Degas bronzes controversy leads to scholars’ boycott
Fears of legal action if authenticity questioned at Hermitage seminar
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 31 May 2012
The disputed plasters — experts are even wary of scholarly debate
Degas experts boycotted a Hermitage colloquium arranged in part to discuss a group of controversial Degas bronzes, cast from a set of plasters recently discovered at the Valsuani foundry outside Paris. The refusal of the scholars to attend reflects the growing problem of art historians avoiding questions of attribution, even at scholarly conferences.
The seminar at the State Hermitage Museum, on the wider issue of “Posthumous Bronzes in Law and Art History”, was held in St Petersburg (26-27 May). Papers were presented on Léger, Archipenko, Moore and Dalí, but Degas was by far the most controversial case study. A museum spokeswoman says that the conference was arranged because the Hermitage wants to acquire more 20th-century bronzes.
The Degas experts who were invited to the seminar, but declined, include Sara Campbell, who recently retired from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Catherine Chevillot from the Musée Rodin, the consultant and art historian Joseph Czestochowski, the leading independent curator Richard Kendall and Anne Pingeot, formerly of the Musée d’Orsay.
Walter Maibaum, the New York dealer who commissioned the casts from the plasters, says that scholars “have a responsibility to seriously study them”. None of the experts would discuss the situation on the record, but several reasons have been given to explain the boycott. Some curators are at museums that do not allow them to comment on the authenticity of works owned by dealers or private collectors. None of the experts accepts that the new find represents early plasters—and some simply want to avoid becoming embroiled in the debate. Most importantly, there are increasing concerns, particularly in America, that specialists could find themselves facing legal problems if they publicly question authenticity, as has happened to scholars over the work of other artists.
The obscure terms in which the discussion has been couched are illustrated in the recent “Edgar Degas Sculpture” catalogue published by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In a footnote, it says that the new casts “are intentionally not included”, without further explanation. In the April issue of the Burlington magazine, Richard Kendall merely notes that the recent bronzes have created a “note of uncertainty”. Avoiding giving his personal view, he simply states that “they have failed to sway the Degas specialists and the major auction houses”.
The Hermitage seminar raised further issues. It was initiated after an approach by the M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts, Paris, which owns two sets of the 74 bronzes. The centre suggested an exhibition at the Hermitage, but the museum did not want to proceed until there was a scholarly discussion. Initially, it was thought that the foundation might be sponsoring the colloquium, but it was soon realised that this could be seen as prejudicial. The centre’s director, Amir Kabiri, tells The Art Newspaper that he is not funding the meeting, although when asked about possible future donations, he said that he would “always be honoured to co-operate with the Hermitage”.
After the scholarly boycott, the Degas plasters and the resulting bronzes remain in limbo. It is now clear that they are not late 20th-century fakes, but the key question is when they were made.
The experts believe the plasters were made after the Second World War and are, therefore, fairly far removed from the artist’s intentions, while those who commissioned the casts are convinced that they are much earlier and may well be from Degas’s lifetime. The story began two years ago, when a set of newly cast bronzes was unveiled at the Herakleidon Museum in Athens (The Art Newspaper, March 2010, p29). Earlier bronzes, which are in numerous museums, were cast from 1917 to 1936 and from 1958 to 1964 and were made via the original waxes, which survived after the artist’s death.
Two New York-based dealers discovered the plasters: Walter Maibaum, who runs Modernism Fine Arts and the Degas Sculpture Project with his wife, Carol Conn, and Gregory Hedberg, a consultant at Hirschl & Adler. The plasters were found at the Valsuani foundry, outside Paris, which had taken over the stock of the Hébrard foundry. Hébrard had earlier cast Degas’s bronzes for the artist’s descendants.
Leonardo Benatov, who owned Valsuani, agreed to cast a new set of bronzes for Maibaum. So far, 16 sets have been cast and rights have been acquired to cast a further 13. Their value will depend on whether they are accepted as authentic, but appraisers suggest that a set of 74 could be worth around $20m. On this basis, all 29 sets would be worth more than $500m.
The M.T. Abraham Center has bought two sets. The first has been displayed in a travelling exhibition, which began in Athens and went on to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, three Bulgarian venues (the National Art Gallery in Sofia, the Varna Archaeological Museum and the City Art Gallery in Plovdiv), the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, the Valencia Institute of Modern Art and the Evagoras Lanitis Centre in Limassol. The show is currently at Zagreb’s Galerija Klovicevi (until 3 June). It is notable that many of these venues are not mainstream international-level museums.
