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The Collector’s Minute: An Antoine Louis Barye Sculpture

by Mike Wilcox (11/30/09).

A bronze lion by Antoine Louis Barye. While it is an original by Barye, it was cast after his death by the famous foundry of Ferdinand Barbedienne. Barbedienne purchased 125 casting models from the late Barye's estate in 1876. This one, cast circa 1890, sold recently for $10,400.

A bronze lion by Antoine Louis Barye. While it is an original by Barye, it was cast after his death by the famous foundry of Ferdinand Barbedienne. Barbedienne purchased 125 casting models from the late Barye's estate in 1876. This one, cast circa 1890, sold recently for $10,400.

One class of items that causes great confusion among novice collectors is “bronze sculptures,” which is understandable due to the wide variance in values for what appear at first glance to be similar items, but with huge differences in price.

The piece in question here is a lion by the French sculptor Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875). It could be worth anywhere from $500 to $11,000, depending on its pedigree. Barye was well known for his ability to capture the beauty of nature in a realistic and sometimes brutal fashion.

Being a popular sculptor of his time, his work was widely copied, not only in bronze, but other base metals such as spelter (a zinc alloy) or even lead, plated with a bronze finish. This is where the confusion creeps in. At first glance, the original and later copies in bronze or spelter look virtually identical. The spelter examples, however, can be eliminated quickly with a simple “scratch” test to the base of the piece, as spelter—when scratched with a knife or nail file—will show a silvery color under the bronzed finish.

Telling the difference between the original bronze pieces made during the 19th century under the artist’s instructions and later reproductions made after the sculptor’s death is more problematic, as some copies are of very high quality and differ only by their foundry markings. This is where it is highly important to know the biography of a sculptor’s working life to determine 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, but cast after his death by the famous foundry of Ferdinand Barbedienne. Barbedienne purchased 125 casting models from the late Barye’s estate in 1876. This one, cast circa 1890, recently sold at auction for $10,400.

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Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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