Provincial art exhibitions don’t usually command attention in Paris, but major controversy broke out in October 2010 over a show of monumental sculptures in the village of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in eastern France. Organized under the auspices of the local Georges Braque museum, the exhibition featured bronzes by Rodin, Degas, Dalí, Modigliani, Renoir, and Camille Claudel as well as Braque. The scandal erupted when the Rodin Museum in Paris questioned the authenticity of three of the pieces on display. What intrigued people in the French art establishment was the identity of the hitherto unknown collector who had lent many of the works to the show: Prince Leonardo Argoutinsky-Dolgorouky, which turned out to be the recently adopted Armenian-Russian title of Leonardo Benatov, the driving force behind the Valsuani bronze foundry, in the town of Chevreuse, outside Paris.
Benatov is best known these days for casting bronze sculptures from 74 plasters attributed to Edgar Degas that he found when he bought the Valsuani Foundry in 1981. Although many scholars have questioned the origin of the plasters, each of the 29 sets of bronzes he produced is said to sell for millions of dollars. However, Benatov has long been controversial because his foundry has made a specialty of producing posthumous casts of work by prominent artists, either as “originals” under French law (made under contract with the artist’s heirs or rights holders) or as “reproductions” (copies allowed with certain restrictions once an artist has been dead for 70 years and his works have entered the public domain).
Valsuani has cast bronzes attributed to Rodin, Modigliani, Renoir, Dalí, Claudel, and Giacometti, among others, as well as the popular European animal sculptors Rembrandt Bugatti and François Pompon.
The quality of Benatov’s work is widely admired. Two French government ministers visited the foundry last year and gave it an award as a “Living Heritage Company” for modernizing its production techniques while preserving traditional bronze-casting skills in France. Among other things, Benatov has pioneered methods for producing sculptures as tall as four meters (13.2 feet) in a single continuous casting rather than in pieces.
But Benatov’s detractors contend that there are things about him that are questionable, from his title to many of the sculptures his foundry produces.
One outspoken critic is Véronique Wiesinger, director of the Alberto and Annette Giacometti Foundation in Paris. She urged scholars to boycott a colloquium on “Posthumous Bronzes in Law and Art History” held in May 2012 at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where the Degas bronzes were to be displayed, because she didn’t want the sculptures to gain credibility.
Wiesinger also criticizes Benatov for agreeing to cast two unauthorized Giacometti sculptures in editions of eight in 1993 for Jean- François Grenet, a lawyer now living in Luxembourg. The sculptures were challenged by the Giacometti Association, which was set up by the artist’s widow, Annette, and the case is still being fought in the courts. Grenet had an authorization that he said came from Alberto’s brother Diego, which was declared invalid in court. “It was the responsibility of the foundry to verify that permissions had been granted,” Wiesinger contends. “It isn’t like these sculptures were cast in Thailand. It wouldn’t have been hard to ask.” Benatov says that he thought the certificate from Diego Giacometti was adequate authorization.
Another critic is the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation in Figueres, Spain, which controls Dalí’s estate. Benatov says he produces “about 15” Dalí sculptures in various sizes and patinas under contracts signed years ago with Demart, a company set up when the scholar Robert Descharnes was managing Dalí’s affairs. The foundation says that Demart, which it has controlled since 2004, cancelled Benatov’s Dalí contracts in 2007 and contends that Benatov no longer has the right to produce Dalí sculptures.
Benatov had been in confidential negotiations to work out a new agreement with the foundation but says he cut off talks last year. Now he has launched a case in commercial court in Ajaccio, Corsica, to reinstate the contracts while also contending that he has the legal right to issue his own Dalí contracts via his Gala-Dalí Foundation in Moscow, an organization named for the artist’s Russian-born wife, which Benatov admits he set up partly to “annoy” the official Dalí foundation.
Jean-François Marchi, Benatov’s friend and longtime legal adviser, says that Benatov bought the rights to set up the Russian foundation in 2002 from Robert Descharnes, but Descharnes’s son Nicolas denies this. The Dalí Foundation, which says it can find no record of such an agreement, is contesting Benatov’s plans in court. Marchi says that Benatov has stopped selling his Dalí sculptures pending a judgment in the case.
