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What I’ve learned: Isabelle d’Amécourt on European Sculpture and Works of Art

Marking International Women’s Day, the Paris-based specialist shares her discoveries about the role of women in European sculpture through the centuries, illuminating the careers of two in particular: Suzanne de Court and Marie-Anne Collot

I couldn't do my job without books. When I am in front of an object, I don’t always know where it is from or who made it. Mine is a very broad field, and very rich: European sculpture and works of art from the 10th to the mid-19th century, and in all sorts of materials — marble, ivory, coral, enamel. So I can’t just open one big catalogue raisonné and — voila — find everything I need. That means I spend a lot of time in libraries, in museums and archives. Without recourse to books, my speciality would be non-existent.

France is le grenier — the attic where sculptures lie hidden. I find so many exceptional works when we go out on valuations. Lots of historic collections of sculpture are based in France. That means there is more demand for European sculpture here than in some other countries. At the same time, there is work that can be bought for prices from two or three thousand euros up into the millions.

Discoveries come from knowledge. Sometimes you go to a house to look at a particular piece, but when you arrive you find that it is not so great. Then, sitting right next to it, there is an amazing work of art. A few years ago, I was at an English country house and I looked in a cupboard. There, among lots of little pieces, there was a bronze bird that I immediately recognised as a Giambologna. If I hadn’t been familiar with the kind of model that he used to do at a specific time in his life, I would have missed it.

The more you look around, the more likely it is you will encounter happy coincidences. My parents told me: wherever you go, visit the local art museum and explore the church. If your job is your life, as mine is, then looking around and reading around paves the way for great coincidences. At a valuation in France a few years ago, I saw a bronze figure of a walking warrior. I thought to myself: I saw the model for that in the Rijksmuseum two weeks ago. It was by Willem van Tetrode — and the client had no idea. We sold it at auction for $409,000.

So much about women sculptors of the past remains hidden. Women artists from the 10th century onwards suffer from a lack of visibility and a lack of study. It’s probable that there were quite a few women working, but we don't know who they were.

A pair of circular parcel-gilt polychrome enamel dishes depicting scenes from Genesis, Suzanne de Court, circa 1600. Diameter 24.7  cm (9¾  in) 	 (2). Sold for €133,000 on 23-25 February 2009  at Christie’s in Paris

A pair of circular parcel-gilt polychrome enamel dishes depicting scenes from Genesis, Suzanne de Court, circa 1600. Diameter: 24.7 cm (9¾ in) (2). Sold for €133,000 on 23-25 February 2009 at Christie’s in Paris

Suzanne de Court is probably the artist that we know most about in my field. Her work is in museums around the world. De Court was working around the late 16th to early 17th century. Like many women artists, she was the sister and daughter of a draughtsman and painter. They were all working together in a workshop in Limoges, France. Limoges enamels are not always signed, but de Court signed her works with either her full name or her initials. Perhaps that was her way of saying, ‘I'm the only woman in this workshop and I’d like for others to know that women also have talent.’ Her work is particularly recognisable because she uses lots of blues and greens in the mythological scenes she depicts in her enamels, and lots of gilded stars. In 2009 we sold two exceptional enamel plates by de Court, shown above, from the Collection of Yves Saint Laurent for more than €100,000 each.

A pair of white-painted plaster busts of William V of Holland and Wilhelmina of Prussia, workshop of Marie-Anne Collot (1748-1821), late 18th century. 31 and 32½  in (79.2 and 82.5  cm) high, overall 	 (2). Sold for £10,625 on 18-19 September 2013  at Christie’s in London

A pair of white-painted plaster busts of William V of Holland and Wilhelmina of Prussia, workshop of Marie-Anne Collot (1748-1821), late 18th century. 31 and 32½ in (79.2 and 82.5 cm) high, overall (2). Sold for £10,625 on 18-19 September 2013 at Christie’s in London

Some women artists began their careers as models. This was true of the French portrait sculptor Marie-Anne Collot (1748-1821). She started as a model in the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1704-78), who was one of the most famous sculptors in Paris at the time. Lemoyne trained Collot, and she began to make her own busts. Sometime before 1766 Collot also became the pupil of Etienne-Maurice Falconet, who worked at the Sèvres workshop. Falconet took her to St Petersburg, and she was soon making lively and characterful busts of the Empress Catherine and her social circle. In 1777 Collot married her master’s son, Pierre-Etienne Falconet, and returned to Paris with him. However, she later fled from her husband to The Hague to live with her father-in-law. This is where she carved the two marble busts of William V and his wife Wilhelmina of Prussia (above) which we sold in London in 2013, and which are now in the Mauritshuis in that city.

Behind every important male sculptor, there is a woman. If you think about a 17th or 18th-century sculptor’s atelier, for instance, I'm sure the opinions, ideas and advice of wives or daughters would have made their way into the work somehow. Thinking about how few women artists are recognised in my field makes me want to investigate more, and to try to open more people’s eyes to their work.