Among collectors of fine art glass, few names are better known than that of Rene Lalique, the French glassmaker who is best known for his art nouveau and art deco designs of the 1920s and '30s.
Lalique, who was fascinated with the possibilities of glass from the late 19 th century until he passed on in 1945, managed to capture the flavor, elegance, and spirit of his period.
If he is somewhat romanticized today, he was even more lionized in his own time, when fashionable Parisians of wealth and taste acclaimed his talent and patronized his shops in the Place Vendome and the Rue Royale. Actress Sarah Bernhardt was among his fans.
Today Lalique glass is greatly valued for its consummate technical skill and artistry, according to Nicholas Dawes, curator of the current ''Lalique Encore'' exhibition at the Dyansen 57 Gallery in New York, 11 East 57th Street. This exhibition includes 150 wide-ranging works produced by Lalique during the 1920s and '30s, when nymphs and mermaids, horses, fish, eagles, and geometric friezes of birds, figures, or plants, were some of the favorite design motifs. Most of the pieces are for sale at prices that range from $150 to $40,000.
The exhibition, open through March 31, along with several glass auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in Manhattan, emphasizes a reviving market in the pre-World War II works of Lalique.
Born in 1860, the master glassmaker began his career as a designer of exquisite jewelry, a field in which he constantly experimented with techniques and materials, including engraved glass. In 1902 he hired four glassworkers and added his first small glass workshop, where, using the lost-wax process, he turned out individual figures and vases decorated in high relief with figures, plants, and so on.
In 1907 he began to design and make perfume bottles for Coty, Worth, Orsay, and Roger & Gallet. These bottles are today prized collector's items. After World War I, his second glassworks began to turn out fine-quality glass using modern industrial techniques. There he produced glass in the stamping press and also continued the lost-wax method of casting unique glass objects, as well as the traditional technique of blowing glass into molds.
Soon his range of articles in glass was enormous and included vases, bowls, trays, clock cases, jugs, glasses, lamps, and statuettes, even doors and illuminated decorative wall panels, as well as his unusual glass jewelry. His chief interest was always in the sculptural aspect of glass, and he chose not to use lead crystal but a more malleable demi-crystal.
Molded architectural glass is one of his most important contributions to interior and exterior decoration and was the forerunner of the etched and carved glass panels being made by many studios today for the decorative trade.
Most of his work was in clear glass, although his rarer colored pieces in blues, greens, reds, ambers, yellows, grays, and even black are now the most sought after by collectors. Lalique also perfected the frosted or satin finish that characterizes so many Lalique pieces - a finish that was achieved with the use of acid, sand, and polishing.
Lalique is still being made in France, and by the same family. Rene Lalique's granddaughter, Marie-Claude Lalique, produces several new designs for the line each year. But it is the pre-World War II works of the master glassmaker himself that collectors prize.
''We find that Lalique appeals to people of all ages and economic levels, living in all parts of the country,'' says Paul Doros of Christie's. ''The market for Lalique had slackened from its peak of three years ago. It is now slowly climbing back. Old collectors are coming back, and new ones are getting interested, and they are all looking now for better and rarer examples. Prices have now regained about 80 percent of their 1980-81 highs. Estimated prices for the 50 pieces coming up for sale on March 31 run from $100 to $7,000 on objects ranging from small glass pendants to large figural sculptures and big vases.''
Barbara Deisroth of Sotheby's blames speculators for the incredible price rise (and subsequent fall) of several years ago, but she says the market is again enjoying a slow but steady rise. At a February auction, a sapphire-blue stylized fish by Lalique sold for $2,100, an amber thistle vase for $1,000, and an emerald-green vase for $1,100 - prices Ms. Deisroth terms ''fair.''
Nicholas Dawes says Lalique is a particularly good field for new, young collectors because so much of it is still available and at relatively reasonable prices (from a few hundred dollars up). It can be found at antique dealers, flea markets, and country auctions. Most of the pieces were signed, so they are easily recognizable. Much Lalique is still in private hands and in daily use in homes across America, he says.
Mr. Dawes, himself a Lalique collector, advises that the best way to get started is to acquaint oneself thoroughly with the subject. He believes that the best book for such backgrounding is ''The Glass of Lalique, a Collector's Guide, '' by Christopher Vane Percy (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, $35).
Another book by the same publisher is ''Lalique for Collectors,'' by Katharine Morrison McClinton ($22.50). ''Lalique Glass: The Complete Illustrated Catalogue for 1932'' (Dover, New York, $8.95) is another good reference book, as is the $10 catalog assembled for the current ''Lalique Encore'' exhibition.
As for where to see good museum collections of Lalique, Mr. Dawes recommends the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the National Motor Museum in London for its collection of Lalique car mascots, the Toledo (Ohio) Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper-Hewitt Museum, both in New York.