A Controversy over Degas
A bronze sculpture of the Little Dancer made from the supposed “lifetime plaster” is on the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition “The Complete Sculptures of Edgar Degas” at the Herakleidon Museum, Athens.
Experts are concerned about the authenticity of 74 “recently discovered” plaster casts of Degas sculptures that were purportedly made during his lifetime and the bronzes that have been produced from them, which are now selling for more than $2 million.
by William D. Cohan
An updated version of this story appears in the April 2010 issue of ARTnews.
Once, when ruminating on the future, and presumably his own mortality, Edgar Degas was said to observe to his fellow painter Georges Rouault, “What I fear most is not dust but the hand of man.”
Degas’s prescience was uncanny. For now, some 93 years after his death in 1917, a controversy is swirling among Degas experts the world over about 74 “recently discovered” plaster casts of his sculptures that were purportedly made during his lifetime, and the bronzes that have been produced from them. The plasters were said to have been found among the inventory of the Valsuani foundry, outside Paris, by Leonardo Benatov, who bought the business in 1980.
At the center of the storm is a plaster cast of the Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer Aged 14), which is now ensconced on the fifth floor of Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York. Is the cast an extremely rare and precious work created during Degas’s lifetime, as its admirers claim, or was it made by a talented artisan many years after the artist’s death, as many scholars believe?
From this supposed “lifetime plaster,” as it is often called, the Valsuani foundry cast 46 bronze statues of the Little Dancer in 1997 and 1998. All these bronzes are believed to have been sold by the foundry and now fetch upward of $2 million each in the secondary market. The other 73 plasters are in the process of being cast in bronze at the Valsuani foundry by Benatov in conjunction with Walter F. Maibaum through his business, The Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. Examples of all 74 bronzes are now on display at the Herakleidon Museum in Athens.
To be sure, the “lifetime plaster” of the Little Dancer resembles the Little Dancer with which most people are familiar, but certain details—the face, the collarbones, the position of the legs, the hair—are different, according to a number of Degas experts who have decided that enough is enough. Those who remain unconvinced that a previously unknown plaster of the Little Dancer was made during Degas’s lifetime have started mobilizing in opposition. A meeting was held at an undisclosed location in New York on January 19 to discuss the matter and to decide what to do. The group is still debating whether to make a public statement denouncing the “recently discovered” plasters and the bronzes made from them, or to stay silent and let word seep slowly into the art market—as it inevitably would—that many experts doubt the objects’ authenticity, and the whole enterprise. “Let it collapse of its own weight,” as one participant explained.
According to several sources, among those present at the New York meeting were Gary Tinterow, chair of the department of 19th–century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Richard Kendall, consultative curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; Theodore Reff, professor emeritus of European painting and sculpture at Columbia University; Patricia Failing, professor of art history at the University of Washington and an ARTnews contributing editor; Shelley Sturman and Daphne Barbour, conservators and Degas specialists at the National Gallery of Art; and Arthur Beale, retired chair of the department of conservation and collections management at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and co–author (with Richard Kendall) of Degas and the Little Dancer.
For now, the curators and art historians who met in New York are remaining silent, fearful of the lawsuits that might result from any public challenge to the validity of the so–called lifetime plasters. “It’s a shame that a scholar is afraid to offer an opinion,” John Cahill, a partner at the New York law firm Lynn & Cahill, told ARTnews. “The law is generally on the side of people who give opinions in good faith, but the cost and aggravation of litigation is a deterrent in and of itself.” There is no question, though, that because of the increasing threat of litigation against them, art historians have opted to remain silent lately in a number of cases. Cahill recently spoke about the problems of authenticating artworks at a panel sponsored by the Appraisers Association of America and the College Art Association.
Reached by phone hours after the New York meeting, Kendall declined to comment. “I do not wish to speak on or off the record about these sculptures,” he said. “You will just have to conclude what you will from what I have to say.” Reff, who edited Degas’s letters, wrote in an e–mail, “I have absolutely nothing to say about any conversations about these sculptures that may have taken place.” Reached by phone, Failing declined to comment.
In an e–mail to ARTnews, Beale wrote, “Since my interest in the new Degas finds over the past several years has been to produce a documentary film on the subject, I have tried hard not to become ‘part of the story’ and therefore have nothing to say on the subject at this time.” Asked for further information, he wrote in a subsequent e–mail, “As I am sure you have encountered, other than those with an economic interest in the finds, it is very hard to find any of the hard core Degas sculpture scholars in this country or France who are willing to go on camera or speak publicly about the finds.”
