Last fall, antiques collector Paul Brown heard about two large stained glass windows covered in grime inside a west Philadelphia church. Built in 1901, the church had been purchased by the Emmanuel Christian Center, which was converting the old building into a worship space and youth center.
According to the New York Times’ Michael Levenson, Brown learned about the windows on Facebook Marketplace. A salvager at the church asked if he wanted the windows before workers “sledgehammer them out.”
He paid $6,000 to purchase the pair, as well as some wooden pews and doors. Workers spent weeks meticulously removing the glass from the stone walls.
Brown brought the windows to Freeman’s, a Philadelphia auction house, for appraisal. There, Brown learned that they were worth much more than he had originally paid: $150,000 to $250,000 each.
“To find another Tiffany rose, let alone two—it’s almost unheard of,” says Tim Andreadis, head of design at Freeman’s, to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Zoe Greenberg, adding that he doubts another piece like it will come on the market “in our lifetime.”
Freeman’s estimated that the windows were made around 1904 by Tiffany Studios. Founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the firm was known for its beautiful glass windows and lamps, which “became some of the most recognizable symbols of decorative arts during the American Gilded Age,” wrote Smithsonian magazine’s Nora McGreevy in 2021.
Brown says he had no idea the grimy, dust-covered windows were Tiffany.
“To be honest, Tiffany, in my world, has always been lamps, not windows,” Brown tells the Times. He says he was drawn to the windows because they were “round and big and they had purple in them.”
William A. Brownlee Sr., the senior pastor of Emmanuel Christian Center, didn’t know the value of the windows when he sold them to Brown. He tells the Times that the windows seemed like they were in pretty bad shape.
“I feel embarrassed that I didn’t know,” says Brownlee to the Times. “I feel like, because I didn’t have a knowledgeable team, my ignorance was taken advantage of.”
The church’s renovations have troubled some local residents and preservationists.
“I think of the incredible nature of the building … how do you not see that you have something really special here?” says Amy Lambert, president of the University City Historical Society, which advocates for cultural preservation in west Philadelphia, to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Still, even history enthusiasts were unaware of the windows’ origins. In 2020, when the group nominated the church for historic status, the 35-page submission made no mention of the Tiffany windows.
The rose windows will be included in the Freeman’s auction that is set to take place on May 18.
“The intricacy of these works is stunning,” Andreadis tells Jo Lawson-Tancred of Artnet, “and it’s meaningful to bring to market pieces that have such a deep, meaningful history in Philadelphia.”