‘It is rare that something of this quality appears from out of nowhere,’ says Christie’s Old Masters specialist Milo Dickinson. ‘That it was found in a box of odds and ends in South Africa is a lesson to us all that there are still many great works hidden away, ready to be discovered.’
Dickinson is referring to a 5-inch-high bronze cast of a peasant resting on a staff, bought for just R260 (around £12 or $15) by a couple in South Africa. Described as a ‘brass ornament’ (see below), the sculpture was offered as part of a box lot, containing other miscellanea including an aeroplane-shaped shelf and a pair of Gouda vases.
In retirement the couple have attended local auctions ‘as a hobby and to keep busy’. Once home, the couple began to research the bronze cast online, but to no avail. After further investigation, they made startling headway. They contacted Gillian Scott-Berning, a Christie’s consultant in South Africa, who in turn reached out to Dickinson in London.
The specialist in Old Master paintings and sculpture instantly recognised it to be a lost work by Antonio Susini (1558-1624), a Florentine sculptor widely considered today to be the finest bronze caster of the Renaissance.
Susini came to prominence in the early 1580s as the principal assistant to Giambologna (1524-1608), one of Italy’s most important Mannerist sculptors. In Giambologna’s workshop, Susini specialised in preparing the moulds of his master’s models for casting, and finishing these statuettes when cast. Their collaboration continued even after Susini set up his own workshop in 1600.
Today bronzes by Susini can be found in The Met, The Getty and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and are highly sought after by collectors at auction.
In 2019, a late 16th-century bronze of the rape of a Sabine, attributed to Susini and cast from a model by Giambologna, fetched a staggering €4,493,200, setting a new world record for the artist at auction. Five years previously, in 2014, Christie’s sold a smaller bronze figure of Venus drying herself, attributed to Susini, and cast from a model by Giambologna, for £1,058,500.
‘Susini was famous for casting bronzes with very fine, sharp, angular edges with an added patina that reflects light in a brilliant way,’ says Dickinson.
‘He made bronzes to sit on a gentleman’s desk, such as that of Ferdinando de Medici, that could also be handled and admired. Our bronze has all the qualities that made Susini famous across Europe.’
Offered online until 30 July, Peasant Resting on His Staff is thought to have been cast from a silver statuette loaned to Susini from the Galleria of the Uffizi in 1601, presumably so that he could make copies in bronze.
Surviving archival documentation supports the theory that the model for the Uffizi statuette was probably made by Giambologna in the late 1570s, when he was asked to create the decorations for the gardens and grounds of Francesco de’ Medici’s villa at Pratolino.
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It is not known exactly how many bronze casts Susini made from the silver statuette, or exactly how the present work made its way to South Africa. What is clear, however, is that its discovery is nothing short of miraculous.
‘It was a time-consuming and exacting process finishing works to this standard,’ Dickinson says. ‘I would be surprised if Susini made more than five or ten examples of this cast, many of which will now have been lost.’
Peasant Resting on His Staff is offered online in the Old Masters Painting & Sculpture Sale, until 30 July.