One attendee, equally fearful of being identified, said that at the meeting “there was absolutely universal agreement that these things are not what they’re being advertised as.” There were people there who believed “this whole thing is just going to collapse of its own ridiculousness, especially when these things go on the secondary market and they come up for auction. The auction houses will laugh at these people” and not allow the sculptures to be auctioned, leaving them to be sold privately between dealers. “That seems like a very unfortunate way to go because, obviously, a lot of people are going to get hoodwinked and waste a lot of money in the meantime.”
An auction–house executive who did not want to be named confirmed that auctioneers are wary of the bronzes cast from the supposed lifetime plaster, as well as the bronzes cast from the other “recently discovered” plasters, and would stay away from them. “Everybody in the market says it’s a lot of BS,” this person told ARTnews. “It’s universally viewed in the professional market—and in an unofficial sampling of curators—that it’s a shlocky enterprise. People say they look tacky, shiny, like refined bronze castings, and don’t have the same kind of quality and definition of the originals.”
THE DISPUTE ERUPTED late last year, when the little–known Herakleidon Museum published a glossy catalogue in three languages to accompany a show of 74 bronzes cast from the “recently discovered” plasters, called “The Complete Sculptures of Edgar Degas.” After closing on April 25, the exhibition will travel to the National Art Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Salonika, Greece, according to Maibaum. Another set of the bronzes will be shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (March 25—April 26). The only U.S. venue scheduled so far is the New Orleans Museum of Art, where the bronzes will be seen in November of next year. Other U.S. venues are being sought.
In the catalogue, which features on its cover a bronze sculpture of the Little Dancer cast from the controversial plaster, the two protagonists behind the “discovery,” Maibaum, president of the New York–based Modernism Fine Arts Inc., and Gregory Hedberg, who has been director of European art at Hirschl & Adler since 1992, make their case for the authenticity of the “lifetime plasters.”
Maibaum and his wife, Carol Conn, are the curators of the Athens show. Maibaum’s two–volume book DEGAS, Sculptures Uncovered—History Revealed is scheduled for publication, according to the catalogue, in early 2010. Hedberg has been busy putting the finishing touches on his book, The Little Dancer, The Unknown First Version, and plans to give a speech about his “discovery” on March 6 at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
The Herakleidon Museum’s Web site is unequivocal about the show’s importance. “All the bronze sculptures in this exhibition were cast from recently discovered plasters made from Degas’ original waxes during his lifetime and with his consent,” it says. “This is remarkable since all the other bronzes one can currently see in museums and elsewhere were cast from masters made after the artist’s death. Therefore, the bronzes in this exhibition can be considered the original versions, and all the others the second versions of these sculptures. Thus, for the first time, it will be possible for experts, scholars and the general public to compare the artist’s bronzes in the before and after states, which is almost unparalleled in the history of art.”
Mordechai Omer, director of the Tel Aviv Museum, is more ambivalent, even though his museum is hosting the exhibition. “Sculptures by Degas are always in question,” he said in an interview with ARTnews. “The Maibaum story is a possible story. If I believe that, it is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the sculpture of Degas, knowing from the beginning that there are casts of casts.”
DEGAS WORKED IN wax and clay for almost 40 years, but he didn’t cast a single work in bronze. “To be survived by sculpture in bronze—what a responsibility!” he said. “Bronze is so very indestructible.”
After his death, his heirs enlisted the Hébrard foundry in Paris to cast 74 of the approximately 150 wax and clay sculptures, all in bad condition, that had been found in his home. After the end of World War I, Hébrard assigned its master founder, Albino Palazzolo, to make 22 bronzes of each sculpture: 20 for sale and one each for the Hébrard and Degas families (the number of bronzes made of the Little Dancer was not specified). After Palazzolo had completed 657 bronzes, the Hébrard foundry failed during the Great Depression and went out of business. Palazzolo is widely believed to have cast the balance of the 1,400 or so known bronzes to be made from the Degas models at another foundry—the Valsuani foundry—in the years immediately after World War II.
The only sculpture Degas ever allowed to be exhibited was the Little Dancer, which he placed in the sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. The sculpture was made of yellow wax and dressed in a cloth costume, including a gauze tutu and a ribbon in her hair. That wax sculpture is now in the National Gallery. It was a gift from Paul Mellon, who bought 69 of Degas’s original wax sculptures in 1955.