Why is the case in Corsica? Marchi is Corsican and has incorporated the foundry and Benatov’s main company on the island. Benatov is not the legal owner of the foundry, which is owned by “certain people in Iceland” and “cousins in Russia,” Marchi says. “Leonardo’s only title is ‘artistic adviser’ to the foundry. You won’t find his name on legal documents anywhere.”
Benatov and his Icelandic-born wife, Lilja Skaftadottir, spoke at length with ARTnews last year. At 72, Benatov has survived a bout of cancer and walks with a cane, but he’s still an imposing figure with a deep rumbling voice that commands attention. At times he evaded questions, but as often as not he seemed to delight in taking pokes at perceived foes, usually over the objections of his more media-savvy wife, who is part-owner of a daily newspaper in Reykjavik.
Benatov believes that the art establishment simply resents the competition he poses. For instance, he says he has made “around 30” copies of Rodin’s Thinker over the years and sold them for an average price of about $1 million. “That’s $25 million or $30 million the Rodin Museum didn’t make for itself,” he says. He won’t reveal where he got the plaster he uses, but says it originally came from Georges Rudier, a foundry once frequently used by Rodin that was liquidated in 1994. The Rodin Museum declined to comment on this or any other matter for this article.
Benatov is a scion of a prominent artistic family. His father, also known as Leonardo, was born in 1899 of Russian-Armenian nobility and moved to Moscow at the age of 16 to study art. The title “Prince Argoutinsky- Dolgorouky” comes from the father’s mother’s side of the family, according to Marchi, who says he hired a scholar to document Benatov’s ancestry. Such titles are usually passed on through the father, but Marchi claims that Czar Paul I (r. 1796– 1801) granted Benatov’s forebears a special dispensation for their titles to pass through either side of the family. Marchi says a Paris court recognized Benatov’s right to use the title in 2007.
Both Benatov and his brother Rurik, a French architect, say their father, whose original name was Levon Bounatian, stopped using his title around the time of the Russian revolution because he feared using it would lead to monetary demands on him and his family. The father enjoyed artistic and social success almost immediately. There’s a memorable 1920 portrait of him, bare-chested, done by the well-known painter Petr Konchalovsky, with whom he studied; it was sold by the Konchalovsky family at Sotheby’s London in 2007 for $1.5 million. Benatov Senior’s first wife was a daughter of the prominent artist Filipp Malyavin.
Like many Russian artists, Benatov Senior moved to Europe in the 1920s, and eventually landed in Paris, where he acquired a spacious atelier on the Rue Campagne-Première, in the heart of the expatriate artist community in Montparnasse. By 1931, the father was sufficiently prominent to be singled out by a New York Times reviewer of a traveling show of European art that also included works by Max Ernst and Marc Chagall. During the exhibition’s stop in New York, Benatov Senior’s work hung at the Wildenstein Gallery. Benatov says his father got to know Georges Wildenstein, the owner of the gallery, via such shows.
At some point, Benatov Senior divorced, and in 1936 he married Liv Ingebjorg Olsen, a Norwegian-born writer, artist, and journalist, who was the mother of Leonardo, Rurik, and their brother and sister. Under the nom-de-plume Livja Flood, she wrote 15 novels and did book reviews and interviews for Norwegian newspapers. Their father, his sons say, was friendly with the other artists in the quarter, including fellow Russian émigrés Chaim Soutine, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, and Alexandra Exter. Rurik recalls growing up in the 1940s and ’50s in a large studio that was always bustling with visiting artists and writers. Every few mornings a bundle of books would be dropped off for his mother’s perusal.
In 1959, the 16-year-old Benatov set off for Brazil to make his fortune. It was there that one of the more bizarre episodes of his colorful life occurred. He says he was prospecting to set up a rubber plantation, and one day when he was in the jungle traveling alone by boat he was abducted by Indians from a remote tribe, who kept him captive for two years. He has photos of a young woman he says he married and fathered a son with, and a father-in-law he says was a cannibal. He escaped when he told his father-in-law, the tribal chief, that he had to go off hunting and fishing for two months and then simply didn’t return to the tribe. He says he went back two years later to document the story.
An account in a Norwegian magazine generally corroborates the tale. When Lilja enumerates how many children the couple has between them (four), she includes Benatov’s son in Brazil, although Benatov says he has not seen him or his mother in 50 years.
