Patricia Wengraf in conversation

What first attracted you to the sculpture world?

I was always more taken by three-dimensional works than flat art. At the age of twenty-one, I took over a toy company producing plastic kits that were injection or blow-moulded, from which I learned about the process of model making and moulds. When I sold my company in 1976 to Airfix, I was offered a couple of lines, but I already knew that I preferred working for myself. So I took time out to have another child, and to think what I wanted to do in life.

When viewing the exhibition of Giambologna bronzes at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1978, I perceived that although most of the bronzes were labelled as either by Giambologna, or by Antonio Susini, I could see that there were clearly more hands and styles involved, which could not all have emanated from those two sources.

So I decided to learn about sculpture, and turn my hobby of buying sculptures into my business. As my then husband, was a leading dealer in Old Master paintings, I thought my specializing in sculpture would complement the business.

How tricky was it as a woman to be operating in what was essentially a male dominated world at that time?

As the art world is much less male dominated than the toy Industry, in which I had managed to make my way, I never perceived being a woman in business as a disadvantage.

Could we talk a little about the way in which you built up your expertise and connoisseurship?

Primarily, I understood from seeing the 1978 Giambologna show a number of times, and from reading through much of the then standard literature, that opinions and attributions were frequently passed down without much further thought. Occasionally opinions were quite diverse, and seldom were they based on solid facts. Consequently I decided that I would not take any attribution at face value – and would form my own opinion, based on my knowledge of model making and facture, and on comparison with documented works by the artist. To do so, I visited all of the major European and American collections, I closely followed the auctions, and I visited many dealers.

Did you ever find it a disadvantage not having had an academic training in art history?

Not really. Being self-taught, I have not been bound by academic convention though it has become less restrictive than when I started.

Why you have particularly gravitated towards bronzes, and used your expertise in this field to help your clients form their collections?

It helped considerably that I understood about the process of model making and of the production of moulds, but perhaps more importantly I was aware that a model had to be made to function correctly.

I learned my first lesson in respect of the market in December 1979 when I bought my first two sculptures as a dealer. The first, a terracotta figure of St Michael by the ‘so-called’ Master of the David and St. John Statuettes, took a long time to sell. It’s a very fine sculpture which has now been gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whereas, I sold the little bronze statuette of David that I had bought the following day to the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum within three months.

It was Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who when I first met him in 1980 encouraged me to work with bronzes and immediately introduced me to Mrs Jayne Wrightsman. Over the next couple of years or so, I found four very fine bronzes for her, which she bought on Sir John’s advice.

A couple of years later Sir John introduced me to Claudia Quentin, who like me loves bronzes and sculpture. When we first met in 1982 Claudia bought the pair of Mars and Venus by Roger Schabol from me. It was only in 1992 that we started to form the collection. By 2000 we had already collected a good body of works including the finest cast known of Giambologna’s Mars, so I suggested to Claudia that she might like to have the collection exhibited and a catalogue compiled. Her positive reaction led me to open discussions with Sam Sachs, then Director of The Frick Collection. The exhibition of European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection opened 28 September 2004 to great critical acclaim. It was the first exhibition of a private collection to be exhibited in a major New York museum.

When I first met Tom Hill in 1998, he wanted to buy a bronze of Hercules and Antaeus which I had already sold. After establishing that it was really sold (to the Quentin Foundation), and was not for re-sale at a higher price – we then got on well, Tom appreciated that I was rounding out the Quentin collection for the Frick show in 2004. I then managed to find Tom the greatest group of ten Giambologna statuettes found in any museum, and some ten years later, I found him another early cast of the group of Hercules and Antaeus which had first brought us together in 1998. In 2008 we bought de Vries’ Bacchic Man which is the greatest bronze in the collection, and since the exhibition, European and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection, which opened at the Frick Collection in January this year, we have added three more bronzes.

The display of the Hill collection of Old Master bronzes with modern works in the Frick show was most effective. The juxtaposition of the Ed Ruscha with the bronzes for example was particularly successful. Was this your idea?

