BlogMarch 1, 2009

Sculpture: Questions of Authenticity and Provenance

The Curious Case of Multiples in Art

The application of this concept to unique works of art, paintings for instance, is self-evident and popularly accepted. When applied to works of art done in multiples, that is prints, photographs and sculpture for instance, "authenticity" is more ambiguous. The fundamental issues are quality of supply and quantity of supply. 


Firstly, if one accepts as authentic works of art executed, that is printed, published or cast posthumously then one is delegating the responsibility of the quality of supply produced after the demise of the artist to whomever is the holder of copyright and then, when copyright enters the public domain, supervision of quality of supply is then passed on, in the case say of a sculptor working in bronze, to whomever has a plaster made by the artist. Any suggestion that the result of the casting process is always the same is to be discounted as self serving nonsense. 


Many are perhaps more familiar with the photographer's darkroom and appreciate the innumerable decisions and adjustments a photographer makes as he processes a negative into a positive.  Like the photographer whose tool is the negative, for the sculptor whose end product is a bronze sculpture it is his plaster which is but a tool to create his work of art.  Hence, the quality of finishing and patina should be vetted by the artist to assure that the resulting bronze is according to his intentions.


The second issue is that if one accepts as authentic a work done in bronze provided the tool used is a plaster made by the hand of the artist, when copyright enters into the public domain anyone who has access to a plaster can create a supply of bronzes which theoretically would be as authentic as earlier generations of the same.  The risk here is the limit to the supply will only be governed by what can be sold profitably by the manufacturer. The negative impact is felt most acutely by the buyers who financially supported the sculptor and who, assuming a reasonable limit (maybe that implied by numbering the bronzes, a relatively contemporary market driven phenomenon).


In the ideal world, in my opinion, the definition of authenticity published by Le Conseil de la Sculpture du Quebec would be a useful one for protecting both the quality and quantity of supply for the benefit of the artist and his patrons. Although the Conseil goes in to greater detail ,here is an edited part that I highlight as being most relevant to my discussion; "Only works created during the artist's lifetime and under his direct control are entitled to the appellation of original work of art.  Therefore it follows that the production of an original work of art  automatically stops on the death of the artist, whatever the size of the edition originally planned. 


The posthumous works, even if they are made from the prototype by the most skilled artisans, may in no circumstances be regarded as original works of art. At best, they are excellent reproductions and should be distributed and sold as such. " This definition applied to the bronzes "by" Edgar Degas,  would make all of them "reproductions".  On February 3, 2009 Sotheby's London sold for US $ 29,000,000 the magnificent and highly important "Petite danseuse de quatorze ans", a work like in fact all the Degas bronzes, cast in bronze only from 5 years after the artist's death in 1917 . The international art world will never subscribe to a definition of authenticity in the manner of Le Conseil de la Sculpture du Quebec.  ("Petite danseuse de quatorze ans" was cast at some point between 1922 and 1937 and is one of upwards of 27 bronzes of this image. The cataloguing is unambiguous. ) 


So, the ideal of Le Conseil de la Sculpture du Quebec limiting authenticity to the lifetime of the artist will never be internationally accepted. Why should I fuss about this you might ask?  Well, in the last several years during which the Canadian market enjoyed growing popularity and an increase in prices, for all the right reasons fine Canadian historical sculpture also became increasingly sought after and at ever increasing prices.  Conspicuously, however, there seemed to be a regular and extraordinary supply of what we  thought had become very rare.  Sometimes, when catalogued for sale the description gave both a title and a date of the piece accompanied by few additional details other than a "fully loaded" estimate.  With little help from the re-sellers to think otherwise, the consumer simply assumed that the date provided was when the bronze was cast.  The date in fact was often when it was conceived, the date imprinted in the plaster itself. 


