The National Gallery catalogue omits a set of plasters said to have been discovered recently—and opens a new front in the ongoing battle over their origin.
The National Gallery’s recently published “systematic catalogue” of Degas sculptures in its collection has—quietly—opened up a new front in an ongoing battle. On one side are the nation’s most prominent Degas scholars. On the other are Gregory Hedberg, director of European art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York, and his business partner, Walter F. Maibaum, of the Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. At issue is Hedberg’s claim that 74 previously unknown plasters said to have been discovered in a French foundry in 2004 were made during Degas’s lifetime.
ARTnews first reported the controversy in April 2010. Since then, Maibaum, Hedberg, and Stuart Feld, president and director of Hirschl & Adler, say they have continued to sell sets of bronzes made from the plasters for around $20 million per set, and individual bronzes for around $2 million each.
A number of museums—the Herakleidon Museum in Athens, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the National Art Gallery in Sophia, Bulgaria, and IVAM, the Institute of Modern Art in Valencia, Spain—have exhibited the bronzes. John Bullard, former director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, announced that his museum would show them, but his successor, Susan Taylor, “postponed” the exhibition. “The controversy has influenced my decision,” she told ARTnews. “I would like to review it more carefully.”
The new catalogue calls into question the claim of Hedberg and Maibaum that the plasters Maibaum has said he was shown for the first time in 2004 in a storeroom of the Valsuani foundry outside Paris are “lifetime” sculptures by Degas.
The National Gallery catalogue acknowledges the “recently discovered” plasters only in a footnote. Otherwise it ignores their existence. An illustration labeled “Degas’ lifetime plasters” shows only four sculptures, none of them from the “recently discovered” set. Under the heading “Possible Degas Lifetime Sculpture,” where the authors consider works not in the National Gallery collection, an asterisk leads readers to the relevant footnote: “A group of plasters reported to have been discovered in the Valsuani foundry came to our attention as work on the present catalogue was in progress. They are intentionally not included herein.” The same statement appears earlier in two separate footnotes in the main body of the text, which describes the first examination using sophisticated computer technology of the 52 Degas sculptures given to the National Gallery by banker and collector Paul Mellon.
The National Gallery declined a number of requests by ARTnews to elaborate on the record about the footnotes and the message they were intended to send. “Regarding the footnote in question,” a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail, “the Gallery maintains that the statement as published is self-explanatory.” NGA conservators Daphne Barbour and Shelley Sturman, who conducted the examination, were unavailable for com- ment, because, director Earl A. Powell III wrote in an e-mail to ARTnews, the gallery “has a longstanding policy of commenting only on works in our own collection.”
A Degas expert who declined to be identified said, “Sure, it’s a message to the scholars who are interested in this topic. But just as important, it’s a message to the market. The fact that the Valsuani plasters are not included, the fact that they are dismissed in these footnotes, sends a clear message—’They don’t make the cut.'”
The National Gallery’s refusal to comment continues the pattern set by a group of Degas scholars who met in an undisclosed location in New York in January 2010 to voice their concern about what Hedberg and Maibaum were doing. Those present at the meeting included Gary Tinterow, chair of the department of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Richard Kendall, consultative curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; Theodore Reff, professor emeritus of European painting and sculpture at Columbia University; Patricia Failing, professor of art history at the University of Washington and an ARTnews contributing editor; Sturman and Barbour; and Arthur Beale, retired chair of the department of conservation and collections management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and co–author (with Kendall) of Degas and the Little Dancer.
None of the attendees would comment on the record. One person, who declined to be identified, told ARTnewsthat “there was absolutely universal agreement that these things are not what they’re being advertised as.” There were people there who believed “this whole thing is just going to collapse of its own ridiculousness, especially when these things go on the secondary market and they come up for auction. The auction houses will laugh at these people” and not allow the sculptures to be auctioned, leaving them to be sold privately between dealers. “That seems like a very unfortunate way to go because, obviously, a lot of people are going to get hoodwinked and waste a lot of money in the meantime.”
An auction-house executive who did not want to be named confirmed that auctioneers are wary of the supposed lifetime plasters, and would stay away from them. “Everybody in the market says it’s a lot of BS,” this person told ARTnews. “It’s universally viewed in the professional market—and in an unofficial sampling of curators—that it’s a shlocky enterprise. People say they look tacky, shiny, like refined bronze castings, and don’t have the same kind of quality and definition of the originals.”
Since the January meeting, the scholars have remained silent, fearing legal repercussions. Only Tinterow has stepped forward publicly to cast doubt on the “lifetime” plaster theory. “In my opinion, there is nothing that demonstrates that Degas had a set of plaster casts made of his sculptures during his lifetime,” Tinterow said in a statement to ARTnewslast May.
In her article in this issue about the new catalogue, Patricia Failing also addresses Hedberg’s claims. “There is no historical evidence to support the assertion that any of the Valsuani plasters were made during Degas’s lifetime,” she writes. “Hedberg argues, nevertheless, that the Valsuani Little Dancer plaster replicates Degas’s first version of the sculpture now in the National Gallery, and that the National Gallery sculpture acquired its current pose and appearance when the artist made radical revisions in the composition (another assumption that has never been verified) early in 20th century. Despite evidence of an earlier version of the face and head, technical studies of the National Gallery’s Little Dancerundermine Hedberg’s historical scenario.”
Hedberg declined to be interviewed about the footnotes but later sent an e-mail from California (where he was traveling), in which he wrote: “I think the new National Gallery publication is an extremely important addition to Degas literature. An important conclusion that can be drawn from all the
new technical studies and X-radiographs is that for the most part Degas’ original waxes survived in much better condition than previously believed.”
Hedberg encouraged ARTnewsto speak with Arthur Beale. Beale, who says he is working on a documentary film about the “lifetime” plasters, did not want to wade into the debate either, preferring to focus on his perception that the National Gallery’s policy of not allowing staff members to comment on works not in the gallery’s collection might be frustrating to them and could conceivably restrict them “when they try to do complete research.”
Maibaum wrote in an e-mail that the new catalogue “has definitively established the current state of Degas’ waxes in the museum’s collection and the materials used by the artist. The scholarship is admirable. This publication will be the leading source of information on Degas’ waxes for generations.”
The publication, he added, “has not affected the sale of the bronzes.”
Hedberg continues to work on his book about the “lifetime” Degas plasters and is putting the final touches on an article that will expand a presentation he gave at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts last year.
“Do Degas’ waxes, the majority of which are in the National Gallery in Washington, represent a somewhat random sampling of a much larger lost oeuvre of Degas sculpture—as now generally believed—or are they accurate representations of the models Degas selected to preserve?” Hedberg asks rhetorically in a draft of his article. At the end, he answers his own question: “With all the important new publications and discoveries, the time seems right to reassess Degas’ oeuvre in sculpture.”
William D. Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World (Doubleday), is a columnist for the New York Times and writes for many publications.