Check the basement! Check the attic! That turn-of-the-century bronze nude -- so long an object of family scorn -- may suddenly be worth a bundle.
"I've never tried to sell a work of sculpture in my life. I really didn't appreciate the stuff," said Ted Cooper, proprietor of Adams Davidson Gallery, who was atypically covered with sweat earlier this week as he struggled to place -- in the best possible light -- a half-scale standing bronze figure of Abraham Lincoln by Daniel Chester French, creator of the Lincoln Memorial.
"Now I'm totally turned on," beamed Cooper, who is now hoping he won't have to work so hard to sell out his ambitious new show, "Marble and Bronze: 100 Years of American Sculpture 1840-1940," one of the first of its scale and scope to be seen in a commercial gallery. Given the recent boomlet of interest in collecting American sculpture, his hopes seem well founded. His three openings this week drew collectors and curators from all over the country -- many of them recent converts.
Why the sudden turnaround of interest in this scorned stepsister to American painting -- this weighty, cumbersome, appallingly expensive-to-ship and sometimes breakable medium of sculpture? A glut on the market only a few years ago, when it was considered too sentimental, too shallow, too derivative and -- in general -- too old fashioned, American sculpture predating World War II now commands prices that range, as in this show, from $800 for a pair of bronze Art Deco ashtrays by one Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980) to $140,000 for the aforementioned figure of Lincoln.
This latest wrinkle in the American art market appears to have arrived, with some inevitability, on the coattails of the 19th-century American painting craze, which developed over the past decade. As one New York dealer explained, "You can still get absolutely first-rate sculpture for under $200,000, which is certainly no longer true in paintings. And there are a lot of American collectors out there."
But there is also the matter of taste, which seems to have been gradually broadened, informed and thereby slowly purged of prejudice since the Whitney Museum's Bicentennial show, "200 Years of American Sculpture." Other museums have since opened their own -- and hence the public's -- eyes. When the new American Wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sculpture emerged with new status, after years in darkest storage. It has done likewise in the recently completed reinstallation at the National Museum of American Art in Washington. The market began riding the trend in 1982, when Hirschl & Adler Galleries, leading New York dealers in American art, opened a sculpture department for the first time.
Hirschl & Adler has consigned a few works to the Adams Davidson show. And to fill in major holes (like the works of Paul Manship), both the Corcoran and the NMAA have generously loaned others. In return, this show cannot fail to spark new interest in the vast sculpture collections owned by those museums (albeit still mostly in storage), as well as in the array of public monuments by these artists that most Washingtonians tend to take for granted.
There is for sale in this show, for example, a bust of Hiram Powers' full-length neoclassical goddess "The Greek Slave" -- a centerpiece of the Corcoran's permanent collection. Said to be the most famous American sculpture of the 19th century, the Adams Davidson show underscores the point by revealing in its catalogue that no fewer than 70 such busts were turned out by Italian marble carvers in Powers' Florence studio to satisfy the appetities of hordes of tourists who came to see and buy. The busts cost roughly $1,000 (a high price) at the time. The asking price now: $22,000.
Washingtonians who want to know more about the working processes of Powers and "the White, Marmorean Flock" (Henry James' phrase) of American sculptors who followed him in Italy in search of classical models, flawless marble and talented carvers, need look no further than the National Museum of American Art. The museum purchased the entire contents of Powers' studio after his death and has on permanent display the original plasters from which his marbles were made -- with a good deal of help from Italian craftsmen.
And there is much more to savor at Adams Davidson, including the beatific marble portrait bust of a little girl with downcast eyes titled "La Petite Pensee" by Thomas Ball (1819-1911). Another member of the expatriate "flock," Ball kept two Italian stonecutters busy full time making copies of this understandably popular item, an identical copy of which is on display at NMAA. (Ball also created the "Emancipation Group," or "Freedmen's Memorial," in Washington.
Focusing on the figure (rather than popular genre scenes or animals), the show features several bronzes related to public monuments that sprang up in every town square in America after the Civil War. Revolutionary War spy and martyr Nathan Hale is poignantly depicted by Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937), with hands bound behind his back just before he gave his life for his country. The literary hero Robert Louis Stevenson is caught smoking in bed, despite his tubercular lungs, in a bronze relief by Augustus St. Gaudens (1847-1907) that is the pinnacle of this show -- just as St. Gaudens himself stands at the pinnacle of 19th-century American sculpture.
In the early 20th century, there was a return to direct carving and a sense of the artist's hand, and some luscious marbles and castings of lovers make the point, from the mythological match between "Leda and the Swan" by Gleb W. Derujinsky to the very real "Embrace" by William Zorach. All can be seen and admired through Nov. 16 at 3233 P St. NW. Hours at Adams Davidson are 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays, and noon to 6 Saturdays.