As antique enthusiasts and experts, we are keen to promote growth in this wondrous sector. We are delighted that both our clients and the public frequently come to us asking for help in judging the authenticity of antique bronze sculptures they have found elsewhere. We are more than happy to share our expertise and tips, helping them to determine the authenticity of bronze sculptures for themselves in the future.
Of course, judging the authenticity of an antique bronze sculpture is not always simple. There are hundreds of nuances to pick up on, which can only truly be learnt through many years of handling antiques. I must admit, after 40 years in the business, the most reliable method I find when considering Antique Bronze Sculpture is my initial reaction when first seeing a bronze. It is in the first few seconds when a sculpture ‘speaks’ to you that it will say ‘real’ or ‘fake’.
This article is intended as a short guide to some important factors to consider when examining and authenticating Antique Bronze Sculpture. Do have a read and if you would like to know more feel free to send any questions to David@Hickmet.com or ask us on our Facebook or Twitter pages.
How to identify authentic Antique Bronze Sculpture
Let’s start with some handy definitions…
Bronze is an alloy made by melting two different metals and mixing them. The two metals are generally copper (90%) and tin (10%).
Copper, by itself, is too soft, and Tin on its own is too brittle; it breaks too easily. But if you mix a little tin into the copper, it becomes bronze, which is much harder and at the same time less brittle. It is more useful for tools and also better for making statues.
In some cases other ingredients are added to produce different properties in the material such as lead, zinc, aluminum, manganese, and silicon.
All of these ingredients produce an alloy much harder than copper alone.
A Bronze Sculpture
Although it is possible to produce a single and unique object in Bronze, Bronze Sculptures are generally produced as limited editions of identical figures. This is very important for artists so that they may produce multiple examples from their original work or ‘maquette’. This allows the work to be sold commercially and economically for both the artist and the retail outlet.
A Fake Bronze
Fake Bronzes are Bronze Sculptures produced by foundries who illegally take an original, authentic sculpture and have it remoulded and recast.
An Authentic Antique Bronze
Authentic Bronzes are considered to be those sculptures made in the lifetime and with the agreement of the artist or the artist’s heirs and are sculptures made from the original moulds or maquettes and cast by the licensed foundries
The Legal Side
For a rather more complicated way of looking at things you could always have a read of the College Art Association’s Statement on Standards for Sculptural Reproduction & Preventive Measures to Combat Unethical Casting in Bronze.
As fans of antiques, we are sure you are aware that creating high-quality antique Sculpture was a fine art. It involved many years of practice and a great deal of talent and skill to bestow such beauty on the pieces. Below we explain some of the materials used and processes involved in creating bronze sculpture. We also demonstrate the key areas that inauthentic bronze sculptures will likely deviate from authentic antique sculptures.
The Art of Chasing
Once a Bronze Sculpture has been cast it is allowed to cool and the rod/sprue marks are chased and re-detailed by hand. Any scars left by the rods are carefully blended to match the rest of the surface.
The skilled chaser will painstakingly add the detail to the sculpture’s surface as intended by the artist. This process is quite individual to each sculptor, similar to the brush strokes that may be recognised in a painter’s work. The overall quality of the surface detail helps determine both age and authenticity.
Using Chasing to Spot a Fake
Chasing the surface of bronze to achieve fine detail is a difficult, time-consuming and costly process. There are fewer and fewer specialists who can achieve quality hand chasing on the surface of bronze and much of this work is now done by automated/mechanical machines.
Modern recast bronzes cannot invest the time and expense of having this process properly carried out and the surface generally is either too smooth or has mechanical lines made by electric drills that cannot represent the beauty and care taken when using a handheld chisel and punch.
The Importance of Patination
Once the Bronze Sculpture has been chased, a patina is applied to the surface of the bronze to change its colour. This is done as both a protection to the surface of the raw bronze, which would otherwise oxidise over time, as well as for aesthetic beauty, to enhance the overall effect.
There are two different types of patina. Chemical patinas effect the surface of the bronze causing the patina to change colour by either oxidation or acidity, giving the surface a wonderful ‘warm’ feel that accentuates the realism of the subject. The other patination process is painted patina using artists pigments. Painted patinas can be more intense in colour and as they sit on the surface of the bronze they are easier to wear away.
Chemical patinas look different to painted patinas because you are not just covering or hiding the surface, but rather altering the surface itself. Just as with Antique Furniture, these patinas will wear down beautifully over the years in quite unique ways and become part of the history of a Bronze Sculpture.
It is very difficult to fake this aged patina and so this is one of the important factors to consider when judging the authenticity of an Antique Bronze Sculpture.
Depth of Colour as a Guide to Authenticity
The finish or patina on the surface of an Antique Bronze sculpture is part of its history and character. The mix of alloy used in antique bronze captures an underlying and beautiful pink colour, which illustrates the large amounts of copper used.
This is very different to the cheaper bronze alloys used today that have an abundance of silicone in the mixture. The chemical patination that is applied to modern recasts results in a thinner, more ‘watered down’ colour on the surface with a silvery/grey undertone.
The cold painted colours that are used today are also quite different in tone and texture to those found on antiques, as they have not had time to age down and suffer the natural wear that comes with handling, atmosphere and time.
The Colour of the Base
Many sculptures, especially Art Deco bronzes of the 20th Century, were placed on marble or onyx bases. These served to protect the furniture from the coarse metal edges of the bronze and also gave the figures more height and importance.
Importantly, the quarries that were mined for marble and onyx during the early 20th Century mostly closed down and were abandoned before and during the Second World War. The colours of these wonderful marble and onyx bases are very prominent in their depth and quality, which can help to reassure the purchaser, confirming the true age of a sculpture from this time period.
Beware Modern Marble
One of the most important factors to consider with Art Deco Sculptures is the colour of the bases. Modern quarries do not produce the true deep colours that were so sought after in the early 20th Century and this will be evident when modern bases are used. It is also worth noting that an authentic Antique Bronze Sculpture that has a replacement modern base that has been spuriously signed is no longer considered to be authentic.
Check The Dimensions
One of the characteristics of bronze is that it expands when heated and contracts when cooled. Contraction when cooling results in shrinkage in size by between 2% and 3%, which allows a comparison between an original cast and a re-cast. If one can obtain the exact information of the height of an original bronze and compare it with another example it will become evident whether there is cause for concern.
There are a couple of websites that can give you good references for sculptors and individual sculpture details, which are basically the results from the auction houses over the last twenty years. Unfortunately, they are subscription services, but if you are keen we would recommend Art Price and Art Net.
You may also search a trusted dealer’s website, such as ours, for pieces both in stock and sold, to see if the numbers match up.
There are also some books with correct proportions for bronzes that we would be happy to recommend, including:
Jane Horswell’s “Les Animaliers”
Christopher Payne’s ‘Animals in Bronze: Reference and Price Guide‘
Pierre Kjellberg’s ‘Bronzes of the 19th Century: Dictionary of Sculptors‘
Harold Berman’s ‘Bronzes Sculptors and Founders 1800-1930‘