Posthumous Bronzes in Law and Art History

The focus of the Colloquium was to explore the legal, aesthetic and curatorial issues arising in relation to reproductions and the creation of replicas of posthumous bronzes. Renowned museum directors, art historians, and legal experts from Europe and the United States participated in the colloquium. In the 19th century, the middle classes filled their homes with bronze sculptures – miniature reproductions of the famous works that delighted the elite of Paris. Using an industrial process and sold through catalogues produced by numerous art foundries, these editions provided a good income for artists.

The most common reproduction technique was sand casting, a complex method that involved producing a mold in case-hardened sand and then pouring the molten bronze into the created void. The extreme resistance of the materials used in this casting method allowed this operation to be repeated indefinitely, while the high quality of the reproductions guaranteed its success. Clients could then choose different elements (patina, base, etc.) according to their personal taste before the purchase. The first contract between a foundry and a sculptor was drawn up between Susse and Cumberworth in 1837. In 1843 the rival company Barbedienne signed a contract with the sculptor Rude. Until then, the “certificate” appeared to consist of a simple transfer of the artist’s rights to the foundry. From 1839, standard contracts were put forward by the Réunion des Fabricants de Bronze in order to provide a better framework for collaborations between artists and founders. The most widely used contract was for a concession of limited duration, whereby the sculptor, in return for monetary payout, agreed that the foundry would acquire the right to make and sell cast copies for a given period, usually between three and five years. Faced with changes in taste at the end of the 19th century – a preference for more simple decorative elements inspired by Japonisme and the rejection of the bourgeois aestheticism, the practice of producing editions was transformed at the beginning of the 20th century. In a desire to get closer to the “artist’s hand,” founders limited the number of units in each edition. Camille Claudel was one of the first sculptors to see her works produced in a limited edition.

Regarded as an extension of the original work, the limited edition broke with the mass reproduction typical of the 19th century. Wishing to move away from industrial practices, some founders returned to the lost wax method. Along with the modernization in the production of editions that continued throughout the 19th century, came a rapprochement between founders and artists. Editions enabled the works of contemporary artists to be disseminated. All these changes led to the replacement of sand casting with the lost wax process. It is not unusual that a sculptor, in his last will and testament, might leave his plasters to his heirs so they may benefit from the income derived after casting his work at a later date. However, in cases where an artist dies without leaving a will, posthumous casting of existing plasters, wax originals and cast sculptures becomes a matter of judgment to be made by his heirs or executors. When this occurs the door is left open to interpretations and misunderstandings, a problem that frequently occurs. Laws relating to property rights provide the owners of original posthumous plasters permission to cast new bronzes often contrary with the artist’s wishes.

Laws protecting property rights have made it possible for owners of plasters and original bronzes to cast new sculptures, thus causing damage both to artists and the art market. Our issue is to find ways to respect the rights of the artists and their heirs while preventing those with well-intentioned motives who contravene those rights, and also to maintain public confidence in the legitimate reproduction of a sculptor’s works.