After that, Benatov says, he stayed in Brazil and established a rubber plantation. He returned to France in 1968 and began seriously studying art. To this day he remains a working artist, who has done a number of public commissions, including a bust of Napoleon III installed in France’s main commercial court in Paris. Despite health problems, he continues to produce his own bronzes (such as, in 2011, a bust of Princess Stéphanie of Monaco made for charity using new digital-printing technology). He showed several of his own large bronzes at Saint-Dié.
After his father died in 1972, Benatov sold off many of his father’s paintings and began equipping a bronze foundry, called Airaindor, on the family’s estate at Chevreuse. He says he began hanging out at the Valsuani Foundry, then located in Paris, to learn about bronze casting from the artisans there. When the foundry got into financial trouble in the late 1970s and came up for sale, Benatov says, he bought the Valsuani name and gave its skilled artisans jobs at Chevreuse. The operation he runs today “is a little like something out of 19th-century Italy,” Rurik says, with the workers living on the grounds of the foundry.
Benatov says that he knew all along he had the plasters attributed to Degas, but that under French law he couldn’t cast bronzes from them until after 1987, 70 years after Degas’s death, when the artist’s work entered the public domain. Benatov cast 12 Little Dancers in 1997, and about 34 in 1998, selling them all. “They’re all marked ‘reproduction,’” Benatov says. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to cast them. Customs would have come out to the foundry; the Musée d’Orsay would have taken me to court. That’s the reason I left all those plasters in their cases all those years.”
Walter Maibaum, a New York dealer who set up the Degas Sculpture Project to market the bronzes; Gregory S. Hedberg, now senior consultant for European art at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York; and Serge Goldenberg, a French dealer who markets the sculptures Benatov produces, all confirm that the sculptures have been stamped “reproduction” from the beginning. For the Little Dancer, that assertion was confirmed during a police investigation in the year 2000. A source said the investigation involved the Camille Claudel sculpture L’Implorante; Benatov acknowledges that police recovered two small plasters at Valsuani but says they were foundry plasters that had never been used.
Investigators also came across six of the Little Dancer bronzes at the foundry, and photos taken then and shown to ARTnews indicate that they were stamped “reproduction” under the tutu. Benatov confirms that there are two “reproduction” stamps on the Little Dancer, one under the tutu and another on the left ankle.
The price of the sculptures has been rising. Benatov acknowledges that he originally sold the Little Dancer, the largest and most prized of the Degas bronzes he produces, for €60,000 (then about $60,000) or less. (He says that at the time he thought he was selling a “simple reproduction of the Petite Danseuse.”) An American collector who declined to be identified told ARTnews that in 2006 he bought two of the Little Dancers from other buyers for $250,000 each, which he considered a bargain. In November 2011, a Little Dancer went for $1.5 million at a Seoul Auction Co. sale in Hong Kong. (Bronze casts of the Little Dancer produced by the Hébrard Foundry after the artist’s death have gone for as much as $16.9 million at auction.) Excluding the Little Dancer, a full set of the Valsuani Degas bronzes retails for ¤3.5 million (about $4.6 million) at Goldenberg’s Paris gallery. Most of the plasters Benatov says he found at Valsuani have since been sold to American collectors. The foundry now uses copies of those plasters to cast new bronzes.
A genealogical firm hired to track down Degas’s heirs discovered that the artist’s niece, Pauline Fevre, a nun, had left her share of the rights to another nun, Berthe Vial, who in turn left them to her brother and his children. A Comité Edgar Degas was set up to represent descendants of Vial’s brother. David Steiner, a Los Angeles art lawyer who represents the heirs, refused a request to interview them. However, Maibaum says that a total of 15 heirs have now signed on to the group and authorized the Valsuani sculptures. Their authorization gives the works considerable standing under French law.
Still, a number of scholars continue to question the origins of the sculptures (see “A Controversy over Degas,” ARTnews, April 2010). Gregory Hedberg argues that the Valsuani plasters were made before the long-accepted versions of the sculptures, which were originally cast at the Hébrard foundry starting in 1919, two years after Degas’s death. Hedberg says that the dimensions of the Valsuani plasters indicate that most of them were most likely made directly from Degas’s wax statuettes. He argues that the Valsuani plasters don’t reflect imperfections seen in the Hébrard bronzes because the Hébrard bronzes were made later, after Degas’s waxes had deteriorated further.
