What is a “surmoulage”? The eventual buyer of Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (conceived 1913, cast 1972) for a record $16.2m at Christie’s in New York last night (11 November) has hopefully done their art history homework, because that is what they have bought.
A surmoulage—to add to the complicated terminology of sculpture—is a bronze cast from another bronze, as explained by the specialist Ester Coen on the last page of the Christie’s catalogue entry for the Boccioni.
In theory, this matters in the hierarchy of sculpture. The most prized casts are normally bronzes made from an artist’s plaster during their lifetime. In the case of Boccioni, this is an expectation too far—he died after being thrown from his horse during cavalry training aged only 33 so, as the Christie’s catalogue more prominently notes, all Boccioni bronzes are posthumous.
Next in the pecking order are bronzes made directly from the plaster, seen as the most true to the original after an artist has died. Such is the case with the Tate’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, which Christie’s points out was also cast in 1972, without labouring the different moulds.
This is not to diminish the importance of the Christie’s work. For art students, the static yet in-motion sculpture, is the embodiment of the Futurist manifesto. The image is instantly recognisable to many, not least because it features on the Italian 20 cent coin. Only ten pieces were made in the same way, of which only eight—including the Christie’s piece—were numbered. All were modelled from a highly-reputed, early bronze owned by Count Paolo Marinotti and under the supervision of the Rome dealer Claudio Bruni Sakraischik, who had sought legal advice on copyright, according to Coen. Examples from the same surmoulage casting can now be found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Kunsthalle Mannheim, among other museums. “It’s an icon of the 20th century and these surmoulages have been done very well,” says the sculpture specialist Simon Stock, a director at Gagosian Gallery.
But Stock, and other experts, question how readily such a complicated piece would have come to sale in the past. The last time any Boccioni sculpture was at public auction was in 1975 when another one of the Marinotti eight sold for $41,140 ($200,000 in today’s money), also at Christie’s. This time around, the work was in the highest profile of sales, had a seven-figure estimate ($3.8m-$4.5m), was supported by a third-party guarantor and featured as a “pre-qualified” lot for an art loan on Athena Art Finance’s list.
Christie’s did not do wrong to offer the Boccioni, and its details are there to see in its catalogue. They are not that easy to find behind the noise, mind, and in my view, the fact that the Tate’s 1972 work emerged from a different model is conveniently glossed over.
The point, though, is that it does not seem to matter anymore. There is a new art world order in which, if a work is high-impact, recognisable and comes with a decent back story, that is validation enough. The lesson these days seems to be that too much homework is for wimps.