Casting doubts on authenticity of Degas bronze statuary

Publication April 8, 2016

Art law and authenticity

A French court has ordered that the Valsuani foundry, made famous for creating certain Degas bronze sculptures, be closed and liquidated to pay off creditors. Consequently, the value of these Valsuani bronzes may increase dramatically due to scarcity, despite continuing questions surrounding their authenticity.

Art history - Degas

The history of Degas’ bronzes is an odd one with many twists and turns. During Degas’ lifetime he allowed only one of his sculptures to be shown, the “Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer Aged Fourteen).” Despite Degas’ own distaste for bronze statuary—he created only wax and clay moldings as an artistic exercise—this has not precluded his heirs and foundry owners from casting bronzes from these molds and then selling them for premium  prices.

But the authenticity of many these casts has been in dispute for some time as scholars questioned whether the molds must be traced back to Degas’ original wax sculptures or could include molds taken from certain disputed plasters.

After Degas’ death in 1917, his family conscripted the Hébrard foundry to cast 22 sets of 74 of his wax sculptures to create 1,628 bronzes. Art historians consider these Hébrard bronzes to be authentic.

After the Hébrard foundry closed, another set of bronzes was manufactured by the predecessor of the Valsuani foundry, with the family’s permission. When the foundry began to flounder in the 70s, Leonard Benatov acquired and re-established the foundry as the Valsuani foundry.

During the Valsuani foundry’s restoration period, Benatov claimed to have discovered a new set of Degas plasters. A well trained sculptor himself, Benatov expertly repaired and began casting these plasters. This is where the controversy over the Degas casts begins.

Art law controversy over Valsuani bronzes

Under French law, Benatov could cast “originals” only with the Degas family’s permission. However, 70 years after Degas’ death, Benatov could then cast more bronzes as long as they were clearly stamped as “reproductions.” In 1997, Benatov sold 12 reproductions of the “Little Dancer” for approximately $60,000 each. Later, he sold an additional 34 reproductions of the same statue. Each of the reproductions was marked as such under the tutu.

However, art scholars claim that the Valsuani “Little Dancers” made from Benatov’s discovered plasters are not the same as the original: the pose, the facial features and hair style are markedly different. As one noted Degas expert, Gary Tinterow, now director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has remarked, “In my opinion, there is nothing that demonstrates that Degas had a set of plaster casts made of his sculptures during his lifetime.”

Despite claims of inauthenticity, Benatov joined forces with Walter Maibaum, a New Jersey art dealer, to expand production of sets of 74 Degas sculptures based on the newly discovered plasters, selling them for upwards of $37 million dollars apiece. Maibaum—armed with a paper published by New York art dealer Gregory Hedberg as well as the endorsement of some of Degas’ relatives—began selling these later Valsuani bronzes as original Degas. These Valsuani bronzes have been exhibited at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, Havana and Tel Aviv.

Our take

In light of this continuing controversy, potential purchasers of a Degas sculpture should make sure that they are legally protected and the transaction is properly documented with adequate disclosures and representations by the seller.

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