Contemporary critics savaged the Little Dancer. They “protested almost unanimously that she was ugly, but had to acknowledge the work’s astonishing realism as well as its revolutionary nature,” according to the National Gallery’s Web site. “In the context of the evolution of sculpture, the Little Dancer is a groundbreaking work of art. The liberating idea that any medium or technique necessary to convey the desired effect is fair game may be traced back to this sculpture.”
A bronze Little Dancer cast in 1922 from a plaster made from the wax figure in the National Gallery was sold a year ago at Sotheby’s London to a collector in Asia for $19.2 million. There are said to be only ten bronzes of the Little Dancer left in private hands. Others are in museum collections all over the world.
According to Hedberg, in 2005 Hirschl & Adler arranged for the sale of the disputed “lifetime plaster” of the Little Dancer to Lloyd Greif, an investment banker in Los Angeles, for approximately $400,000. Hedberg now estimates its value to be around $10 million, though there is a stipulation that it cannot be sold (it can be donated to a museum). Greif also owns a bronze cast of the Little Dancer made from his “lifetime plaster.” Asked about the controversy over the authenticity of his sculptures, Greif seemed genuinely caught off guard and, in a brief telephone conversation, said, “What controversy are you referring to?”
WHAT WALTER MAIBAUM in his catalogue essay for the Herakleidon Museum calls this “new and exciting chapter” in the history of Degas’s sculptures began in 2001, when his “colleague” Lawrence Saphire told him that “a new bronze edition of the Little Dancer was being cast in France.” Saphire, a private dealer and art publisher, is the author of works on Fernand Léger, André Masson, and Salvador Dalí. He told ARTnews, “I sifted through the evidence. It looks pretty strong. Absolute proof is the problem with anything.”
Maibaum was incredulous because the two known plasters of the Little Dancer—from which a bronze could be cast—were in the National Gallery (sold to Mellon in 1968 and donated by him in 1985) and in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha (donated by the New York gallery M. Knoedler & Company in the same year), and neither institution “would loan their plaster for that purpose,” Maibaum wrote in the Athens catalogue. But thinking that “perhaps a third plaster might exist that was unknown to current scholars,” he and his wife and Saphire flew to France to see if they could find the plaster of the Little Dancer, and “after many inquiries” were “led to an unknown plaster version” of it.
Maibaum recognized that there were differences between this Little Dancer and the two previously known plasters, but he believed that “only Degas himself could have created something so masterful.” It could not have been “a copy or a fake,” Maibaum said in his catalogue essay, “for had it been, the compositional forms on this plaster would have more closely conformed to those on the two posthumous plasters, and further, the figure’s structure and anatomy was perfect—not clumsy in any respect.” He set about researching what the plaster could be. “I went around Europe and the United States and looked at various Hébrard bronze casts of the Little Dancer in hopes of finding one of the bronzes which may have had some of the same elements,” he said in an interview, “but I could find no such bronze.”
Eventually Maibaum and Conn were introduced to Benatov, the owner of the newly discovered plaster of the Little Dancer and of the Valsuani foundry. Maibaum bought several Little Dancer bronzes from Benatov, though he won’t say how many. During a meeting in December 2004 at the foundry, which is now located in Chevreuse, an hour outside Paris, Benatov “abruptly rose from his chair” and led Maibaum and Conn to “a locked room at the far end of the foundry” and showed them the other plasters. According to Benatov, a now deceased foundry worker claimed to remember that Palazzolo had brought them to the foundry in 1955.
“It was a shocking sight,” Maibaum wrote. “To me it was the equivalent of opening King Tut’s tomb in Egypt or uncovering the terra cotta warriors in China. The moment I gazed upon these remarkable plasters I instantly knew that everything that had been written about Degas’ sculptures in the past had to be reconsidered.”
COINCIDENTALLY, IN 2003 Gregory Hedberg heard from his friend Alex Cornot, a young lawyer–turned–art–dealer in Paris, of a bronze cast of the Little Dancer that was for sale at the home of a wealthy Parisian. An art historian educated at Princeton University and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts and a museum curator for more than 20 years, Hedberg prides himself on finding undervalued artworks.
The e–mail from Cornot, he said, “changed my life.” Cornot wanted to know if Hedberg had a buyer for a bronze Little Dancer in Paris. “So I e–mailed back, ‘What, nine, ten, eleven million?’ And he said, No, it was only at that time, only a few hundred thousand. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ So he e–mailed me an image of one of those bronzes.”
