• Investigations

    Adding to the Confusion

    A dealer's appraisal of bronzes cast from plasters said to be authentic lifetime works by Degas adds to the controversial nature of the enterprise.

    Canadian VitaPro mogul, philanthropist, and collector Yank Barry showing off one of his 74 Degas bronzes, cast from "recently discovered" plasters.

    A controversy over 74 plaster casts attributed to Edgar Degas that were supposedly discovered in a French foundry has spread to a dealer’s appraisal of the bronzes cast from the plasters. The most respected Degas experts in the United States have questioned the origin of the plasters, but last year the New York art dealer Stewart Waltzer appraised the set of 74 bronzes at $37.25 million. The most valuable sculpture in the set, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, is worth $15 million, Waltzer wrote in his appraisal.

    The experts who question the legitimacy and the quality of the plasters range from Gary Tinterow, chair of the department of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to Daphne S. Barbour and Shelley G. Sturman, National Gallery of Art conservators who published their detailed technical analyses of the NGA’s holdings in the new catalogue raisonné Edgar Degas Sculpture. One expert told ARTnews that the Waltzer appraisal adds to the controversial nature of the enterprise to sell the bronzes as if they were legitimate Degas sculptures.

    The plasters were reportedly discovered recently in the Valsuani foundry, outside of Paris. According to New York art dealer Walter Maibaum, he was shown the plasters in 2004 by foundry owner Leonardo Benatov, with whom he reached a deal to have them cast in bronze and made available for sale. Maibaum shared the discovery with another New York dealer, Gregory Hedberg, director of European art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries. Hedberg, after close examination of the plasters, concluded that they had been made during Degas’s lifetime.

    Barbour and Sturman did not include the “recently discovered” plasters in their survey of possible Degas lifetime sculptures. “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 wrote in a footnote. “They are intentionally not included herein.”

    One expert who didn’t want to be identified wrote in an e-mail to ARTnews that the Waltzer appraisal provides “a very distressing backstage view of the confusion and delusion perpetrated by Maibaum [and] Hedberg.”

    Waltzer’s appraisal was commissioned by Yank Barry, a Canadian businessman who bought a set of 73 Degas sculptures from Maibaum in August 2009 through his Global Village Champions Foundation Inc., and then last year bought a bronze replica of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.

    When Barry bought the 73 bronzes, he issued a press release saying he had paid “considerably less” than $20 million for the set. In an interview with ARTnews, he said he had paid between “$7 million and $20 million” for them, but he would not reveal how much he had paid for the Little Dancer because, he said, he had signed a confidentiality agreement with Maibaum that prevented him from disclosing the purchase price.

    Barry stated that at the time he bought the set of 73 bronzes he relied in part on another, earlier Waltzer appraisal, done in 2009, that put the value of the 73 bronzes (without Little Dancer) at around “$22 million.” In June 2006, at the request of Maibaum, Waltzer appraised a set of the 73 bronzes at just above $19 million, and another appraiser, Alex Rosenberg, valued the set at $20.5 million. In 2009, Waltzer appraised the Valsuani version of Little Dancer at $12 million, also at Maibaum’s request.

    The 2010 appraisal, which was done for Barry’s private use, is available on the Internet, much to Waltzer’s consternation. In this appraisal, as in his earlier ones, Waltzer uses public- and private-market valuations based on recent sales of Degas’s sculptures, often relying on what the sculptures fetched at auction. In his analysis, he sidesteps the controversy around the sculptures and values the bronzes as if they were fully authenticated works made from Degas’s own plasters.

    “This appraisal is accompanied by various letters and [a]ttestations from Leonardo Benatov, owner of the Valsuani foundry, stating explicitly that the plasters, which serve as the basis for the 74 Edgar Degas bronze sculptures from the 1998 Valsuani Edition marked ‘Set VII/XI,’ are authentic,” Waltzer wrote in his 2010 appraisal. “Therefore, these works have been appraised as authentic works by Edgar Degas. This appraiser and this appraisal [do] not warrant the authenticity of the 74 Edgar Degas bronze sculptures from the 1998 Valsuani Edition marked ‘Set VII/IX.’”

