Little Dancer points to sensational discovery of Degas sculpture hoard

The Times, November 2009, News

They are either one of the most extraordinary art finds of the past 100 years or one of the most exquisite frauds to be attempted. One way or another, though, a complete set of 74 plaster sculptures of dancers, bathers and horses attributed to Edgar Degas will dominate discussion of the great Impressionist artist for years to come.

Bronzes cast from the plasters went on public display for the first time yesterday at the Herakleidon Museum, a private museum in Athens. The organisers of the exhibition are in talks with a number of London galleries about bringing them to Britain next year.

Scholars are split over whether the plasters are genuine. If they are, they would represent the purest record of Degas’s sculptural powers in existence. Excitement centres on the claim that these plasters were made during Degas’s lifetime. They correspond to the 74 Degas wax sculptures found intact in his apartments after his death in 1917 and cast and recast since then.

Every known Degas statue is taken from these posthumous bronze casts, which carry some trace of deterioration and pick up less of the original detail than a plaster cast would have done. Although he is best known for his pastels of ballet dancers, Degas turned increasingly to sculpting in wax as his eyesight failed towards the end of his life.

“I must learn a blind man’s trade,” he said at the time. He worked rapidly, primarily with a soft modelling clay, which he often mixed with beeswax and stiffened with everyday objects such as broken paintbrush handles, sponges and pieces of cork and wire.

He never meant these wax studies to be seen and wrote to a friend: “I never seem to achieve anything with my blasted sculpture.” His friend Renoir disagreed, saying: “Why, Degas is the greatest living sculptor.”

Degas exhibited only one statue during his lifetime. La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (The Little Dancer, Age Fourteen) was shown in 1881 at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris to a mixed reaction. Joris-Karl Huysmans, in L’Art Moderne saluted “the only truly modern attempt I know of in sculpture”. Elie de Mont, in La Civilisation, summed up the opposing view: “This opera rat has something about her of the monkey, the shrimp, the runt. Any smaller and one would be tempted to enclose her in a jar of alcohol.”

Today there are an estimated 1,380 bronzes attributed to Degas with examples of The Little Dancer in the collections of the Tate and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The best Degas bronzes still command huge prices. In February a bronze of The Little Dancer sold at Sotheby’s in London for just over £13 million.

Bronzes cast from the newly discovered plasters could exceed that if they are accepted by Degas experts.

The story of their discovery begins in 2001 when Walter Maibaum, a leading authority on 19th and 20th century European art, heard that a new set of bronzes of The Little Dancer were being cast in France. This seemed impossible as the only two known plasters were in American museums and neither would lend their plaster out for that purpose.

Mr Maibaum flew to France where he was led to “an unknown plaster version of The Little Dancer” that differed slightly, from the familiar versions but beguiled Mr Maibaum with its poise and beauty. Its owner was Leonardo Benatov, the proprietor of the Valsuani Foundry, which cast bronze masterpieces by the likes of Rodin and Picasso. Mr Maibaum searched for an explanation of the unknown plaster cast. In the exhibition catalogue he recalls how in 2004, during another interview with Mr Benatov he was “led to a locked room at the far end of the foundry. Inside were 74 other Degas plasters [one was a duplicate] which were completely unknown to anyone outside the foundry or its close associates. It was a shocking sight. To me it was the equivalent of opening King Tut’s tomb in Egypt or uncovering the terracotta warriors in China.”

Gregory Hedberg, an art historian attached to a New York art gallery, gathered evidence that includes carbon dating and a series of letters and which suggests that the casts were made during the late 19th or early 20th century for the private use of Degas’s friend, the sculptor Albert Bartholomé. They ended up forgotten and abandoned, eventually passing to the Valsuani Foundry in 1955.

Fewer than half a dozen world experts probably need to be convinced for the statues to become a commercial success but at present many of them are put off by what they see as an “aggressive” marketing campaign and insufficient evidence.

One leading world expert on Degas said yesterday: “It is not implausible. But there isn’t a paper trail and the way they are hawking it round it really does seem like someone trying to make a big profit.”

Steven Nash, director of Palm Springs Art Museum and a specialist in modern sculpture, has examined the plasters and is convinced. “If one accepts Hedberg’s conclusions, this is an astonishingly important discovery … There is no logical explanation for them other than the one Hedberg is putting forward. There is no other way to explain them.”

Mr Maibaum, who owns one set of 74 of the “new” bronzes, said: “Do we have a smoking gun? No, but all the evidence points to the fact that this was what occurred.”

(The Times’ arts correspondent contributed reporting)

This article at The Times