Tom Hill normally has the Ed Ruscha in his dining room with a line-up of Giambologna models in front of it. He integrates his other Renaissance and Baroque bronzes with his gold ground paintings, his Rubens sketches, and his modern paintings and sculptures, and with his furniture which ranges from eighteenth century Roman, through the odd Japanese screen, to Lalanne – Tom makes it work brilliantly.

In the exhibition Tom and I wanted to demonstrate how one can mix modern paintings with old master bronzes. We worked together with Denise Allen on the installation and we finally managed to make this work by putting all of the figures of Christ in the little room next to the book shop, along with a couple of gold ground paintings, sketches by Rubens and the Fontana ceramic Corpus. From that point Denise then got the show together. She chose the Ruscha and two Twomblys from Tom’s collection for their monotone colours and her juxtapositioning of them with the de Vries Bacchic Man and the Piamontini equestrian statuette – was her idea. It was a very beautiful installation.

It would be particularly interesting to learn how the relationship with your collectors works.

All relationships are about trust. As they say, a ‘contract’ is a piece of paper between two people who do not trust each other. Personally, I prefer to work and interact with people, rather than with pieces of paper.

Unlike auction houses who take a commission from both the vendor and the purchaser, I believe it impossible that one can represent both sides of a deal fairly. Similarly, I am not into selling over-catalogued ‘dreams’.

I am always very clear, when buying on behalf of a client, I never take a commission from the vendor. I am paid by my client to look after their interests. If I own, or have a share in the work that I am selling I declare my interest – and I do not then take a commission from my client.

Most importantly I take care of my clients and of the works I advise them to buy on a long term basis. I not only help them form their collection, I also research the works and arrange for them to be exhibited in scholarly exhibitions, and have them published in articles or catalogues.

We should also talk briefly about your publications.

It was Anthony Radcliffe who first encouraged me to write a short article for The Burlington Magazine (published December 1988), about my discovery of a couple of bronzes that are similarly signed. One of which (a St. Martin and the Beggar, then in the Bagrit collection) had previously been identified and published by Yvonne Hackenbroch as by Adriaen de Vries – whereas from the other formerly unknown model of a Guardian Angel leading a Child away from the Devil, I reinterpreted the signature JB. V. H. Fᵗ. to read: ‘Jan Baptiste van Helderberghe Fecit’, due to a documented marble by the sculptor in the Church of St. Bavo, Ghent.

Between 1988 and 2004, I wrote many catalogue entries for works that I was offering for sale, as well a number of reviews of books on sculpture for The Art Book Review. In 1992 I wrote five catalogue entries on Francesco Fanelli, for the exhibition catalogue, Kunst in der Republik Genua 1528-1815, and in 1994 I provided catalogue entries for the eighteenth-century sculptures in The Glory of Venice exhibition at the Royal Academy.

My big break came in 2004, when I co-wrote with Manfred Leithe-Jasper, and edited European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection, the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition of the Quentin Foundation bronzes, at The Frick Collection.

In 2006, I followed up with an essay on the status of ‘signatures’ found on Giambologna’s marble and bronze statues, and catalogue entries in: GiambolognaTriumph des Körpers, which accompanied the exhibition of Giambologna models in Vienna that year. Since 2000 I have put together the Hill collection, and the catalogue of the bronzes exhibited at The Frick Collection 28 January – 15 June 2014.

What do you regard as your most important purchases and discoveries?

My first real discovery was probably my purchase in 1981 of a bronze group of Pan and Syrinx, which I identified with Foggini’s drawing for the model, and sold to a private client who still owns it. The only other dealer then represented in the room who knew it to be by Foggini was the Heim Gallery, but due to the very slow pace of the sale, their bidder had fallen asleep, so I bought it very cheaply.

In 1984, I heard that a quite extraordinary sale of paintings and sculptures was taking place just outside Angoulême and rapidly headed there with a catalogue. I was primarily interested in a life-size marble figure of Paris, which I had identified as being by the great northern baroque sculptor, Gabriel Grupello. I arrived just in time to view it on the morning of the sale, and noted the presence of four curators from the Louvre at which my heart sank, believing that they had recognised it and would pre-empt the sculpture. While they bid and bought, and pre-empted other works, they clearly had not recognised the Grupello which I purchased for a fraction of what I had been prepared to bid. Unfortunately, when it came to applying for the export licence, the Louvre woke up. This led to a five year court case, which I finally won, but in doing so I only gained the right to hold the sculpture in France. So it was only some years later when there was a brief window during the introduction of the new EU laws, that I was actually able to export it legally from France. I am delighted that the sculpture is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremburg.