Hedberg said he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “I’d never seen it before,” he said of the bronze version of the Little Dancer that Cornot sent him. “And it was like, ‘What the hell is this?'” The price was $300,000. “It wasn’t $10 million,” Hedberg said. “I mean, it was nothing.”
In May 2004, Cornot took Hedberg to the private home, near the Rodin Museum, to look at the bronze Little Dancer. Hedberg thought immediately that it was superior to the other versions of the sculpture he had seen and therefore must have been made earlier, perhaps during Degas’s lifetime. “It was just so beautiful,” he said. “It was like if you had been listening to squeaking your whole life and then you heard Mozart for the first time.”
Hedberg spent the summer thinking about what he had seen and studying the academic literature about the sculpture. He read correspondence between Degas and Louisine Havemeyer, who had wanted to buy the wax Little Dancer in the 1880s, and between Havemeyer and Mary Cassatt, the American Impressionist painter, who acted as Havemeyer’s go–between with Degas. He also reviewed the lengthy correspondence between Degas and his friend Paul–Albert Bartholomé, the sculptor.
In the fall of 2004, Hedberg’s friend and fellow Princeton graduate Christopher “Kip” Forbes, an heir to the Forbes publishing and art fortune, urged him to round up a few wealthy art collectors to go to Paris to attend a meeting of the American Friends of the Louvre and to take a look at the bronze. Hedberg invited Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and Greif, a former student of Emmons’s who had founded Greif & Co., a boutique investment banking firm in Los Angeles. Hedberg wrote to Emmons and Greif that he thought the bronze in Paris was superior to the posthumous bronzes cast from the plasters now in Washington and Omaha, and might represent “an earlier moment.” Greif called Hedberg immediately after receiving the letter and said he would buy the bronze, sight unseen.
After seeing the sculpture in person, Emmons announced that he wanted it, and Hedberg had to deliver the news that Greif had already bought it. But he promised Emmons he would find him another one of the bronzes for around the same price. After he returned to New York, he happened to be speaking with another art dealer, who told him that Maibaum had a few of the Little Dancer bronzes in his apartment on 57th Street. Maibaum had already spent two years studying the sculpture and had decided that it had been made from a third posthumous plaster. He had even written a manuscript about the discovery that he hoped would be published. Hedberg called Maibaum and told him he had a buyer for one of his Little Dancer bronzes. He added, “But I got to tell you, I think that this is from a lifetime plaster.”
“He was shocked out of his mind,” Hedberg said. The bad news, Hedberg told Maibaum, was that his book had to be revised, but the good news was that his bronzes were far more valuable than he had previously thought, because they seemed to have been cast from a plaster made during Degas’s lifetime. Nevertheless, Maibaum agreed to sell a Little Dancer bronze sculpture to Emmons through Hedberg.
The next mission for Hedberg and Greif was to find the plaster from which the Little Dancer bronzes had been cast. In November 2004, Hedberg said, he told Maibaum, “Find out more about this plaster.” The next month, Maibaum and his wife met Benatov at the Valsuani foundry and after their lunch, Benatov showed them the cache of previously unknown plasters. Maibaum then bought them through his Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. business.
Benatov also gave Maibaum an “official attestation,” dated December 23, 2004, to wit: According to the “precise memories of the old foundry manager, M. J. Sokolowsky,” after 1955 Albino Palazzolo “dropped off numerous plasters by Edgar Degas, one of which was the Little Dancer. He himself worked on the realization of some of the bronzes.” Neither Sokolowsky nor Palazzolo is alive.
Benatov wrote in an e–mail to ARTnews that the Valsuani foundry had contracted in 2004 with The Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. (Maibaum and Conn) to cast 29 bronzes from each of the 73 plasters, not including the Little Dancer, which Valsuani had already editioned. The Degas Sculpture Project was financing the casts and had “the exclusive right to purchase all the bronzes and . . . buy them in sets of 73,” Benatov wrote.
He added that Valsuani had sold the Little Dancer bronzes “directly to many clients, including Mr. Maibaum. Many were sold in Europe, and some went to the U.S. and elsewhere. It would not be right for me to tell you anything about the purchasers or the prices they paid.”
“No one to my knowledge has questioned the authenticity of the bronzes, and I do not know of any reason why anyone would,” Benatov concluded. “The Degas heirs authorized the editions and the bronzes are being cast in France under French law.”
