We Need to Talk About Purdue’s Newly Donated Degas Sculptures

Patricia Failing is professor emerita in the University of Washington’s School of Art, Art History, and Design. She has written several articles on Degas’s sculptures for ARTnews, beginning in 1979, and has reported on the Valsuani Foundry’s casts since 2010.  

Earlier this year, Avrum Gray, a Chicago businessman, donated a major gift of 74 Edgar Degas bronzes to Purdue University in Indiana. The market value of the collection, which includes the famed Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, is said to be around $52 million.

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This gift, ARTnews wrote at the time, “transformed the university into one of the top stewards of artworks by the famed French Impressionist in the country.” Further details about the donation, however, suggest that stewardship may be more challenging than the university initially anticipated.

The bronzes gifted to Purdue were created by the Valsuani Foundry in France, which began marketing Little Dancer casts in the late 1990s and sets of 73 Degas bronzes several years later. One set of bronzes acquired by the M.T. Abraham Center For the Visual Arts in Paris has been shown in several venues outside the U.S., including museums in Athens, Israel and Russia.

Across the years, experts have raised concerns about the authenticity of these works, and now, those allegations need to be considered anew in light of the Purdue gift, the announcement of which did not mention the controversy over the sculptures.

Valsuani casts in the U.S. were acquired primarily through art dealer Walter Maibaum, who sold the bronzes to the Purdue donor, and Gregory Hedberg, a senior consultant for European art at New York’s Hirshl and Adler Galleries. Maibaum markets Valsuani casts under the rubric “The Degas Sculpture Project,” a private company owned by Maibaum and his wife. For more than a decade, these dealers and the Valsuani Foundry’s owner, the late Leonardo Benatov, have been protagonists in international disputes about the history, merits, and monetary value of these Valsuani casts. With this gift, apparently the first of its kind in the US, Purdue now becomes a new venue for the ethical issues Maibaum and Benatov’s work entailed.

Beginning in 1919, the Hébrard Foundry in Paris produced the familiar Degas bronzes of dancers and horses on view in major museums in Europe and the U.S. Degas created wax and clay sculptures for more than 40 years, and the Hébrard bronzes were cast from 73 of the 150 sculptures found in the artist’s studio after his death in 1917. The Valsuani bronzes, in contrast, originate from a previously unknown cache of plaster replicas of Degas sculptures Benatov discovered after he purchased the Valsuani Foundry properties in 1981. Many of these plasters depart in various degrees from the well-known Hébrard bronzes, especially Valsuani’s plaster Little Dancer. In 1997 and 1998, Benatov began creating bronze copies of his plaster Little Dancer, marketing them as high-quality copies. On sale for $60,000 each, these replicas were commercially quite successful. 

In the early 2000s, by coincidence, Maibaum and Hedberg each encountered a Benatov Little Dancer bronze in Paris. Both decided the figures were superior in demeanor and anatomy to the well-known Hébrard casts.  Maibaum concluded that “only Degas himself could have created something so masterful,” and agreed to buy several Benatov Dancer bronzes. 

In 2004 Maibaum arranged to purchase Benatov’s entire ensemble of plasters, except the Little Dancer, and negotiated exclusive rights to sell complete sets of the plasters that would be cast in bronze at Valsuani.  Hedberg, who was especially enchanted by the Valsuani Little Dancer, bought the plaster version for Hirshl and Adler and sold it to a Los Angeles collector for $400,000, with the condition that it could not be re-sold and must be donated to a museum.

Hedberg had already begun to convince himself that the Valsuani plasters were made during Degas’s lifetime, with his approval. Certain facts complicated his supposition: the provenance and history of the Valsuani plasters is unknown, except for one possibly unreliable reference to their presence at the foundry in 1955.

Many of the Valsuani plasters differ in structure or detail from the Hébrard bronzes cast from Degas’s original wax and clay sculptures shortly after the artist’s death. All but four of the original sculptures cast by Hébrard still exist.  Most are in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and can be aligned with corresponding Hébrard bronzes.