Just back from summer holiday in late August 1989, I was flipping through the many auction catalogues when I immediately recognized that a half-length marble sculpture being offered by Christie’s, at Wrotham Park on 13 September, was by Giambologna. Mis-catalogued as Venus Marina, Italian eighteenth century, it was estimated at just £3000 -£4000. I grabbed an off-print of Charles Avery’s article of 1982 on Giambologna’s female marble figures, which had been published in The Burlington Magazine, and there was Borghini’s original text which accurately described the marble in Christie’s catalogue. I cannot go into the lengthy saga that ensued, but against everyone else, I bought the Fata Morgana for £750,000. In 1997 I agreed to loan the Fata Morgana to an exhibition in the Palazzo Pitti, as the City of Florence were trying to buy the sculpture. But when they were unable to get their act together, I sold it in the following year to a private collector.

In December 1990, Sotheby’s offered a very beautiful, but considerably over-painted, little polychrome terracotta bust, without attribution, but with a dating of circa 1700. I loved him at first sight, but being fairly strapped for cash, due to not having sold either the Grupello or the Fata Morgana, I had to sit on my hands while Ed Lubin (a New York dealer) bought it. But what goes-up, often comes back around. Ed had sold the little bust to Robert Noortman, the legendary Dutch paintings dealer, who had bought it for his private collection. When Robert sadly died in 2007, his private collection was sold, and this time around I was able to buy the bust, which I had in the meantime researched and identified as Germain Pilon’s portrait of the Young Henri III of France of 1555-56. As I had suspected most of the original polychrome was still present beneath the later over-paint, and when my restorer had finally finished bringing the bust back to life, I immediately sold him to the Bode Museum, Berlin.

In September 2007, at the Paris Biennale I noticed a quite exceptionally beautiful ivory statuette of St. Sebastian, described as German seventeenth century. Not then knowing who had made it, I saw the outstanding quality and decided to buy it. I was in no rush to sell it as I wished to really get to know this work which I love. In due course I found out that it was an early work by the Fury Master, made in Salzburg circa 1605/10. I was thrilled when it was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as I can always visit with St Sebastian, when I’m in New York.

Many of my other significant discoveries, particularly in bronze and terracotta, are found among the works now in the Quentin and Hill collections.

Since you clearly have an appreciation of works in ivory, might we touch on the ivory controversy. What are your thoughts?

Although I primarily specialise in bronzes, I do love ivory as a medium, and have always had some baroque ivories. This in no way infers that I endorse the poaching and killing of elephants now, far from it. But I do strongly disagree with the suggestion of burning ivory works of art made in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, since these works represent an important artistic and cultural heritage. Burning them now would be a great loss for future generations and will not reincarnate those elephants whose tusks were used.

Statistically the poaching of elephant tusks and rhino horn would seem to have greatly increased since the Chinese have had a presence in many African countries whose mineral and mining rights they have bought into. Personally I find this statistic abhorrent. I also find the present stance of the US administration, which has imposed a ban on the importation into New York of all objects, irrespective of age, that contain more than 20% African ivory, draconian. While this (thankfully) allows musicians to take their instruments into, and out of, the USA, it does not allow for the trade in Egyptian, Byzantine, Gothic, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque or nineteenth century works of art made in ivory or rhino horn between over three thousand and one hundred years ago. One of the reasons given for the ban was that there are only two people working in the US Fish and Wildlife office processing ivory imports, and neither have sufficient expertise.

Consequently, my perception is that, since there are no votes to be gained, it is very unlikely that there will be a major change in the US import and trading laws in respect of genuine antique works of art in ivory, and or other endangered horns and shells, made well over one hundred years ago.

What do you see as the current challenges facing collectors, museums and dealers with regards to sculpture?