The New Orleans Museum of Art was due to exhibit the bronzes last winter and then help to arrange an American tour. This has been postponed because of questions about the status of the works.
One set of bronzes was bought by Yank Barry, a Canadian rock star turned businessman. A further set was bought by Artco, a Parisian company that sells Dalí bronzes. Another belongs to the Connecticut collectors Melinda and Paul Sullivan, who anonymously lent five bronzes for an exhibition at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut (until 24 June).
In a paper that Maibaum prepared for the Hermitage colloquium, he argues that “all the plasters were made from Degas’s waxes before the Hébrard foundry began casting bronzes in 1919 and some were made during the artist’s lifetime [he died in 1917]”. He believes that the plasters were made from Degas’s original waxes by Paul-Albert Bartholomé, a sculptor and friend of Degas. If correct, then it means that the newly cast bronzes may be closer to Degas’s originals than the casts made from 1919 to 1964.
The situation of the bronzes has been examined by Geraldine Norman, a British adviser to the Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrowski. Her paper is the best non-specialist summary of the issues. She concludes that the plasters must have been made by 1955, the year the Hébrard family sold Degas’s wax originals to America (they were bought by Paul Mellon and most were later donated to the National Gallery of Art).
Although it remains unclear exactly when the plasters were made, Norman suggests that the key figure was Albino Palazzolo, the chief caster at Hébrard. “The simplest answer is that they were made by Palazzolo in or around 1955, direct from the waxes before they were sold to America.” She believes that, “based on all the physical and scientific evidence, there is every reason to conclude the plasters are authentic, and therefore the posthumous bronzes cast from the plasters are authentic as well”.
The new bronzes are slightly different from the 1919 to 1964 casts. This raises the question of whether the mid-20th-century or early 21st-century bronzes are closer to Degas’s original, undamaged waxes.
In addition to considering the newly discovered plasters and bronzes, Norman’s paper also points out that the total number of earlier (and entirely separate) Degas bronzes could number 1,200. She points out that nearly half were cast before 1936 and raises questions about the circumstances in which the remainder were cast post-1936, as well the role of Palazzolo.
There is growing pressure from scholars outside the narrow band of Degas specialists for these issues to be resolved. Steven Nash, a sculpture expert and the director of the Palm Springs Art Museum, was invited to the Hermitage colloquium, although he was unable to attend because of other commitments. “What we need is an objective discussion on the possible origin of these plasters,” Nash says.
The Hermitage conference, which was presided over by Piotrowski, was attended by Russian and international curators and sculpture specialists. It called for more detailed labelling of bronze casts by museums and the art trade, to help with transparency.
13 Aug 12
ALBERT LAHAM, BERLIN
In addition, In its analysis the laboratory also rebutted a key point raised by some museum conservators, who concluded the reason plasters are larger than bronzes is because, in part, “…. plaster expands upon setting.” While it is well known by foundries and most sculpture specialists that plaster does not expand, it was nonetheless important to scientifically test a Degas plaster for confirmation. The petrography laboratory reported: “None of the minerals observed in the Degas sample were susceptible to expansion” and “No evidence of expansion was observed.”
13 Aug 12
ALBERT LAHAM, BERLIN
Early dating of the plasters was substantiated scientifically. While plaster itself cannot be dated, the University of Arizona laboratory was able to perform radiocarbon tests of fibers embedded in the plasters.The results indicated the fibers pre-date 1955. An independent laboratory in St. Paul, Minnesota, American Petrographic Services performed significant additional tests. Its personnel analyzed the component materials in a Degas plaster (fig. 33) and compared them with the component materials in a certified lifetime (pre-1918) Rodin plaster. A modern plaster (circa 1995) was also tested. The component materials and percentage ratios in the Rodin and Degas plasters were consistent. The modern plaster contained materials not found in the Degas or Rodin plasters. These results provide strong evidence to conclude the Degas plaster was made during the same period as the Rodin (before circa 1920).
20 Jun 12
ALEXANDER MERTENS , SANTA BARBARA
Molecular analysis of the plasters composition would shed light on the origins of the plaster itself and therefore provide dating information. If the value of the bronzes is indeed in the 500 million range then it would be well worth the expense to determine a more exact origin of the chemicals used in the composition of these plasters. There are other examples of Degas plasters that could be compared to these newly discovered ones. The inverse of this suggestion would be that if the plasters are fraudulent, what definitive proof would be used to prove the plasters fake ? This analysis could be easily accomplished in 90 days. Why has it not been done ?
