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In this short guide to collecting Bronze Sculpture, we will will provide insight into the fundamentals of collecting bronze sculpture. To do so, we will provide a brief history, investigate both the historical and current methods of casting bronze, and finally explain the factors that influence the market and aesthetic value of bronze sculpture.

Bronze Sculpture: A Brief History

Bronze sculpture has had a fascinating and dynamic history and today it continues to be an art form highly sought after by serious collectors. Production of bronze sculpture has its roots in the Archaic period and was widespread in both Greek and Roman times. However, the practice was largely neglected in the Dark Ages; during this period sculptures were primarily carved in stone, ivory or wood. The Renaissance period witnessed a revival in the production of sculptures made of bronze.

Centuries later, the Industrial Revolution brought with it a number of changes which led to the growth and elevated significance of bronze sculptures in the 18th and 19th century, predominately fueled by the increase in demand from the growing merchant class who could afford bronze sculpture. This increase in consumer demand was coupled by an increase in the ability to supply bronze sculptures on a considerable scale. Factors including improved metal ore mining techniques and technical innovations, such as more efficient furnaces, encouraged the creation of a large number of foundries that had equipment to manufacture bronzes in large quantities. In addition, courtesy of the reduction process invented by Achille Collas there were a variety of different sizes available.

Methods of Casting Bronze: Cire Perdue and Sand-Casting

Bronze, an alloy component of mainly copper with additives of tin and zinc, has been an established and widely utilized material for sculptors throughout the ages, mainly due to its relatively low cost yet strength and durability. Bronze production methods have for the most part remained unchanged since they were first introduced in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and later in Greece during the Archaic period (500-480 B.C.). Bronze casting is differentiated into two techniques: lost wax and sand-casting.

The first method, known as the cire perdue (lost wax) process involves a mould that is formed over a wax model, which is then melted to allow for the molten bronze to form in the hollow space. A famous example of this method of casting at its best is Edgar Degas’s bronze dancer series, cast by the Hébrard foundry. Occasionally the artist’s fingerprints from the original wax model can be replicated in the bronze cast, as in the case with Degas’s bronzes.

The second method, known as sand-casting, requires a box of sand as the moulding agent and involves a series of part-moulds that are made from the original mould. The part-moulds are then used in sandboxes to produce casts, which are then assembled. Sand-casts can sometimes be identified by their revealing seam-lines, if they are not removed after casting. Well-known examples of this method include many of Auguste Rodin’s works, in particular Eternal Spring and The Kiss, cast by the Barbedienne foundry and all the works cast by the Alexis Rudier foundry, like the famous Thinker.

Final Bronze Casting Steps: Chasing and Patination

The next process that occurs is that the bronze is given to the ciseleur, or chiseller, who uses chisels, files, and graving tools in order to smooth the surface of the bronze. Once this process is complete, the patinator heats the surface of the bronze and applies acid to it, forcing the surface of the metal to oxidize, in order to create the patina, a colour determined by the strength and type of acid used.

Factors that Influence the Market and Aesthetic Value of Bronze Sculpture

There are a number of factors to consider when assessing the market and aesthetic value of a bronze sculpture. The sculpture should be examined in bright or natural light, and the following points should be taken into account.

Firstly, it is important to establish whether the bronze is a superior example of its type. One way to do this is to judge the sculpture based on the quality of the casting. If the sculpture is meant to be complex, then the details should be crisp and clearly modeled.

Secondly, the condition and authenticity of the patina plays a significant role in the value. A bronze that has been handled often over the years will be lighter in areas of high relief where the patina has been worn away in contrast to darker patinated areas of low relief. The handling often adds a wonderful dimension to the sculpture but of course if excessive can reduce value.

Thirdly, a signature, foundry stamp, date, number, or any other type of special marking often increases the value of a bronze sculpture. These markings help identify and often assist in the authentification of a bronze sculpture. It is important to remember that the relationship of the sculptor to the foundry is much the same as the relationship of the photographer to the printer. The quality of the cast is directly related to the foundry, which can produce vastly different qualities of the same sculpture.

Finally, the time period that the cast was produced plays an important role in the sculpture’s value. A ‘lifetime cast,’ a bronze cast during the artist’s lifetime, is often worth more than a similar sculpture that has been cast after the death of the artist.

Methods of Collecting Bronze Sculpture

Potential collectors should first establish an area of interest and then find the leading dealer or gallery that specializes in that period of bronze sculpture. Establishing a long-term relationship with a knowledgeable dealer allows the collector to learn from the dealer, to receive specialist advice and always to purchase the finest sculpture. Many of the truly great works of art never see a shop window; they quietly exchange hands from one private collection to another. Auction purchases, while sometimes seemingly less expensive should be the preserve of the truly knowledgeable as many pieces sold at auction have complicated condition and authenticity concerns. For those works that are truly special the price paid is often the most anyone in the world will pay, as wealthy collectors battle to acquire a work.

We are grateful to Emily Koch for providing this short guide to collecting Bronze Sculpture.

Resources used:

Auerbach, Arnold. Sculpture: A History in Brief. London: Elek Books, 1952.

Berman, Harold. Bronzes: Sculptors & Founders: 1800-1930. Chicago: Abage Publishers, 1974.

Fusco, Peter and H.W. Janson, The Romantics to Rodin: French Nineteenth Century Sculpture from North American Collections. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980.

Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. "The Technique of Bronze Statuary in Ancient Greece". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003).

Janson, H.W. Nineteenth Century Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

Le Normand-Romain, Antoinette. The Bronzes of Rodin: Catalogue of Works in the Musee Rodin: Volume I. Paris: Musee Rodin, 2007.

Mackay, James. The Dictionary of Sculptors in Bronze. England: Antique Collectors Club, 2000.