“He caused unprecedented damage to the French art market,” says the French prosecutor Hubert Bonin, talking about Guy Hain, the bronze faker who has started a four-year prison sentence. In July, Hain lost his appeal against conviction in a faking scam that could be worth over £40 million ($60 million), and had rocked the market for art bronzes during the 1990s. On the run, he was recently grabbed by French police while making a call from a phone booth, and is now cooling his heels in a Besançon prison.
But the Hain affair is not finished. From prison he will be taking an appeal to the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court, which examines cases for possible legal flaws, and he is apparently facing further charges, some of them fiscal, and others concerning further faking of art bronzes. Still out there, according to the judiciary expert Gilles Perrault, are more faked bronzes—by Arp, Brancusi, Giacometti and Camille Claudel among others.
During his career, Guy Hain produced at least 6,000 bronzes, copies of popular 19th-century and early 20th-century sculptors such as Barye, Pompon, Mène, Bugatti, Camille Claudel, Maillol and particularly Rodin, whose work represented fully one quarter of his massive production. It took Gilles Perrault a whole year to sort and evaluate the 2,500 pieces; bases, moulds, models and finished bronzes, found in Hain’s studio. The other 4,000 completed works have entered the art market, sold through dealers or at auction.
The truth is that there have always been fakes, copies, posthumous casts and reproductions of bronzes on the market. The prolific and popular animalier sculptor Barye twice sold the rights to his works–to a foundry–during his periodic brushes with debt: hundreds of copies were produced by the founder. The Rodin Museum continues to produce perfectly legal reproductions of his work long after his death.
Until 1981, it was legal to produce long series of bronzes (see box) in France. Rodin was particularly targeted by Hain because he worked with Georges Rudier, the Rodin Museum’s exclusive founder between 1952 and 1982. Rudier had kept some of the original maquettes and plasters, and was embittered after being suddenly dropped by the museum.
As a result, the fake Rodins were cast from originals and some are of high quality. Other scuptors’ work was faked by making aftercasts, from genuine pieces.
And yet today, the market for bronzes, both the 19th-century animalier works and the highly sought-after Impressionist and Modern bronzes has never been stronger. So has the market just shrugged off the Hain problem?
Jérôme Le Blay, senior specialist at Christie’s who previously worked for the Rodin Museum and who is writing a book about the artist’s bronzes, says that two out of three pieces he sees are problematic. However, he says, the result of the Hain affair has been to polarise the market.
“There are huge price differences, from one to 20, depending on the piece. If all the reassuring elements are there, then the highest prices can be made. Buyers are very careful today; Americans in particular will consult dealers or their own curators before making a decision”.
An example of a piece that was definitely authentic is Rodin’s Eve, from the Auguste Pellerin collection, which soared to $4.8 million at Christie’s New York in 1999. The same piece, but without this provenance, might only make $500,000.
In London, the dealer Robert Bowman, says that to the experienced eye, Hain fakes are easy to spot. “Hain pieces were generally lost wax copies of sand casts, whereas Rodin’s were sand cast, and you can see in the inside,” he notes, (in direct contradiction of Mr Perrault, who says they are all sand casts). But good provenance is very important now, says Mr Bowman. In addition, the Musée Rodin had reversed its previous policy of never giving an opinion, and today will examine pieces, although it will just say whether it is in conformity with known models. This policy has helped to clarify the market, says Mr Le Blay, but he believes the practice will soon end.
While Modern and Impressionist bronzes are highly sought after in the US, the market for 19th-century animalier and other bronzes is rather different, with predominantly French and continental buyers and a much lower level of prices. Here again, buyers are now well aware of the Hain problems, according to Marc Richarme, a respected dealer who runs the Paris-based Univers du Bronze and who has just published the catalogue raisonné of Barye’s work.
“After the Hain affair broke, a lot of dealers stopped selling bronzes altogether, particularly those who were basically furniture or paintings dealers, without specialist knowledge,” he says.
In addition, the height of the Hain affair corresponded with one of the art market’s periodic plunges in the early 1990s. “During the period 1992-95, the prices for many sculptors dropped sharply, and certainly the Hain fakes were part of the problem,” says Mr Richarme.
While it is difficult to compare prices for bronzes, as much depends on the patina, quality, size and provenance, a few prices for Bugatti’s “Walking leopard” are instructive. Roughly comparable examples sold at auction for £40,000 in 1990, dropped to £37,500 in 1994 and then to £26,938 in 1995 before rising to £96,618 in 2000 and £242,248 earlier this year.
In London, another major dealer is Edward Horswell of the Sladmore Gallery. “A great Barye bronze, say of the Turkish horse, has doubled in price since 1989/90, and an “atelier” cast [made in Barye’s lifetime] could be worth £65,000. But it must be a grade A bronze by a grade A founder. It is extremely difficult to sell anything mediocre. The money around now is smart money, and everyone is much more careful.”