Hedberg contends that the Valsuani plasters were most likely made by Paul-Albert Bartholomé, a fellow artist and close friend of Degas, who repaired the waxes found in Degas’s studio after the artist’s death. However, many scholars doubt that Bartholomé, who died in 1928, ever cast the waxes into plaster, either before or after Degas’s death. Thérèse Burollet, whose catalogue raisonné of Bartholomé’s work is due out soon, remains unconvinced by the fragmentary documentary evidence Hedberg has assembled. She told ARTnews in an e-mail: “I persist in contending that nothing in the documentation on Bartholomé would lead one to believe that he ever did the slightest casting of a work by Degas.”
Nevertheless, Benatov, too, contends that Bartholomé made the plasters, which, he says, then remained in the possession of Bartholomé’s widow after the artist’s death. In 1956, when the widow’s health deteriorated, Benatov says, the plasters were brought to the Valsuani Foundry by Albino Palazzolo, a skilled Italian-born artisan who worked for Hébrard and cast the Degas sculptures that were made there until the foundry went into liquidation in the mid-1930s.
According to Élisabeth Lebon’s authoritative Dictionnaire des fondeurs de bronze d’art France 1890–1950, Palazzolo operated a Paris foundry under his own name from 1937 to 1941 and then worked out of his Paris apartment for many years, producing Degas, Pompons, and Bugattis that he cast at other foundries. The main evidence Benatov cites in support of his assertion that Palazzolo transferred the Degas plasters to the Valsuani Foundry is a statement signed by Jacques Sokolowsky, who managed the foundry in the 1970s.
Benatov says he worked with Palazzolo at Valsuani in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was regularly visiting the foundry to improve his skills. He says Palazzolo was then producing a series of Degas sculptures at the foundry based on both the Hébrard versions of the sculptures and a few of the Valsuani plasters. In declining health, Palazzolo moved back to Italy around 1972, and the Valsuani plasters remained in storage, Benatov says, until he himself started using them in the late 1990s.
Benatov’s version of the story differs from Hedberg’s. Hedberg believes that, with one possible exception, Palazzolo never made bronzes from the Valsuani plasters because he knew that doing so would have undermined the value of the already accepted (and valuable) Hébrard bronzes.
Through most of the 1970s, the Valsuani Foundry was run by Sokolowsky and his then wife, Edwige Anne Demeurisse, whose artist-grandfather René Demeurisse had been the executor of Pompon’s will. Anne Demeurisse says she owned the foundry from 1973 to l979, but Benatov says that when he bought it in 1981 the seller was the late Daniel Wildenstein, the son of Georges Wildenstein.
Late in life, Sokolowsky, who died in 2004, unburdened himself to Denis Vincenot, a legendary Dijon-based art investigator with the French national police who was active in the Pompon Association. Vincenot, who is now retired and works as an art consultant, says that there was a flood of posthumous Pompon bronzes out of Valsuani while Sokolowsky was there. Documents obtained by ARTnews indicate that Daniel Wildenstein was deeply involved in the foundry’s affairs at that time. In two agreements dated June 6, 1973, for instance, Wildenstein agrees to pay the bills for certain casts and share the profits from them with Sokolowsky, and advances Sokolowsky 300,000 French francs (around $70,000) on the expected profits.
Any posthumous works by Pompon are controversial because the artist, who died in 1933, stated unequivocably in his will that he wanted no posthumous copies of his works made, and charged René Demeurisse with destroying any plasters and molds that might serve for that purpose. Vincenot estimates that there are ten times as many Pompon sculptures in circulation as the artist produced during his lifetime, many of them bearing the Valsuani Foundry stamp.
Benatov acknowledges that he has produced monumental bronze versions of Pompon’s Stag and Polar Bear in editions of six. Indeed, he showed a monumental bronze Polar Bear at Saint-Dié. Liliane Colas, author of the catalogue raisonné of Pompon’s work, says that the artist wished the single large-scale bronze Stag he himself had made to be “unique,” and “ferociously” rejected any monumental bronze reproduction of the Polar Bear, which in stone is his signature piece. Benatov says his father obtained authorization to reproduce both works from René Demeurisse, who died in 196l.
