The Case of the Bronze Girl and the Secret Garden
We recently received a claim for an unmarked and unsigned bronze sculpture of a girl holding a birdbath. This sculpture was the central point of a fountain located in a formal garden on a grand drive leading to the insureds’ stately home. The insureds were claiming a value of $17,000, with an original purchase price of $10,000. No documentation was provided. The insureds remember that the work was purchased 25 years ago in New York at the recommendation of their interior designer, but they did not remember where. They believed this to be an original work of art. The photographs submitted to us for valuation showed the sculpture after it was knocked over in a windstorm.
Without an artist’s name or background information, we began our research by identifying key characteristics of the sculpture, then searching for those characteristics in sculptures described in public collections and galleries. Nestled in the heart of Central Park’s only formal garden, the Conservatory Garden, and standing at the end of a small waterlily pool, we found a sculpture of a girl wearing diaphanous clothing, one leg bent and holding a bowl, which serves as a bath for the birds who gather. The girl gently twists to look down and over her right shoulder, while the young boy rests at her feet playing the flute. This is the memorial fountain for Frances Hodgson Burnett, as created by artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955). It depicts Mary and Dickon, the protagonists of Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. The sculpture was a match.
Once we discovered the original sculpture, our job was to determine the most likely source of the insureds’ piece. Due to its popularity, there have been both authorized and unauthorized re-castings of the girl and the swallows since its original production. In fact, it is purported that funds were raised for the Central Park Garden by selling castings of this sculpture. The Watertown Historical Society has an authorized, cast copy titled “Phillis” featuring only the girl, which was presented to the city of Watertown in 1930 by Mrs. Carrie Mowder Hill. The Watertown Historical society says that Mrs. Hill saw the original statue on a trip to New York and immediately made arrangements for a replica. All such authorized versions are inscribed on the base with “ROMAN BRONZE WORKS N.Y.”
Roman Bronze Works was the first American foundry to specialize in the lost-wax casting method. It was established in 1897 and continued to be the preeminent foundry for artists through the early 20th century. It currently operates as the Roman Bronze Studios.The sculpture owned by the insured appears to be neither an “authorized” nor an “unauthorized” copy of the original. Instead, it appears to be an “after” work, using the artist’s original work for inspiration. The first clue was in the details of the sculpture itself. The toes of the insureds’ sculpture are unlike the toes in the original, as they are too long and squeeze or grasp at the base in an awkward fashion. This is a characteristic often seen in figural sculptures coming out of Asian foundries.
While authorized castings were created in the past, today there is a more common and worrisome type of reproduction, known as “after” castings. Foundries, particularly those in Asia, either cast a new mold from an original work or have an in-house artist create a similar, marketable mold from which to create castings. These reproductions are sold through many large, high-profile retailers, as well as smaller shops that sell art for the home. The sculptures are rarely attributed to the original artist, and those who buy them are often under the impression they are purchasing an original work. In fact, we found several such “after” works of Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s depiction of Mary in these retail venues.
The sculpture owned by the insured appears to be neither an “authorized” nor an “unauthorized” copy of the original. Instead, it appears to be an “after” work, using the artist’s original work for inspiration. The first clue was in the details of the sculpture itself. The toes of the insureds’ sculpture are unlike the toes in the original, as they are too long and squeeze or grasp at the base in an awkward fashion. This is a characteristic often seen in figural sculptures coming out of Asian foundries.
Next, we examined the photographs of the base of the insureds’ sculpture and noted that it seemed to show signs of rust. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin and, while it forms a green patina, it does not rust due to the absence of iron. The green color and the areas of white on the upper portion are what we would expect to see with aging, but the rust on the feet is not something we would expect to see on an original bronze sculpture of this style and type.
Finally, while the subject matter and general positioning, clothing, and features are nearly the same as the original, the quality of the insureds’ sculpture is not the same. The original work depicts the girl wearing a diaphanous material that clings to her body. The material “worn” by the girl in the insureds’ work does not have the same transparent-seeming quality. Furthermore, the figure of the original is delicate and wispy, but the figure takes on a more athletic, thicker form in the subject property piece. Other characteristics such as the positioning of the head differ between the two.
There is no way to know for sure who made this work or exactly where it was made. We were able to rule out this work as either an authorized copy or an unauthorized copy made directly from the original form, and we were able to determine that the original was used as direct inspiration for another artist who made a new “after” mold to cast the work. We found that the most prominent features, such as the subject’s face, hair, and proportions were well-executed, while others were sloppy or awkward, such as the toes. Finally, the quality of the materials used was more consistent with mass-produced works. For this reason, we priced a well-formed, mass copy, as would likely be found in higher-end interior design stores for the original purchase price of $10,000.
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