    Waltzer’s valuation of the individual bronzes is repeatedly at the high end of recent market trades, reflecting his belief that the market for Degas’s sculptures has held steady, if not increased, despite the Great Recession that began in 2007 and 2008. “The market in Degas bronze sculpture has gone up about 15% since 2006,” Waltzer writes. “What it meant to this appraisal was the concept that high values for works of art are not anomalous events, and the art market is more stable than many others.”

    The bronze sculpture to which Waltzer attributes by far the most value is Little Dancer. The wax version of this figure, wearing a muslin-and-gauze tutu, with a silk ribbon in her hair, is now in the National Gallery. It was the only sculpture Degas allowed to be exhibited during his lifetime. According to Hedberg and Maibaum, their bronze was cast from a Valsuani plaster and represents an earlier stage of the figure, a view that was disputed by Degas expert Patricia Failing on the basis of technical evidence in her recent ARTnews feature (see “Unraveling the Mysteries of Degas’s Sculpture,” May 2011).

    Without mentioning the controversy, Waltzer values Barry’s Little Dancer at $15 million, based in part on the sale of an authorized Little Dancer at Sotheby’s London in February 2009 for $19 million, surpassing an estimate of $13 million to $17 million. He also cites other sales of the sculpture at auction during the past 12 years, ranging in price from $9.1 million to $12.3 million. Waltzer’s $15 million valuation, he writes, “reflects the uplift that has occurred in the market in the past few years.” He values two other of the Hedberg/Maibaum bronzes at more than $1 million: Le tub, at $3.2 million, and Étude de nu pour la danseuse habillée; Jeune danseuse nue, at $2.1 million.

    Reached by phone, Waltzer expressed surprise that the 120-page appraisal he had done for Barry was available publicly. He did not want to talk about it or say how much Barry had paid him for his work. “I can’t discuss this because that’s work that I did for someone else,” he said. “You know what I’m saying? If I did an appraisal for you, would you like me to discuss it? I don’t think so.”

    He said the document should not be publicly available on the Internet. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t put it out there,” he continued. “It was for Mr. Barry, at Mr. Barry’s use only, and that was my specification. It said so, I think, in the appraisal, if I’m not mistaken. It should. I can’t discuss it with you. That’s a private document.”

    Barry said he paid Waltzer “less than $20,000″ for the 2010 appraisal, which he was using, in part, to justify the value of the set of bronzes he had purchased.

    Barry offered 50 of the sculptures as prizes in a raffle that he set up in 2010 to raise money—he said he hoped to raise $100 million—for his foundation, which Barry claims “strives to become the undisputed world leader in private, humanitarian delivery of nutrition to needy persons everywhere, sustaining human life and helping to eradicate hunger from the face of the Earth.” Muhammad Ali often makes appearances with Barry to benefit the foundation.

    Barry said that people buying raffle tickets, at $10 each, would want to know they had the possibility of winning something of genuine value. He denied that he was using the appraisal for tax purposes or to obtain a loan against the value of the sculptures. He said he was a citizen of both Canada and the Bahamas, not the United States. “I don’t pay taxes, so it’s not for a tax write-off,” he said. “Global Village was never for a tax write-off. We’re the only 501(c)(3) in the United States that does not accept donations.” He also said he didn’t need a loan. “I don’t need the money,” he said. “Why would I want to get a loan?”

