The case of the bronze girl and the secret garden

The situation

We recently received a complaint for an unmarked and unsigned bronze sculpture of a girl holding a bird bath. This sculpture was the focal point of a fountain located in a French garden on a large alley leading to the stately home of the insured. Insureds claimed a value of $ 17,000, with an initial purchase price of $ 10,000. No documents were provided. Insureds remember that the artwork was purchased 25 years ago in New York City on the recommendation of their interior designer, but they don’t remember where. They thought it was an original work of art. The photographs submitted to us for evaluation showed the sculpture after being knocked over by a windstorm.

Crack the deal

Without an artist name or background information, we began our research by identifying the key features of the sculpture and then looking for those features in the sculptures featured in public collections and galleries. Nestled in the heart of Central Park’s only formal garden, the Conservatory Garden, and standing at the bottom of a small pool of water lilies, we found a sculpture of a girl wearing sheer clothing, one leg bent and holding a bowl , which serves as a bath for the birds that congregate. The girl turns slowly to look down and over her right shoulder, while the young boy sits at her feet playing the flute. This is the Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial Fountain, created by artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955). It represents 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 insured’s piece. Due to its popularity, there have been both authorized and unauthorized redesigns of The Girl and the Swallows since its original production. In fact, it is claimed that funds were raised for the Central Park Garden by selling casts of this sculpture. The Watertown Historical Society has an authorized and cast copy titled “Phillis” of only the young girl, which was presented to the town of Watertown in 1930 by Mrs. Carrie Mowder Hill. The Watertown Historical Society says Ms Hill saw the original statue on a trip to New York City and immediately arranged for a replica. All these authorized versions are listed on the database with “ROMAN BRONZE WORKS NY”

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 until the turn of the 20th century. It currently operates under the name Roman Bronze Studios. The sculpture belonging to the insured does not appear to be an “authorized” or an “unauthorized” copy of the original. Instead, it appears to be an “after” work, using the artist’s original work as a source of inspiration. The first clue was in the details of the sculpture itself. The toes of the insured sculpture are different from the toes of the original in that they are too long and squeeze or grip at the base in an awkward manner. This is a characteristic often observed in figurative sculptures from Asian foundries.

While authorized casts were created in the past, today there is a more common and disturbing type of reproduction known as “after” casts. Foundries, especially those in Asia, either base a new mold from an original work or have an in-house artist create a similar, marketable mold from which to create casts. These reproductions are sold through many large, leading retailers, as well as small stores that sell artwork for the home. Sculptures are rarely attributed to the original artist, and those who buy them often feel like they are buying an original work. In fact, we found several of these “after” works of Bessie Potter Vonnoh’s portrayal of Mary in these retail locations.

The sculpture belonging to the insured does not appear to be an “authorized” or an “unauthorized” copy of the original. Instead, it appears to be an “after” work, using the artist’s original work as a source of inspiration. The first clue was in the details of the sculpture itself. The toes of the insured sculpture are different from the toes of the original in that they are too long and squeeze or grip at the base in an awkward manner. This is a characteristic often observed in figurative sculptures from Asian foundries.

Next, we examined the photographs of the plinth of the insured sculpture and found that it appeared to have traces of rust. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and although it forms a green patina, it does not rust due to the lack of iron. The green color and white areas on the top are what you would expect to see with aging, but rust on the feet is not something you would expect to see on a sculpture. original bronze of this style and type.

Finally, although the subject and general positioning, clothing and features are almost the same as the original, the quality of the sculpture of the insured is not the same. The original work represents the young girl dressed in a diaphanous fabric which clings to her body. The material “worn” by the young girl in the work of the insured does not have the same quality of transparent appearance. Additionally, the silhouette of the original is delicate and vaporous, but the silhouette takes on a more athletic and chunky shape in the piece of property in question. Other features like head positioning differ between the two.

The result

There is no way of knowing for sure who did this work or exactly where it was done. We were able to rule out this work as 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 a direct inspiration for another artist who made a new mold “after” to throw the work. We found that the most important features, such as the subject’s face, hair, and proportions, were performed well, while others were sloppy or awkward, such as toes. Finally, the quality of the materials used was more in line with the works produced in series. For this reason, we set the price for a well-formed mass copy, such as one would likely find in high-end home decor stores for the initial purchase price of $ 10,000.

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About Christian Trabue


Trabue is a fine art journal reviewer for Enservio and a member of the Appraisers Association of America.

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