Antiques: Be cautious when buying bronze pieces and be gentle when caring for them

Demetre Chiparus (1886-1947), Exotic Dancer c.1925. Christies.

Kya deLongchamps warns us to be cautious when buying bronze and gentle when caring for it

BRONZE is a fascinating but scary material to many newcomers to antiques. An alloy primarily of copper and tin, valuable originals are highly reproduced. Like glass, it’s a material that can also be very hard to date. Antoine-Louis Barye French 19th-century animal studies (animaliers), and Demetre Chiparus flappers in Art Deco style, snarl and undulate all over Ebay. They are invariably described as “found in my auntie’s attic — I don’t know what it is, could be French”.

These brand-new, cast sculptures made in base metals and even bronze (produced largely in China), can be exquisitely detailed with meticulous hand-chasing to the features. Trust me, these barrow-boy sellers know exactly what they are hawking. The smarter rogues never give a maker’s name or point to a signature. They let your hope and inexperience do the work.

The tightest, most unequivocal description of an authentic bronze is given by the UK Association of Art & Antiques Dealers as “those sculptures made from the original moulds or maquettes and cast by the licensed foundries in the lifetime and with the agreement of the artist or posthumously authorised by the artist’s heirs”. A maquette is a visualising sketch — a drawing or even a 3D model.

So, if a bronze you are considering is described as simply ‘in the style of’ or is stated to be a reproduction by a firm with no ties to the original foundry used in the lifetime of the artist, or not a foundry authorised more recently by the heirs of the artist — the piece is not an authentic piece of the given artist’s work — full stop. Everything else, Ebay phonies included, is just decorator dross and some works intended to deceive, are outright illegal.

There can be instances where the authenticity or attribution of a piece is not entirely clear. It might be a period bronze, but you just don’t know if it’s by a particular sculptor or of a particular era. Is that ormolu finish Louis Quinze or a pretender? Is the onyx or marble base original to the piece?

If you own something interesting, take the bronze to a reputable dealer who will assign the work (in writing) only if they are ready to stake their professional connoisseur’s reputation on it. Bronze is dated and identified largely by a certain depth and quality in the colour. It’s a fine blend of skill and instinct that takes a lot of experience to get right. Recasts of an original piece will be very slightly smaller for example, just by a few millimetres in many cases.

The varied colour of bronze is described as patination. Original patination is not only key to the value of the piece but is used by experts to determine the age and authenticity of an item. With really old bronze, there will be a difference in the colour depending on how old the item is, the composition of the bronze (alloy) and any applied chemical or painted finish or gilding. Left in the weather, bronze can product verdigris (copper acetate) — that familiar grey green finish. Verdigris can also be simulated during the finishing of a bronze artwork with the application of surface agents, including acetic acid.

The temperature, light and humidity a bronze piece is in, chemically and physically changes the surfacing. As they are lightly worn by cleaning and other handling, the patination softly breaks down in places. Some bronzes, devotional pieces from the Far East, can have been handled for religious reasons. The places they are repeatedly touched during say ceremonies or daily prayer will wear through to the copper alloy, showing as pink beneath any patination and gilding. This honest wear is an important part of the piece’s history, its human story.

If you’re not sure if your antique is spelter or bronze, don’t go at even a cold-painted example with slashes of a Brillo pad — take it to an expert for examination as you could cheerfully ruin not only its look but its value. The other enemy of bronze is ‘bronze disease’, a malignant corrosive process of cupreous (copper-based) things caused by the surface being soaked in water, producing hydrochloric acid. If you find something potentially valuable with the dreaded green fur of bronze disease, take it to a specialist for drying out and cleaning. Don’t try to do it yourself.

If you have a more modern bronze that’s just a little dirty, try a gentle dry-dust with a lint-free soft cloth. A sable artist’s brush is useful for crannies and fine detail. At the very most, a quick lick with a very dilute solution of dish soap without surfactants and an immediate feather light but complete dry is all that’s needed to keep bronze clean. Don’t apply any wax product without advice and never immerse metal or alloy objects in water.

Visit museums wherever you go to train your eye. When you have the chance, at say a reputable antiques fair, take a really close look at the surface of an authenticated bronze. Examine the feel, weight, the quality of the casting, any chasing, inlay or decorative techniques appropriate to that piece. Ask questions. Examine signatures and marks. Some Buddhist bronze figures have chambers inside them (most are broken at this point) which once contained consecrated sacred offerings to the gods. These rare reliquaries are a wonderful find in a period piece.

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