In his dedicated quest to validate the Valsuani “lifetime” plasters, Hedberg has approached scholarship inconsistent with his convictions as impediments to be ignored or re-managed. For instance, Hedberg points to Degas’ long friendship with the artist Albert Bartholomé. Bartholomé was a painter who, with Degas’s encouragement, turned his attention to sculpture in the mid-1880s. Hedberg asserts, as if it were a matter of historical record, that plasters found at Valsuani were made by Bartholomé during Degas’s lifetime. The inconsistencies between the Valsuani plasters and Degas’s extant wax and clay sculptures and the Hébrard bronzes, Hedberg maintains, are evidence that Bartholomé’s plasters record Degas’ original versions of his sculptures before later or posthumous changes were made. The face depicted in the Valsuani Head, Study the Portrait of Mme. Salle, for example, is an almost unrecognizable variant of the original wax study accurately represented in the Hébrard casts. This kind of deviation, in Hedberg’s view, illustrates Bartholomé’s role in documenting the progression of Degas’s creative practice.          

Advised of Hedberg’s claims, French scholar Thérèse Burollet, the leading authority on Bartholomé who has studied his life and work for more than 50 years, replied to ARTnews, “Nothing in the documents consulted, letters, archives, press articles or family traditions allows one to think that Bartholomé cast in plaster a single work by Degas in his lifetime.”  Dismissing Burollet’s statement as “categorically false,” Hedberg remains undeterred in his matter-of-fact statements about Bartholomé’s lifetime production of Degas plasters and the history of corresponding Valsuani casts.

Hedberg’s plaster Little Dancer narrative is especially creative. Degas exhibited his wax Little Dancer at the Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, the only time a sculpture by him ever appeared in public during the artist’s lifetime. His Dancer is now in the National Gallery’s collection and differs conspicuously from the Valsuani plaster version in its body type, pose, face and hair.

Hedberg insists that the Valsuani plaster represents the wax Dancer as it actually appeared in the 1881 exhibition. After 1903, he says, Degas radically revised his 1881 wax sculpture, converting the figure into what he describes as the “inferior” wax version now in the National Gallery and replicated in the Hébrard bronzes. The National Gallery’s extensive scientific testing and structural analysis of the wax Dancer do not confirm theconversion, but Hedberg and Maibaum continue to take exception to this analysis.

In his 2016 book, Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen: The Earlier Version That Helped Spark the Birth of Modern Art, Hedberg makes other astonishing claims. The lower-class identity and iconic frontal pose of the wax version of the Valsuani plaster shown in 1881, he argues, impacted the aesthetic of pioneering modernists such as Whistler, Manet, and Seurat, and initiated a formal and conceptual legacy echoed, for example, in Frank Stella’s late 1950s “black paintings and Warhol’s frontal soup cans.

The cumulative effects of Maibaum’s marketing strategies and Hedberg’s campaign to establish a history for the Valsuani plasters have already encircled Purdue University’s reception and planning for their gift. In an announcement of the donation, for example, the university reports that the late Alex Rosenberg provided the appraisal of their collection, “valuing the donation at just over $21 million with a market value of as much as $53 million.” What the release did not mention was that Rosenberg had organized exhibitions of the Valsuani bronzes titled “All the Sculptures of Edgar Degas” in Tel Aviv and Havana. He was clearly not a neutral arbiter. The $53 million “market value” he assigned to the university’s gift is a speculative figure derived from the value of Hébrard casts on the open art market, not private sales of the Valsuani casts.

Optimism about meeting the challenges of responsible stewardship of the collection prevails at Purdue, nevertheless. University spokesperson Dr. Arne Flaten, a professor of art history and head of the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art and Performance, acknowledges that “the university is aware of the debate surrounding the collection. Beyond the beauty of the objects themselves, we look forward to the exceptional educational opportunities the gift provides for engaging with complicated questions regarding the art world, the art market, and notions of originality and reproduction.”

The “alternative facts” in play around the Valsuani casts will increase the complexity of these objectives, as will Hedberg’s new book on the Valsuani plasters, to be released in July. As conversations around the Valsuani casts continue, perhaps other educational institutions will be encouraged to consider with great care the acquisition or exhibition of these contested sculptures.  

Source: artnews.com

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