The lack of supply has long been a moan of dealers. But it has become more acute since the 1960s as many new museums have hoovered-up a lot of sculptures, paintings and works of art. Similarly many more people have become collectors. While some of these recently formed collections might have to be sold within a relatively short time, others are gifted to museums, thereby removing them from the market. Most simply put – during the 35 years that I have been dealing, the number of Old Master sculptures offered by the main auction houses has dropped by at least 70%, whereas the number of nineteenth-century works offered for sale has similarly multiplied.

During the last twenty years the very rapid rise in the wealth of so many individuals has greatly affected the market. For obvious ‘trophy works’, museums simply cannot compete against an individual who can make an instant decision on the basis of an image, presented by their dealer, but for the most important or more intellectual works, museums still normally have the upper hand over collectors.

Where do you feel the market is now centred and what are your thoughts about its future?

The private sector sculpture market is centred at the very high-end around ‘trophy’ works, which are inclined to be bronzes. There is however a market for fine middle range works which are more modestly priced because they do not quite hit the trophy note. I see both of these markets continuing since there will always be a number of collectors out there who find that an animal floating in a tank of liquid, or a pile of wood logs, less convincing as a ‘work of art’, than a three dimensional figure of bronze, marble, terracotta or other medium.

There is also a market for marble statues and busts after antique models which are bought for decoration. This is an area that I have only occasionally dabbled in as I find so many of them rather boring. It’s a flourishing market that goes up and down like the stock market. But since the buyers often don’t seem to care if the marble is eighteenth, nineteenth or even a twentieth century reproduction after the antique model, I perceive this market simply as decoration.

Are there any contemporary sculptors who you feel have real merit and will have longevity?

I do not follow contemporary sculptors/installation artists at all – but I do like, and greatly admire some classic modern sculptors, and have dealt in works by some of them. Personally I do not rate Rodin as an innovative sculptor, though (for commercial reasons) I have handled some of his life-time works. For me the greatest sculptor of the early twentieth century is Julio González. It is he who turned figurative into abstraction – followed by Picasso, Miro, Arp,etc. through Hepworth, David Smith and Caro. Whereas Moore remained intrinsically figurative and although some of his later bronzes are poorly cast, his original plasters with their highly detailed surfaces are fabulous. Unfortunately the surface detailing is often lost when reproduced in bronze.

What do you feel will be your most important legacy to the Sculpture world?

During the last fifteen years or so I have spent more time, than previously, looking at collections and exhibitions together with a number of younger curators and experts, and have been more open with them, than I was before. By pointing out how the works were created, by indicating inconsistencies, and discussing other casts with them, I hope to have possibly contributed to the way in which they might now look differently at the way bronzes and sculptures were created, and so have a better understanding of them.

More publicly, the catalogues of the Quentin and Hill collections are my legacy and proof that it was still possible, starting in 1992 and 2000, to build two great private collections of bronzes that surpass in quality the holdings of most world class museums. But the story will not end here, as I expect to continue to make new discoveries and to help new collectors in years to come.

What advice can you offer to people embarking on forming a sculpture collection?

First decide on the period and medium that interests you, and then find out which dealers are most expert in this area. Select the dealer with whom you feel most comfortable, and work together with him or her.

And what advice would you give to young people thinking of a career in the sculpture world?

There is a problem in that there are extremely few courses on Sculpture being taught, and there are very few curatorial positions or jobs with dealers or auction houses available when qualified, either in the USA, the UK, or the EU.

Having always been a ‘hands-on’ object-related person; I find that the current trend of teaching theoretical and educational aspects of art history, rather misses the point of the art works themselves. But as many of those teaching sadly have little ‘hands-on’ knowledge of the works, it is perhaps not surprising that they elect to teach theory rather than object awareness.

It’s a very small world. For those who have done their homework, have the visual vocabulary, know the works and the literature, there are still some great discoveries to make and works to find – much more so than in paintings. The world of sculpture still has many very exciting challenges waiting to be revealed by students who have the resolve, and unblinkered vision to do so.

Main imageRoger Schabol, Elector Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria on Horseback (detail), signed and dated 1707, after a model by Desjardins, bronze with gilt bronze mount, h.53.3cm., collection of Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, New York (photo: courtesy of Patricia Wengraf Ltd.)

Aurora Corio