Bronze and ivory: Figures from the Ballet Russes dance to top prices

Eager Russian collectors paid top prices at Sotheby’s April 16 sale of bronze and ivory sculptures in New York this month. These figures from the 1920s and ’30s are once again in vogue among a younger generation of collectors.

Prices paid for the leggy, cavorting figures have more than doubled in recent years. Highly sought after by collectors is the figure of Hindu deity Shiva (Civa). Sale estimates for the figure by Demetre Chiparus, circa 1928, were put at $300,000-$400,000. While she failed to sell this time round, the price she has attracted over the past 25 years has steadily risen when she sold for a tenth of today’s estimate.

goddess shiva, goddess chivaThe Hindu goddess Shiva as portrayed by Demetre Chiparus, circa 1928

Though formless and timeless in conception for some Hindus, Shiva was a favorite subject for early modern dancers, who portrayed the god in decidedly feminine guise.

Western approximations of Eastern dances were more often inspired by still images than by performance, though Vaslave Nijinsky, the star of the Ballets Russes, added a Siamese dance to his repertory after court dancers from Siam visited St. Petersburg.

As with the present lot, some figures were often electrified to conceal light bulbs in the base, which provided a soft glow to the shaped appliqués. Another lot, Chiparus’ iconic and celebrated work Danseurs Russes, circa 1928, has historically been thought to depict Vaslav Nijinsky and Ida Rubinstein dancing their roles in the Ballets Russes production of Schéhérazade, which made its Paris debut in 1910.

Also at the New York sale, a figure that is full of vitality, called The Archer, circa 1930, depicting the mythical goddess Diana by Johann Philipp Ferdinand Preiss, sold for $121,000. It is described a being “strong, self-possessed and fearless – the essence of the modern woman.”

Specialist dealer Ian Shank, who runs a dealership specializing in these sculptures, called Endymion, confirmed the interest among wealthy Russian collectors. He said: “The present driver for the market is the growing Russian interest in these figures, many of which are based on the Ballets Russes. There is also an increasing interest in Art Deco things generally.”

In November 1922 the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt inspired designers and architects in many fashion categories – ladies jewelry, cloth and buildings to look again at ancient Egypt. Together with a fascination in speed through fast cars and aeroplanes, everything took on a vitality that had not existed before the First World War.

les danceurs russesLes Danseurs Russes by Demetre Chiparus. Works by the artist remain highly collectible.

The figures reflect the different obsessions and influences among artists during the years following that war. Artists like Preiss and Robert Kionsek in Berlin wanted to make semi-nude, contemporary figures in part bronze, part ivory, with a high degree of realism. Seventy to eighty years on, they still dance and skip on their marble plinths for our delight, as if frozen in time. It is as if they are dancing the Glazunov’s ballet music for The Seasons.

New designs for the chryselephantine (overlaid with gold and ivory) figures included sporting activities, bathing beauties, children, all in a variety of poses, figures both male and female as well as mythological ones. Manufacture was painstaking. The figures had to be sectioned for bronze casting and the metal was hot cast, using the lost wax method. Then the ivory was applied by hand most carefully, so that there was no indication of a join.

The figures of Chiparus, Preiss and Kionsek, are all respectable, but the decadent influence that pervaded pre-World War II Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, creeps into the work of later artists. But they all remain delightful and highly collectible. The war interrupted the export of further figures to the U.S., but those that remain are highly sought after. Nearly all the figures were made as multiples or limited editions, so that it is still possible to search for a sculpture that suits your taste. But care should be exercised when buying.

“Some were melted for munitions in World War II,” added Shank. “Handling over 80 or so years may have worn their patina or cold painting. They may have developed hairline cracks or have been chipped or broken. Few, if any, perfect examples still exist, and those that are near perfect command a considerable premium.”

For some sculptors, like Max Le Verrier, the original moulds still exist and these are used today to cast reproduction spelter figures by the original foundry. “The numbers of figures cast from a mould is limited by the loss of detail in the mould,” adds Shank. “Many poor reproductions abound, but these are either recasts from original figures (with consequently poor detail and other indicators), or copies made from scratch.

dianna, goddess of the huntThe Archer, circa 1930, depicting the mythical goddess Diana, by Johann Philipp Ferdinand.

“Signatures mean very little in this context, since most reproductions and fakes are signed – quite often with the wrong sculptor’s name. Many of the bases on the originals were made from marble or onyx, from seams that ran out many years ago, so the reproductions have to make do with the nearest available substitutes that can currently be obtained. This makes the possibility of Chinese copies less likely.”

What is more difficult for the forger is the question of the ivory parts. The use of ivory in the manufacture of figures is illegal in view of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  This has not stopped imitators using white plastic instead of ivory. It looks cheap and should be easy to spot.

Ivory is a sensitive material, and prone to airborne contamination. Strong sunlight will discolor it, and too much heat in a room can cause drying out and fine lines to appear. A little almond oil will help to restore the natural oils. The worst thing you can do is to apply an industrial cleaner.

The surviving sculptures that do come onto the market have escaped the upheavals of European war. They were never mass produced or inexpensive to buy, even when they were first made, so that those that remain unbroken or have evaded government bans of the export of ivory in any form, are highly sought after by investors and collectors alike.