From the Worthologists’ Files: A Bronze Bust

One of the advantages of being an appraiser is the sheer volume of incredible things one comes across on a weekly basis. Not all are hugely valuable, antique, rare or even all that sought after. Many times their value is only sentimental, but they often come with priceless provenances. Our Worthologist file cabinet is a treasure chest of such items– appraisal requests from our clients ranging from stuffed aardvarks to folk art zithers, all of which I’ll cover here in this column.


Our client writes :

I have what I think is a Victorian Bust, maybe Italian, made of some kind of metal. We’ve had it in the family for a very long time. My mother picked it up at a garage sale in New Jersey over 40 years ago. It has a signature on it, but I’m not sure of the spelling, so I’ve sent a picture of it. It looks like “G” as the first initial and F,C or maybe T as first letter of last name “eloca” with an accent mark over e. It’s 10 1/4″H, 5 1/2″ W (at bust line), 3 1/2″D. The finish looks like bronze, but is worn through to a dull looking metal. I’m not sure if it’s just tarnish, but I don’t want to try and polish it until you tell me what it’s made of and its value”.

This piece is in the Art Nouveau style that was all the rage from the 1890’s to World War I (1914). The style was known for its organic nature, making use of whiplash curves, floral vines and depictions of ethereal women in flowing clothing.  Your bust actually depicts “Joan Of Arc.” Busts of this type produced in France and Austria during this period were made in pottery, porcelain, bronze and “spelter.” The upper range pieces were cast in genuine bronze, and tend to be well marked, carrying the stamp of the foundry that cast it. They were, in some cases, produced without the actual permission of the original artist or after their death.

Some of the more mass market examples like this one were not actually bronze, they were cast “spelter.” Spelter is a zinc alloy that is given a bronze patina that deepens over time, and is very convincing without closer examination. One can test for spelter on any item that appears to be bronze by scratching the underside of the base with a nail. If the piece is spelter, a silvery gray line will be seen under the bronze color. 

Bronze and spelter are both very resistant to environmental damaging elements such as moisture, ultra violet light and heat. In the case of bronze, it develops its own protective patina which gives it a dark brownish coloration. Spelter turns a dusty grey in color. No attempt should be made to polish bronze or bronze plated spelter pieces, because this finish is meant to be part of the piece’s original design. With spelter, the bronze finish tends to degrade over time wearing through on wear points from polish. In the majority of cases, spelter that is worn like this is not repairable, the cost of re-plating exceeding the value of a similar example in very good original condition. Pieces can be restored as decorator pieces with the use of metallic bronze paints sold in automotive supply centers and hobby shops, but their value will not be equal to one in good original condition.

This antique Victorian Art Nouveau bust sold for $125 in July 2018.

Most pieces like this one with worn finishes tend to sell for far less than one in very good condition; most busts of this size tend to sell for under $200.00. We have a number of comparable busts in our Worthopedia to give you an idea of value. The one in the photo above sold for $125; the signed bust in the photo below sold for $375.

This signed French Art Nouveau bust circa 1900 sold for $375 in June 2018.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website

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