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
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.
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