word “restoration,” and didn’t notice it used repeatedly on the assignment sheet and therefore feel compelled to look it up, surely she did already know the word “respiration.” Where was the internal editor that should have asked “BREATHING??? What does that have to do with it????” and driven her at least to reread the sheet? I am sure she did not mean “breathing,” in any of its forms. Even if he was INspired by Tiffany, the fact that he was REspiring at the time is totally beside any rational point.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that we did a lot of small-group work with the drafts of this essay. Unless “respiration” was a last-minute addition during the polishing of the final draft, more eyes than hers gazed upon it in its little sentence and noticed nothing amiss.

Or else perhaps someone in the peer process suggested the word? If that was the case, though, where (again) was my student’s internal editor to ask “Are you out of your mind?”

As for me, when I read the paper I laughed, shook my head, wrote “wrong word” in the margin, took a deep breath…and moved on.

“Whether the inhabitants of a mausoleum are living or dead, the property should be respected.”

Now, I have a friend and colleague who as an impoverished boy in Egypt did in fact live in a mausoleum, or at least a tomb, with his (also living) family. Perhaps the same thing happens in the U.S.? —hard to imagine, but possible in these hard times, I suppose.

My student wasn’t writing about that, though. He was writing about the case of a man who took damaged funerary art from cemeteries, restored it, and sold some pieces, including a Tiffany window that thanks to his skillful ministrations brought him $64,000. As I’ve mentioned before, I like this case a great deal, because I ask students to decide exactly what, if anything, the man did wrong. They get a good lesson in defining terms, and I get to show them pictures of Tiffany windows.

The student in this example is obviously in tune with American law, which devotes most of its pages to property issues. The mausoleum in question—the “property”—has fallen into neglect; no living descendants of the family have come forward to maintain it or to complain about it, and no one is really sure whether there are in fact living descendants at all. Nevertheless, my student insists, the mausoleum is “property.” It may be property of the State of New York if not of the family. Even if we don’t respect the dead (or the living), we must respect the property, the idea that it is property. I can acknowledge the law, but I do have a hard time getting my mind around its metaphysical dimensions.

I’m sure my student meant to say “Whether the owners of a mausoleum are living or dead….” I really don’t think he was imagining a family in that little house/chapel/castle with its disintegrating Tiffany, a family cooking hot dogs over a campfire, snuggling down to sleep between the sarcophagi, setting a little alarm clock so they won’t be late for work or school, wishing they had a television set.

But regardless of his intentions, he has domesticated cemeteries for me forever. Every time he drove past a cemetery (and I do mean every time) my dear father used to say “No arguments in there!” Well, my student has created the possibility that there are arguments in there, among the inhabitants.

Next time you stroll through a cemetery, don’t be afraid if you hear voices raised in argument or campfire song coming from the tombs. They may not be the voices of the dead. Just sing along. But respect the property: leave the windows alone, and don’t step on the grass.