Hedberg flew to Paris in February 2005 to see the plaster in a warehouse. “I thought it was magnificent,” he said. It was then, Hedberg said, that Benatov, urged by Maibaum, decided it was “time to get this thing into the art world.” Hedberg bought the plaster for Hirschl & Adler. There were conditions attached: no additional bronzes could be made from it, nor could it be sold to anyone else. “There would be huge penalties if it were sold,” Hedberg said. But it could be donated to a museum or other nonprofit organization.
Indeed, some representatives of nonprofit organizations are already circling in hopes of getting the plaster. One, Joseph Carroll, a member of the French Legion of Honor and the leader of the American Friends of the Institut de France, visited Hedberg at Hirschl & Adler in January to discuss the possibility of repatriating to French museums some of the “recently discovered” Degas plasters in exchange for “tax donations to the owners.”
Hedberg said that Carroll had “studied” the plasters three times and had “absolutely no commercial interest” in the matter. “Mr. Carroll just wants to do something for France,” Hedberg wrote in an e–mail. “He would not want them for the Institut if he was not 100% convinced they are correct and lifetime casts.” Carroll told Hedberg, as well as ARTnews, that he believes the Degas plasters to be “one of the great art historical discoveries of the 20th Century,” though he conceded he is no expert on Impressionist art—his specialty is Korean Buddhist art. And, he added, though the Little Dancer plaster at Hirschl & Adler is “profoundly better than what we know today” and “completely changes everything written,” it was important to “step back and study it” before drawing any conclusions about it.
HEDBERG IS THOROUGHLY convinced that Degas himself authorized the making of the “recently discovered” plaster Little Dancer. He says that after Degas displayed the wax sculpture in 1881, he took it back to his Paris apartment. Hedberg believes that a plaster was cast from the wax “at some point between 1887 and 1903” by Bartholomé, who died in 1928. As evidence that Bartholomé did the casting, Hedberg cites an undated letter from Degas to Bartholomé about a bust Degas was working on. “The moment I return, I intend to pounce upon Mme Caron,” is how Hedberg translates the letter, based on a translation made in connection with a 1988 Degas show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “You should already reserve a place for her among your precious bits of plaster.” (Rose Caron was an opera singer whose portrait Degas had painted.)
Marguerite Kay, who has translated Degas’s letters into English, rendered chastes gravats as “precious relics.” Hedberg translates the same phrase as “precious bits of plaster.” Observes one Degas expert, anonymously: “The sentence is clearly ambiguous. There are no records at all—aside from this one sentence, if that’s what it supports—to substantiate the claim that Bartholomé made an entire collection of Degas sculptures for himself during Degas’s lifetime.”
Nevertheless, in the footnotes to his essay in the Athens catalogue, Hedberg cites Reff, who dates the letter precisely to “Tuesday, 30 August 1892.” Hedberg then concludes that “by 1892, Bartholomé was routinely casting plasters from Degas’ waxes.” Hedberg cites as further evidence another letter from Degas to Bartholomé, dated February 22, 1901, in which he addressed Bartholomé as “My dear friend and perhaps fondeur,” which Hedberg translates as “someone who casts bronzes, typically using plasters.”
Hedberg also puts forth an elaborate argument to explain the substantial differences between the “lifetime plaster” that he claims Bartholomé made from the 1881 wax version of the Little Dancer and the wax itself in the National Gallery. According to Hedberg, Degas reworked the original wax sculpture after an April 1903 visit to his apartment by Havemeyer and Cassatt. This visit took place after Bartholomé had supposedly made a plaster cast of the wax sculpture.
Havemeyer admired the wax sculpture and wanted to buy it, Hedberg continued, but Degas would not sell it to her because “the wax had blackened.” So Degas set about “to repair the wax.” Hedberg cited a 1998 Metropolitan Museum publication saying that Degas had even set a price of 40,000 francs on the wax figure and asked Bartholomé for advice on repairing it since it “was going to go to America.” Apparently, though, according to Hedberg, “Degas never considered the renovations of The Little Dancer finished enough to sell the statue to Mrs. Havemeyer.” Two years after Degas’s death in 1917, Havemeyer asked Cassatt to examine the wax sculpture again to decide if it was worthy of purchase. But Cassatt reported back to Havemeyer via telegram (in the Met’s archives), “Statue Bad Condition.” That ended Havemeyer’s interest. The wax remained unsold until 1955, when Paul Mellon bought it.