10 Jun 12
Now–afterward , won’t it be funny if the bronzes turn out to be authentic Degas after all!
7 Jun 12
GARY ARSENEAU, FERNANDINA BEACH, FLORIDA
June 7, 2012 “In Wilken’s essay we read that in 1921 Francois Thiebault-Sisson recalled that Degas had once said: I modeled animals and people in wax for my own satisfaction, not to take to rest from painting or drawing, but to give more expression, more spirit, and more life to my paintings and drawings. They are exercises to get me started. My sculptures will never give that impression of completion that is the ultimate goal of the statue-maker’s trade and since, after all, no one will ever see these efforts, no one should think of speaking about them, not even you. After my death all that will fall apart by itself, and that will be better for my reputation.” Additionally, under Association of Art Museum Directors’ endorsed CAA ethical guidelines: “any transfer into new material unless specifically condoned by the artist is to be considered inauthentic or counterfeit.” The dead don’t condone. Gary Arseneau artist & scholar Fernandina Beach, Florida
4 Jun 12
AUGUSTUS FIRESTONE, MELBOURNE
I think finger printing needs to be applied to sort this out as Im sure there will be plenty to cross reference.
Colloquium: Posthumous Bronzes in Law and Art History The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
The focus of the Colloquium: Posthumous Bronzes in Law and Art History is to explore the legal, aesthetic and curatorial issues related to the reproduction and the creation of replicas of posthumous bronzes. The Colloquium will include renowned museum directors, art historians, and legal experts from Europe and the United States.
Background to Bronze Casting
In the mid 19th century, the bourgeoisie began to assert its economic position. One way was to purchase bronze sculptures – miniature reproductions of famous works favored by Parisian cognoscenti.
Using an industrial process they were produced by numerous foundries and sold through catalogues. These editions provided a satisfactory income for artists.
At that time the most common reproduction technique was sand casting, an industrial method that involved producing a mould in case-hardened sand and then pouring molten bronze into the negative space.. The extreme resistance of the materials allowed this operation to be repeated indefinitely, while the high quality of the reproductions guaranteed its success.
The first contract between a foundry and a sculptor was drawn up between Susse and Cumberworth in 1837 followed, in 1843, by a rival company Barbedienne. Up until that date, the agreements appeared to consist of a simple transfer of the artist’s rights to the foundry. From 1839, however, standard contracts were put forward by the Réunion des Fabricants de Bronze in order to provide an improved framework for collaboration between artists and foundries.
The most widely used contract was for a concession of limited duration, whereby the sculptor, in return for monetary payout, agreed that the foundry would an edition of bronzes for a given period, usually between three and five years. A preference for more simple decorative elements inspired by Japonisme and the rejection of a bourgeois aestheticism at the end of the 19th century, the practice of producing editions was transformed at the beginning of the 20th century.
In order to faithfully execute the ‘artist’s hand’, founders limited the number of units in each edition.
Regarded as an extension of the original work, the limited edition broke with the industrial practices and replaced sand casting with the lost wax method. Along with the modernization in the production of editions came a rapprochement between founders and artists. Editions enabled the works of contemporary artists to be disseminated.
It is not unusual that a sculptor, in his last will and testament, would assign original plasters to his or her heirs so they may benefit from the income derived after casting his work at a later date.
However, in cases where an artist dies without leaving a will, posthumous casting of existing plasters, wax originals and cast sculptures becomes a matter of judgment to be made by his heirs or executors. When this occurs the door is left open to interpretations and misunderstandings, a problem that frequently occurs. Laws relating to property rights provide the owners of original posthumous plasters permission to cast new bronzes often in contrary with the artist’s wishes.
Consider the following: heirs, after reviewing his will, have followed an artist’s instructions to the letter and have made casts from existing plasters so that the reproduction quality is faultless. Should these posthumous bronzes be rejected from a moral point of view? Should both the artist and his or her heirs suffer the consequences?
Laws protecting property rights have made it possible for owners of plasters and original bronzes to cast new editions, thus causing damage both to artists and the art market. Our aim is to find ways to respect the rights of the artists and their heirs while preventing those who contravene those rights, and maintain public confidence in the legitimate reproduction of a sculptor’s works.
The M.T. Abraham Center for the Visual Arts Foundation is proud to lend several bronzes from its collection for the purpose of studying and researching.