Benatov’s Rodins remain just as controversial. “Relations between the Rodin Museum and Benatov and his associates are absolutely terrible,” says Jérôme Le Blay, a former Christie’s official in Paris who is now a private art dealer working on a catalogue raisonné of Rodin’s sculptures. In February 2011, long after the Saint-Dié show was over, a judge ruled that the Rodin Museum’s concerns about three pieces in the show were justified.
“Flagrant uncertainties as to the provenance and authenticity” of a version of the 1880 sculpture Adam that was missing an arm qualified that piece as a “counterfeit,” the ruling said, according to an Agence France Presse report. (The Adam was in a separate commercial sales show and not included in the formal Saint-Dié exhibition, according to Armand Israel, the show’s organizer.) Even though the other two sculptures, versions of The Thinker and The Age of Bronze, both from the Prince Dolgorouky collection, are described in the catalogue as “reproductions,” the judge ruled that they were inadequately identified as copies, which gave them “the appearance of counterfeits.”
The Rodin Museum and Nicola Pasina, the museum’s lawyer in Saint-Dié, both refused requests by ARTnews for an interview. “There’s a criminal investigation underway so I can’t speak about that dossier,” Pasina said in an e-mail. Marchi notes that Benatov is not a target of any of the court cases launched by the Rodin Museum.
At the behest of the museum, police seized Valsuani Rodins at two other shows, one in Saint-Tropez in 2009 and the other in 2011 at the Chateau l’Hospitalet, a hotel/winery at Narbonne. The target of the legal actions was Serge Goldenberg, Benatov’s longtime business associate. The museum lost court cases involving both shows to Goldenberg, and lost an appeal in the second case.
Goldenberg says the Rodin Museum has launched yet another case against him, alleging that the “reproduction” stamp on the sculptures isn’t sufficiently prominent. He says he has filed a million-euro lawsuit against the museum, charging that it is abusing its dominant competitive position by attempting to keep his company, Artco, from showing the Valsuani Rodins.
As of 2004, Goldenberg had produced editions of some 15 Benatov Rodins, almost all with the “Airaindor” stamp, in multiple sizes, mainly in editions of 25, according to Rodin, Man of Bronze, a book he wrote under the name Serge Gérard that came out that year. In the text, some are labeled reproductions, some aren’t, and a few are said to be “cast from a foundry plaster conforming to the original plaster.” Goldenberg has also organized numerous Rodin shows abroad, where it is difficult for the Rodin Museum to challenge them in court, including shows in Taiwan in 2007, Shanghai in 2009, and Russia in 2012.
The stories of the controversial Rodins and Degas intertwine in Russia. The Rodin show started in Saint Petersburg, where it was timed to coincide with the Hermitage symposium. About half the works in the show were editioned by Goldenberg and half by Valère Lamblot, a French producer who markets his Rodins through a company called Bronze Masters International.
Lamblot says he helped organize the Comité Degas and works closely with it. His Rodins are cast by the Elliot Gantz and Co. foundry in Long Island, New York. They are labeled in the catalogue for the Hermitage show as reproductions, “cast from foundry plasters collected over several years” and “submitted to the Rodin Committee” and then entered into the committee’s database.
That irks Le Blay because it implies that the Comité Rodin, the organization he set up to oversee preparation of his Catalogue Critique de l’Oeuvre Sculpté d’Auguste Rodin, approves of the sculptures, which he does not plan to include in his book. Le Blay says he has told Goldenberg that he considers several of his sculptures—Benatov’s versions of Adam, Les Trois Faunesses, and Half-Length Figure of a Woman—to be outright fakes that should be destroyed. Goldenberg says he immediately “pulled those three sculptures from the market.” He added, “Anyone can make a mistake.”
Benatov remains supremely calm amid the controversy. Sitting behind his desk in the office at his foundry last December, he proudly pointed out the window toward monumental sculptures he had cast, including a Dalí and a Pompon. Next door in the cavernous foundry, an artist was working on a Dalí, whose work Benatov continues to produce (if not, for the moment, sell) under the contracts signed years ago with Demart. Later, over lunch at a nearby restaurant, he brushed aside suggestions that he opt for a healthy main course of fish, ordering veal kidneys washed down with Burgundy instead.
“No fish,” he said with a mock baleful look at his wife and the worried restaurant owner. “I once had a father-in-law who was a cannibal.”