Listen to this article
Sculpture has long been seen as the poor relation to painting in the Old Masters market. This July should shake that prejudice, as this London season sees Sotheby’s and Christie’s, as well as exhibiting dealers at London Art Week, flourish arguably the most spectacular sculpture offering in living memory. In terms of quality, art historical importance and sheer bravura presence, its highlights rival any works of art on the market today.
Take the Giambologna Mars. The Flemish-born artist known as Giambologna is one of the greatest and most influential sculptors of the 16th century. He inherited the mantle of Michelangelo in Florence and provided three Medici grand dukes with everything from innovative monumental marbles to exquisite bronze statuettes, the latter often used as diplomatic gifts. In terms of compositional dynamism, sensuality of surface and technical virtuosity, his sculpture is peerless.
The so-called Wettin or Dresden “Mars” is one of those bronze statuettes, a sculpture of a god made for a prince. It is one of the very few works firmly documented during the master’s lifetime, because it entered the Dresden Kunst kammer in 1587 — a gift to Christian I, Elector of Saxony, not from the Medici but from Giambologna himself.
Although not the earliest cast of this model, it is one over which the sculptor evidently took inordinate care. Features, locks of hair and beard are crisply chiselled, and the surface of the bronze is gold-tinged and lustrous. Most remarkable is the articulation of the powerful musculature and veins as they work across a moving body primed for action as he stops to draw a now-lost sword. This evocation of heroic masculinity was Giambologna’s response to Greco-Roman statuary, but its vigour and sense of arrested movement are all his own.
The cast remained in the royal Saxon collection until it was nationalised in 1919. Five years later, it was restituted to the House of Wettin and subsequently sold. For the past 30 years it has been in the corporate collection of Bayer AG, a single Mannerist bronze in a holding of modern art. It will be offered in Sotheby’s July 4 “Treasures” sale with a conservative estimate of £3m-£5m.
This model is particularly desirable because, quite apart from its quality, the cast is dated to Giambologna’s lifetime and was almost certainly “finished” by the master himself. For the issues that have dogged bronze connoisseurship for centuries relate to whether a work is autograph (by the hand of the named artist) or created in his workshop, and whether the cast was made during the artist’s lifetime or subsequently.
All these issues affect the value dramatically. The complications arise because piece-moulds for the reproduction of wax casting models allow any number of identical casts to be made, while an existing model may also be reproduced by making plaster moulds. The differences between early and later casts are not always easy to spot. Giambologna managed a large workshop and the sheer scale of its output, the number of variants of each model and the wide differences in detail and surface treatment obviously preclude the master’s involvement in most cases.
These considerations are also relevant to a recently rediscovered work by François Girardon, court sculptor to Louis XIV. This imposing metre-high equestrian portrait of Louis XIV, weighing in at 232 kilos, is a reduced-scale version of the monumental, seven-metre high — 17m including its base — bronze that Girardon had made for what is now the Place Vendôme in Paris, a statue destroyed during the French Revolution.
For this image of absolute authority the sculptor took as his inspiration the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius, showing the Sun King in Roman armour, his arm outstretched in a gesture of command. Cast around 1690-99, this is one of four documented but slightly varying reduced-scale versions cast under Girardon’s supervision. And it is almost certainly the long-lost bronze depicted as the centrepiece of the engraving of the sculptor’s own collection, as here the king carries a baton.
Its fortunate vendor bought it on the strength of a small illustration in a Toronto auction catalogue, where it was wrongly identified as a 19th-century bronze. It goes under the hammer at Christie’s London’s “Exceptional Sale” on July 5 with an estimate of £7m-£10m.
From another private European collection comes a startlingly different bronze given by Louis XIV to his son, the Grand Dauphin, in 1681. Classical decorum gives way to the tumultuous struggle of Hercules wrestling the river god Achelous, who has transformed himself into a bull. This contest to win the hand of the beautiful Deianira — as told by Ovid — sees Hercules, lion skin flying, straining and twisting to force the bull to the ground before ripping off his horn.
The model is one of a series commissioned from the Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca by Cosimo III de’ Medici around 1614 as part of a gift to James I of England. The gift was never sent; indeed the models were never cast in Pietro’s lifetime, and only cast by his son Ferdinando around 1640-50. £5m is expected.
There is a British connection, too, to another rare autograph work to come to the market at Sotheby’s: an idealised female head personifying Peace by Antonio Canova, the greatest exponent of pure, cool Neo-Classical perfection. This recently rediscovered “Bust of Peace” was carved in 1814 for Canova’s earliest British patron and friend, John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor. Its current owner, who bought it unattributed, has spent the past seven years piecing together its remarkable history and provenance (estimate around £1m).
They are still to the taste of princes — the Prince of Lichtenstein, who spent a record £10m on a Renaissance bronze, is a major collector — but their appeal is enduring because they are accessible, intimate works of art, made to be handled and studied closely.
The market for marble sculpture is quite different, as is the medium’s aesthetic appeal. Again, there are few certainties, but collectors can do well by making up their own minds as to quality and rarity. On July 3, for instance, Sotheby’s offers marble figures and busts attributed to the lesser-known but important sculptors Giovanni Battista Foggini (£180,000-£250,000) and the Sicilian Giacomo Serpotta (£200,000- £300,000). A sale devoted to 19th- and 20th-century sculpture follows on July 11.
The reason why so many major pieces have come to the market is straightforward: demand for sculpture is growing. Sotheby’s Alex Kader cites two reasons: “Furniture has become less prominent at both auction and antiques fairs, with the result that sculpture and works of art have become more visible. As high-quality Old Master paintings have become harder to find and more expensive, sculpture is seen by many collectors and curators as undervalued and offering greater potential for high quality. The equivalent of a Giambologna would be a painting by Bronzino or Sebastiano del Piombo.”
Ironically, at the time they were made, the bronzes would have been considerably more valuable.
Be alerted on Collecting