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Antenna: Time to award yourself bronze

In her regular column, Meredith Etherington-Smith looks at some of the bronze highlights from the autumn season, all displaying a numinous quality and dating from 3,000 BC right up to almost the present day

‘How old is it?’ asked Professor Mary Beard as an introduction to the bronze stand she curated for Hauser & Wirth at Frieze Masterpiece. ‘It’s impossible to say. It could be 1,000 BC could be AD 1,900. But that’s one of the things about bronze, it is very hard to date.’

The Bronze Age dates right back to the start of our story, with humans learning how to cast this glowing metal and use it to trade and fashion art. The groundbreaking Royal Academy exhibition of 2012 showed 150 timeless bronze sculptures spanning human history and opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities and subtleties of this metal.

From the very earliest times up to the 20th century — sculpture from Brancusi and later Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, and furniture from Diego Giacometti and the Lalannes — bronze has offered sculptors a wonderful medium, one that can be gilded, patinated, polychromed or simply polished to a soft glow. Brancusi, for instance, insisted on patinating his bronze heads himself and spent upward of six months finishing a sculpture until he was satisfied.

There is a sense of ancient ritual about bronzes — even those from the 20th century — and looking through what’s on offer at Christie’s this season, I have discovered a numinous quality in objects in a wide variety of categories, dating from 3,000 BC right up to almost the present day.

A bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, you, Late Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 13  in (33  cm) high. Estimate £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

A bronze ritual wine vessel and cover, you, Late Shang dynasty (1600-1100 BC). 13 in (33 cm) high. Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This lot is offered in Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 7 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

From early China, there’s the bronze ritual wine vessel from the Late Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), which is offered in London on 7 November from the Michael Michaels Collection of Early Chinese Art. The 13in you  is cast each side with a large taotie mask and the shoulder and foot are decorated with bands of stylised kui  dragons, with a central animal mask to the lower shoulder.

Boite Akan, kuduo
Akan lidded vessel, kuduo, Ghana. Height 27  cm (13⅔  in). Estimate €5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Collection Vérité on 21 November 2017  at Christie’s in Paris

Boite Akan, kuduo Akan lidded vessel, kuduo, Ghana. Height: 27 cm (13⅔ in). Estimate: €5,000-8,000. This lot is offered in Collection Vérité on 21 November 2017 at Christie’s in Paris

It is difficult to date African art — it could come from any age. This Akan lidded vessel from Ghana is made from a bronze alloy using the cire perdu  method, in which the object is first carved in beeswax with sharp details. This is then used as a mould on to which the molten metal is poured.

Forming the handle of the cover is a lively and beautifully modelled fight between a leopard and an antelope. These kuduos  were used in purification ceremonies and placed in the tombs of their owners. This piece will be offered in the sale of African and Oceanic Art in Paris on 21 November.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (french, 1827-1905), Vénus Africaine, cast circa 1855-1900. 16  in (40.5  cm) high. Estimate £20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in The Collector Silver,19th Century Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art on 16 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (french, 1827-1905), Vénus Africaine, cast circa 1855-1900. 16 in (40.5 cm) high. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. This lot is offered in The Collector: Silver,19th Century Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art on 16 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (French, 1827-1905), Mauresque dAlger chantant (A singing Algerian Moor), cast circa 1870-1900. The base 8½  in (22  cm) high; 7  in (18  cm) square. Estimate £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in The Collector Silver,19th Century Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art on 16 November 2017  at Christie’s in London

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (French, 1827-1905), Mauresque d'Alger chantant (A singing Algerian Moor), cast circa 1870-1900. The base: 8½ in (22 cm) high; 7 in (18 cm) square. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in The Collector: Silver,19th Century Furniture, Sculpture & Works of Art on 16 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

Moving forward in history we come to the work of Charles Cordier, the most celebrated ethnographic sculptor of the 19th century — indeed he invented the genre. Two beautifully modelled bronze and polychromatic busts of exotic women — one Sudanese and the other Moroccan — were a major factor in the development of the lush Orientalist movement in 19th-century France and beyond. Venus Africaine  and Mauresque d’Alger  were shown to great acclaim in Paris and then at the Great Exhibition in 1851 where Queen Victoria bought versions for Osborne House. These pieces are offered in The Collector, a new series of decorative arts sales in London.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Grande femme debout II, conceived in 1959-1960 and cast in 1961 . Height 107⅞  in (274  cm) . Sold for $27,481,000 on 6 May 2008  at Christie’s in New York

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), Grande femme debout II, conceived in 1959-1960 and cast in 1961 . Height: 107⅞ in (274 cm) . Sold for: $27,481,000 on 6 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York

Recently sold in the Paris Avant-Garde  sale for almost €25 million was Giacometti’s Grande femme II, a monumental standing figure in bronze and his tallest sculpture. ‘What struck me above all is its majesty,’ said Pierre-Martin Vivier, director of 20th Century at Christie’s Paris. ‘It was as though I was in front of a statue from Chartres or an African totem. With this piece we are in the order of the sacred,’ he said. ‘There’s something almost religious about it’.

To see all the bronze objects and artworks offered this season, browse the Recommended Lots section below. What you will find will underline that while bronze is buried deep in our cultural past its delights have been enjoyed over the span of our history, and are still being discovered by contemporary sculptors and designers. What they are making in this mysterious and subtle metal will, I am sure, come up at Christie’s in the future, and doubtless inspire new generations with wonder.