These scraps of written evidence aside, Hedberg believes that the irrefutable proof for his theory is in the plasters themselves, many of which are lined up against the walls of his office. Hedberg owns two of the bronze Little Dancers made from the “lifetime plaster”—together worth $4 million, he believes. One he intends to bequeath to his son, and the other he says he will donate to a museum.
One thing Hedberg has done in his research that is especially irritating to the art historians who doubt his “discovery” is to cite them in his essays about the “lifetime plasters” to bolster his own conclusions. He refers to X–rays made by Beale of around 20 of the plasters and to Beale’s change of mind about the dating of the Little Dancer plaster, owing to the presence of strands of steel rebar that Hedberg believes may have been made in the 19th century. (Beale declined to comment on his examination.) He writes about the laser scans that the National Gallery’s Barbour and Sturman have done and their discovery of “chromium on the bronze” of a Degas sculpture. In his Athens essay, he cites the work of Tinterow, Kendall, Beale, and Reff. “This research is in the public domain,” Kendall said in a brief conversation after the New York meeting. “What can one do?”
Hedberg also ignores several preparatory drawings Degas made for the wax sculpture of the Little Dancer that show the precise body type and pose of the wax figure in the National Gallery. He relies instead on a single drawing in the Morgan Library in which, according to one Degas expert, “the position of the legs might roughly correspond to those of his dancer,” but even this “is not entirely clear.”
Hedberg points to his four years of research, the carbon dating of the wires and fibers clinging to the plaster, the 300 measurement comparisons, the test cleanings, and the comparisons he has made between photographs of the original waxes taken in 1918 after Degas’s death and the plasters he “discovered.” He dismisses as petty jealousy the claims of Anne Pingeot, general curator of the Musée d’Orsay and co–author of a catalogue raisonné of Degas’s bronzes, who wrote him a letter claiming that the plasters were “computer generated in the 1960s.” Pingeot is “mortified” that she let the plasters leave France and is now embarrassed, he says. “But she never got off her butt.” Pingeot did not respond to e–mail requests for comment.
Hedberg has a long list of “sculpture experts and art historians who have carefully studied the actual plasters themselves and who basically concur that these plasters must be lifetime casts,” including Steven Nash, director of the Palm Springs Art Museum and former director of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas; John Bullard, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art; June Hargrove, chair of the department of art history at the University of Maryland, who contributed an essay to the Athens catalogue; John Tancock, former senior vice president in the department of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s New York; and Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute.
Contacted by ARTnews, Bullard conceded that he was not a Degas expert, but said he had friends who are. “There’s no way the plasters could be fakes,” he said. “They had to be cast from Degas originals, and had to be done during his lifetime.” Steven Nash agreed. “To me,” he said, “the preponderance of evidence indicates that they have to be early Degas plasters made mostly during his lifetime.” He added, “The burden of proof is on the skeptics to determine what they are if they are not original plasters.”
Tancock said he had seen the plasters, but “I did not express an opinion about them, nor do I feel comfortable doing so now. It’s a complicated issue.” Conforti seemed surprised to be cited as someone who could speak about the authenticity of Degas’s sculptures and denied expertise on the subject. “My opinions wouldn’t count, if I had any,” he said. “Which I don’t.”
Maibaum, who was once convinced that the plasters were posthumous, now relies on Hedberg’s conclusion that they were made during Degas’s lifetime by Bartholomé. “I’m not the one who said they are lifetime,” he said. “That was Greg. But of course I would wish them to be.” He said he has worked on the project for nine years and “invested everything we could,” without specifying how much. “I took a big risk, and I’m entitled to make a profit if I can.” Maibaum said he would welcome a symposium where the evidence could be presented and opposing views aired. “A great art discovery such as this one is truly hard to accept unless it’s associated with a major institution,” he said. “This is not associated with an institution, so it’s troubling to some.”
As for Hedberg, in the end he seems inured to the controversy. “What’s harder to believe is that somebody made 73 copies of Degas’s waxes and from those copies made these plasters and then never made bronzes,” he said. “That’s impossible.”
But, he said, “I was kind of naive. I thought people would be like, ‘Oh, how exciting and wonderful.’ Joyous. Some people are. But others are doubtful of a new theory. People hang on. There’s still some people I know that are not sure about the Big Bang.”
William D. Cohan, author of House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, is a columnist for the New York Times and writes for many publications. Additional reporting by Eileen Kinsella and Milton Esterow.