When is an Edgar Degas sculpture not an Edgar Degas sculpture? The answer to the riddle, in this case, seems to be whether experts agree or disagree. So is the current situation for a group of alleged Degas bronze sculptures that have never been seen (widely) before. But just because something lacks provenance doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic. Or is it? So here’s the fascinating story about 73 previously unknown plaster casts that were created from wax originals sculpted by Degas.
To be absolutely clear, the authenticity of the 73 sculptures has highly divided academic opinion. Several prominent Degas and European art specialists believe the sculptures to be authentic, while an equal number, if not more, believe the sculptures to be inauthentic. What is critical to understand is that the provenance of the 73 works is severely lacking. Degas’s only public showing of a sculpture was in 1881, when he exhibited The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer, which was only shown again in 1920. The rest of the sculptural works remained private until a posthumous exhibition in 1918; the works exhibited there were 74 sculptures found in Degas’s studio after his death (from a total of 150 wax sculptures, the rest would not be able to be cast in bronze). Herein lays the first question – Degas died in 1917, so why did it take 87 years for the extra cache of 73 sculptures to be found, made public, and cast in bronze?
The obvious, and cynical answer, one might argue, is that there is simply a lot of money to be made off Degas sculptures. In the years after Degas’s death, his heirs authorized the casting of about 1400 bronze statues from the plasters found in his studio. And the statues fetch hefty sums: in 2009 a bronze Little Dancer cast in 1922 sold for USD $19.2 million. The bronze statue was one of only 10 cast from the original plaster, with others mostly found in museum collections around the world. Thus the unveiling of 73 totally new and never before seen Degas sculptures commands an impressive price and will no doubt grant the owners and casters a significant fortune. This is precisely the reason why so many experts are sceptical – along with the fact that the plasters don’t stylistically match Degas’s earlier work.
So far, though, the experts who disagree with the authenticity of the 73 plaster casts have largely kept their silence. Art writers in the media have speculated this is due to litigation fears: with museums and universities on increasingly tight budgets, any libellous comment could prove fatal for a department’s budget. Thus the supporters and “discoverers” of this new cache of Degas sculptures are effectively given free rein to showcase their new finds. It should be noted that among the supporters are Dr. Gregory Hedberg, Director of European Art for Hirschl and Adler Galleries in New York, and Walter F. Maibaum, an authority on 19th and 20th century European art (it should also be noted that these people have alleged financial links to the discovered Degas sculptures).
When all is said and done, the jury is still firmly out when the authenticity of the sculptures are in question. On balance, it would seem the art world has deemed the works inauthentic. We’ll keep our eyes and ears peeled for the latest info and blog about it as soon as we read something reputable. While we can’t offer you a reproduction Degas sculpture, we can offer you plenty of Degas oil paintings from the master himself.