One class of Antique item that causes great problems for novice collectors and seasoned Dealers alike are “Bronze sculptures” . This is very understandable because of the wide variance in values for what appear at first glance to be identical items in auction listings, or on television shows like the Antiques Roadshow, but with great differences in prices.
The piece here is a lion by the well known French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875). Barye was well known for his ability to capture the beauty of nature in a realistic and sometimes brutal fashion, with depictions of various carnivores in the act of fighting or attacking prey. For one like this without a provenance could be worth anywhere from $500 to $11,000, depending on its pedigree.
Being as popular a sculptor as he was during his life, his work was widely copied, Pieces can be found in bronze, spelter (a pewter like zinc alloy) and even lead, often plated with a bronze finish. This is where the problems creep in. From images alone, the originals and later copies in bronze or spelter look almost identical. The spelter examples, however, can be eliminated quickly with a simple “scratch” test on the underside the base of the piece, because spelter when scratched with a knife or nail file leaves a silvery color under the bronzed plated finish.
Determining the difference between the original bronze pieces made during the 19th Century under the artist’s instructions and reproductions made after a famous sculptor’s death is more problematic. A great many copies are of very high quality and may only differ by their foundry markings or lack there of . This is where the need of Experts come in into play, because it is very important to know the biography of a sculptor’s working life to determine where and when certain pieces were produced, which foundry did the casting, and the marks it used.
In the case of our “bronze” lion pictured above, it is an original by Barye. This one though was but cast after his death by the well known French foundry of Ferdinand Barbedienne. The Barbedienne foundry purchased 125 casting models from Barye’s estate in 1876. This one, cast circa 1890, sold recently at auction for $10,400.