As an example I refer you to this catalogue entry published by a Canadian auctioneer slightly over a year ago: Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1869-1937) Bacchante signed and dated "1924" in cast bronze sculpture on marble base,  mounted height 27.9 cm. 11 in. Provenance: Private Collection, Montreal Literature: Hugues de Jouvancourt, Suzor-Cote, Montreal, p. 71, illustrated Illustration: For another number in this edition, see Pierre L'Allier, Suzor -Cote L'Oeuvre Sculpte, Quebec 1991, p. 83, no. 25 Estimate: $10,000-15,000 There is no indication of the foundry that produced this work. Are we to think that this was cast in 1924?  There certainly is no suggestion otherwise. (I suspect that the 1924 is the date the work was conceived not cast.)  Although I have not checked records, it would surprise me if a $15,000 price for this subject is not a most substantial objective.  So, what are we supposed to think?  Is this old?  If yes, how old?  Who cast it into bronze and when?  How many might there be?


Compare the above to #36 in Christie's , New York , Modern Sculpture sale of May 6 2008: Alberto Giacometti (1901- 1966) Grande Femme Debout signed, numbered and inscribed with foundry mark 'Alberto Giacometti 1/6 Susse Fondeur Paris' (on the base) bronze with dark patina height 107 7/8" conceived in 1959-1960 and cast in 1960 Then there is an extensive listing of Provenance, Exhibition records and Literature referring to the piece. The key here is the integrity of the description the vendor has offered for the benefit of the potential purchaser. It is both specific and precise. Note the date the work was conceived and another and different date the work was cast.


Bringing this back to our Canadian market place I believe it in our interest to demand at base minimum proper labeling or descriptions of works in bronze offered in our Canadian market place. The photography market uses the terminology of "vintage" to differentiate among generations of the same image. By all means let the market place decide whether or not it thinks it is acceptable that a party other than the artist should decide whether the sculptor would have liked the patina in black or any other colour for that matter, but give the market place the tools to understand what it is looking to purchase.  But beyond the simple description of "posthumous", a description that could equally imply right after the demise of the artist as to 75 years after his/her death cast by an entrepreneur who has a plaster, oblige re-sellers and agents to suggest the date of its casting in to bronze. 


Let the market also decide if it wishes to differentiate between the different generations of supply.  Oblige contemporary castings to be dated accordingly. To complicate the issue ,as some will know, historically there were sculptors who made in addition to their bronze pieces a lower priced "product line" if you will, offering plasters for sale, plasters made for that specific retail purpose.  I have no doubt that some of the pieces we are seeing (not the Suzor-Cotés I should add) are contemporary castings in bronze made from this lower market retail plaster.  So, ask questions of the vendor! Totally unrelated to the above, in my opinion the all time best art writer is Souren Melikian, who I've been reading in the International Herald Tribune for I think more than 30 years.  (He is also a regular contributor to Art & Auction owned by former Montreal Louise Blouin MacBain.) 


In the paper of Saturday, January 30, describing the outcome of Old Master painting sales at both Sotheby's and Christie's the week of January 26, I found the following two observations especially interesting. "Great art triumphed as seldom before this week while unwarranted ambitions were brutally quashed.'' ''A healthy element of uncertainty has been reintroduced now that the control system instituted by auction houses through a rigid system of estimates and assorted reserves has collapsed. It only worked as long as newcomers naively consulted the auction houses to decide how much they should pay, and these have now retreated. " And just before Christmas, on December 23, 2008 the Globe & Mail printed an article from The Wall Street Journal, a piece written by Christopher Lawton in which the title read <i>Shoppers abandoning eBay for fixed prices. I admit that the one quote from a consumer, Californian David Anderson, which I can identify with myself read, "[i]t was fun 10 years ago, but now I want to get my product and go".


On a lighter note, perhaps it should come as no surprise to those who have been to Restaurant DNA in Old Montreal that it was described as a highlight of 2008 in both La Presse and the Gazette. And for those of you who want another good read permit me to suggest The Billionaire's Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace, which demonstrates the potential pitfalls of being influenced in one's purchasing decisions too much by anecdotal provenance. As always, constructive and polite feedback is more than welcome.

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