Bronze has been in use since the dawn of civilization. It
is one the oldest alloys known to man and came into use around
the 4th millennium B.C.
The first use of bronze came out of the Sumer region, which
is currently southern Iraq, and then, sequentially, from India
and China. then spreading from there. This period was known as
the Bronze Age.
The Bronze Age lasted until about 1300 BC when a new metal
was discovered. This was iron. Iron was more plentiful and easier
to produce and eventually overshadowed the use of bronze as a
utilitarian alloy. Bronze continues to be an important medium
to this day, used in various industrial applications, but its
true beauty can be experienced in the form of bronze sculpture.
Bronze was initially made by combining copper and tin, about
85% copper and 15% tin. Over time, other metals were added in
various combinations such as aluminum, nickel or manganese to
afford the end product various properties of strength or flexibility.
Non-metal additives such as arsenic or silicon were also used
to meet the same objectives.
The word patina refers to the finish applied
to a bronze sculpture. This is achieved by using chemical mixtures
that have a reaction to the bronze when applied. The art of patination
is a skill set of its own, where master craftsmen are usually
employed to create the desired effect.
sculpture in bronze is truly one of the classic art forms. It
happens to be one of my personal favourite mediums and something
that I am always on the hunt for. Considering the size and complexity
of the subject as it relates to the countless artists who have
used this medium, it might be useful to mention what to look
for when considering purchasing something that has caught your
The first thing to determine is if the sculpture is an original
or reproduction. This is really important if you intend to purchase
for investment purposes, or if there is a considerable price
tag associated with the item. It can also be a tricky business.
You should consult an expert when considering your purchase.
A trusted antique dealer, gallery or auction house would be the
best place, unless you have a high level of personal knowledge.
It can take many years of experience to determine fakes or reproductions
from the originals.
Okay, you have found yourself an original work of art; you
like the subject matter and are considering a purchase. The next
thing to consider is the quality of the casting. This is big
for me and should be for you. Start with the face, if there is
one, and look for crispness in the features. It should be life-like
with no bleeding of the features. Next are the hands; they are
notoriously difficult for many artists and are a good indication
of quality. Look for life-like fingers and nails that are well
defined. If the subject is an animal, this would apply to fur
or feathers etc. You want a crisp, quality casting.
So, at this point you are quite sure you have an original.
It is crisply cast and is starting to set off your internal barometer,
that little voice that says I think this is a really good
thing. Now you should check carefully to see if the patina
enhances the overall appearance of the bronze or if it is applied
too liberally, perhaps to mask imperfections. Is the colour appropriate
and complimentary to the subject matter? Maybe it is cold painted,
a technique that involved applying several layers of lead based
paint to the bronze. This was primarily used with the famed Austrian
bronzes. Lastly, is it signed? This is really important. Most
quality works will be signed by the artist and often times also
have a foundry mark. A well-recognized French or American foundry
is a good sign of quality leading to desirability of the piece.
Now you are armed with some good basic information about
what to look for when shopping for a bronze sculpture. This is
the fun part because the world is filled with great works. Rodin
is considered the progenitor of modern sculpture, but you would
likely have to nip down to Christies or Sothebys
in New York to pick one up. Prices can actually be quite reasonable,
in around a few thousand dollars and going up from there. Talk
about your crisp casting, this guy was the master. Perhaps the
rough and eroded style of Alberto Giacometti is more to your
taste. Swiss born and active in the 40s and 50s,
Giacometti is famous for his depictions of elongated subjects,
particularly people. Much sought after today, you would have
to plunk down a minimum of $80,000 and up. Nice if you can find
One of my favourite collecting areas is that of Austrian
bronzes. I like them for many reasons, not the least of which
is their affordability. You can most definitely end up with a
great quality-price ratio. Starting around the end of the 19th
century, over 50 manufacturers existed in and around Austria
producing high quality tabletop bronzes. They depicted life-like
subjects such as pets and farm animals, but also a line that
reflected the increasing interest in the Orient at the time.
Austrian bronzes were labour intensive to produce and required
a very high level of craftsmanship. The telltale sign of an Austrian
bronze is the cold painted technique used to decorate the work.
Done with lead paint, it took many layers to achieve the desired
effect. The quality of the painting had a lot to do with the
overall desirability of the finished product.
The best known of
all the Austrian bronze artists was Franz Xaver Bergmann (1861-1936).
He was really the driving force behind the Vienna bronze boom.
His pieces are marked with a B within a vase. Bergmann
is famous for his depictions of oriental scenes involving camels,
carpet sellers and oasis scenes surrounded by palm trees. His
works are so realistic they easily whisk you away to a forgotten
time. His work is in much demand, so prices for a good piece
can be modest at under $1,000 rising easily to $6,000. Carl Kauba
is another lesser-known artist from the region who focused on
indigenous people and cowboys.
Generally speaking, the vast majority of Austrian bronzes
will be small animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, farm animals
and birds. They are very attainable, with prices ranging from
$100-$500 depending on the size, subject and condition. With
so many factories producing at the turn of the century, supply
is fairly prolific so collecting quality pieces is very attainable
and fun, without breaking the bank. Keep your eyes peeled at
antique shows, markets and auctions. With your newfound knowledge
you may end up scoring big.
I have always maintained that buying the best you can afford
is the right approach to buying antiques. Buying bronzes is no
exception. They are another faucet of the decorative arts world
that will add yet another layer of culture and enrichment to
your life. Whether it is work from the classics or the fun and
whimsical Austrian bronzes, start small with what you can afford
and learn from your purchases. You will be happy you did. Until
next time, happy hunting.
1 - Austrian Hummingbird vide-poche with marble base, $150-$250
2 - Bergmann bronze figure of a running desert warrior, $2,000-3,000
3 - Austrian covered box with Setter, estimate $800-$1,200
Robin A. Pridham has 30 years experience buying and selling
antiques and art. He is a graduate of Reppert's Auction Business
School (Indiana, USA), a member of the National Auctioneers Association
and the Auctioneers Association of Ontario. www.pridhams.ca