    The “grand prize” in the raffle, which was conducted through a now-defunct website, winadegashelphaiti.org, was to be the Little Dancer bronze. Second prize was to be Le Tub. Another now-defunct website, pricelessdegasforhaiti.com, professed to explain how the proceeds of the raffle would be used to benefit the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

    Barry said that the raffle was arranged in conjunction with the Degas heirs. He said he had abandoned plans for it, in part after he began reading the stories in ARTnews last year that questioned the authenticity of the Hedberg/Maibaum Degas bronzes. He said he then returned all the money he had raised from buyers of the raffle tickets and took down the websites.

    Nevertheless, Barry said, he is more convinced than ever that the bronzes he bought from Maibaum are genuine. He said he met with both Alain Renner, a Sotheby’s vice president in Paris, and with Francis Briest, the co-head of Artcurial, another auction house in Paris, both of whom assured him, he said, that the Valsuani bronzes were genuine. He said that Briest spent 90 minutes with him and declared the bronzes “magnificent,” and that Renner told him the same thing. Neither Renner nor Briest returned calls from ARTnews seeking comment.

    To date, Barry claims to have spent more than $1 million researching whether the Degas sculptures he owns are genuine. When he first read in ARTnews that some people questioned their authenticity, he recalled, “Obviously I felt I had a pit in my stomach and I wanted to throw up. The first person I called was who? Walter Maibaum. He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘Walter, don’t tell me don’t worry about it. I’m worried. Give me some answers.’ And you know what his answer was? ‘Oh, they’re doing a retraction. I’m sending them a letter.’” (There was no retraction of the article.)

    Barry recommended that a forum be held as soon as possible to bring together Maibaum, Hedberg, and the Degas experts who have criticized the bronzes and to get the issues on the table once and for all. “I’ll pay for the venue,” he said. “I’ll pay for the hotel rooms. Let them get there. Anywhere they want in the world.”

    Before signing off, he concluded, “I’ll tell you one thing, I will get to the bottom of this. If you’ve read enough about me, I will get to the bottom of this.”

    Barry is a controversial figure. He was born Gerald Falovitch, but his “Jewish name” was “Yankel,” according to a long and unflattering 2002 article about him, titled “Yank Barry: Saint or Sinner,” on a Canadian CTV News blog. He claimed to be a member of the band the Kingsmen, who had a hit with “Louie Louie.”

    “But there’s a problem,” according to the article: “There’s no official record that Barry was ever a member of the band, neither in rock encyclopedias nor on the official Kingsmen website.” (Barry claimed he was a member of a traveling offshoot of the Kingsmen.)

    He also hung out with mobsters, according to the article, and in 1973 was charged with extortion of a record- company executive whom Barry told to pay $82,000 in cash to a mob boss or be killed. Barry served eleven months of a six-year prison term at Laval Penitentiary, in Quebec province. “It was wrong,” he told the Canadian blog. “It was definitely wrong. I’m not proud of it but I did it.” He filed for personal bankruptcy in Canada in 1987.

    According to Barry’s website, “In 1990, Yank developed VitaPro, a soy-based meat replacement product. It was Yank’s entry into the food industry as founder and Chairman of VitaPro that would change his life and the lives of countless other people forever. While expanding the distribution of his soy product around the world, Yank encountered people whose desperate living conditions touched his heart. One of Yank’s core beliefs is ‘No one should go hungry.’” Barry said VitaPro has around $270 million in revenue but does not do business in the United States.

    In 2001, Barry was convicted of conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, although a federal judge later overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial, which never took place. In 2007, the Bahamas Supreme Court entered a $3 million judgment against him and Global Village.

    According to a video on Barry’s Facebook page, in November 2010 he received the 2010 Gusi Peace Prize for Social Services, Philanthropy, and International Humanitarianism in the “presence of 10,000 dignitaries and guests in Manila, the Philippines.” This was in recognition of the 480 million free meals he claimed to have delivered around the globe and for his determination to have “a day without hunger” by December 31, 2013. With him at the ceremony in Manila was Walter Maibaum.

    William D. Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World (Doubleday), is a columnist for Bloomberg View and writes for many publications.

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