By SCOTT REYBURN
Sometimes money tells us something interesting about an artist.
The centenary of the death of Auguste Rodin, France’s most celebrated sculptor, is this year. To honor the milestone, the Rodin Museum and the cultural umbrella organization Réunion des Musées Nationaux have combined to mount a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris that opened March 22. It includes more than 200 of Rodin’s works, as well as sculptures and drawings by later artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz and Antony Gormley, giving a wider context for his legacy.
At the same time, the market for Rodin in this centenary year has been buoyed by recent discoveries. On March 31, the auctioneers Gestas & Carrère in southwest France unveiled a plaster model for the sculpture “I Am Beautiful” from about 1885 that it had found, or rather rediscovered, last year in a furniture storage facility in Biarritz, France.
Rodin’s “I Am Beautiful,” circa 1885. Credit Gestas & Carrère and Cabinet Maréchaux
Inspired by the Charles Baudelaire poem “Beauty,” and seemingly the prototype for the sculpture, the roughly 70-centimeter, or 28-inch, plaster depicts a standing male nude lifting a crouched female lover in his arms. Its potential was first noticed by the auctioneer Patrice Carrère at a retirement home in Biarritz in 2013, and the work was then found in storage after the death of its owner.
“It’s the first time that Rodin takes two sculptures to make a new one,” he said, referring to the artist’s assemblage process. “It’s the beginning of the ready-made.”
Comparing this Rodin sculpture to Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary “ready-mades” might be pushing it a bit, but the French state has classified it as a “national treasure.” The piece has been valued at 700,000 euros, or about $740,000, and cannot be exported for 30 months. Gestas & Carrère and the owners of the sculpture have yet to decide how it should be sold, Mr. Carrère said.
On May 30, on the other hand, the Paris auction house Artcurial will be offering a signed and dated 1887 marble version of Rodin’s “Andromeda.” One of six marble variants, the sculpture of a naked girl crouched on a rock was given by Rodin to a Chilean diplomat in 1888, and it has remained in that family ever since. It is estimated to sell for €800,000 to €1.2 million.
Rodin was the pre-eminent sculptor of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era, and “The Kiss” and “The Thinker” are among the most instantly recognizable sculptures in the world. Yet for all their fame, Rodin’s sculptures have yet to command the blockbuster prices paid for trophy paintings by his radical contemporaries Monet and Cézanne — or indeed for the most desirable sculptures by Brancusi or Henry Moore.
The auction high for Rodin is the $20.4 million bid at Sotheby’s in May 2016 for a 1901-3 marble version of “L’Éternel Printemps,” showing two naked lovers in a passionate embrace. As with “The Kiss,” “The Thinker” and “I Am Beautiful,” the theme originated from the artist’s 1880 “Gates of Hell” commission.
Twenty million dollars is a lot of money, but it is far below the $81.4 million that a Monet “Grainstack” achieved at Christie’s in November. And while sculpture has often received less attention than painting in the art market, works by Brancusi and Moore have sold for more than $30 million at auction. So is Rodin underpriced?
“The reason the Rodin market hasn’t gone through the roof is that he produced a lot,” said Jérôme Le Blay, a founding member of the Auguste Rodin Committee in Paris, which is preparing an online catalogue raisonné of the artist’s sculptures.
“He organized his estate to keep casting his works,” Mr. Le Blay added. “The market is divided into segments, and each one is understandable according to rarity value.”
Mr. Le Blay, 48, a former special adviser at the Rodin Museum, estimates the number of “legal” bronze casts of Rodin sculptures in existence at 8,000, with an additional 500 versions in marble, mainly carved by assistants. From 1898 to 1918, he said, no fewer than 316 bronze versions of “The Kiss” were cast, in four sizes, under license by the Barbedienne foundry.
Since its creation, the Rodin Committee, which is affiliated with the museum that bears the artist’s name, has processed roughly 3,000 inquiries. Anyone seeking certification of a work is charged a flat fee of €1,600. The Rodin Museum’s original receipts allow the committee to determine the casting dates and edition sizes of genuine pieces.
Over the years, the museum has helped fund itself through the authorized casting and sale of posthumous limited-edition bronzes using the artist’s original molds. The situation has been further complicated, however, by the proliferation of unauthorized and fake casts. Most notoriously, in the late 1980s and ’90s, the French forger Guy Hain inundated the market with thousands of bronzes purported to be casts made during Rodin’s lifetime by Alexis Rudier, one of the artist’s original founders.
“It was a game-changer when the Rodin Committee started issuing certificates,” said Edward Horswell, director of the Sladmore Gallery in London, a specialist in 19th-century French bronzes that has a set of five small lifetime casts of “Burghers of Calais” for sale, priced at $2.4 million. “That certainty gave a boost to prices at auction. Before then, it was only a few expert dealers and collectors who knew what they were buying. It was a real minefield.”
Mr. Horswell, like many Rodin specialists, divides the sculptor’s output into “lifetime,” “middle” (which the dealer puts at 1917 to 1952) and “late” periods. Lifetime casts are traditionally valued at three times the price of posthumous versions, he said.
On March 22, a lifetime bronze version of “L’Éternel Printemps” with Rodin Committee certification sold at Fraysse & Associés in Paris for almost €2 million.
Last year, Rodin was the world’s 27th highest-grossing artist at auction, with $58.9 million in sales from 132 lots, according to the French database Artprice. But Rodin sculptures rarely achieve headline-grabbing prices. The reproductive nature of his output is one factor, but so is its lack of modernity.
“Some are very 19th century, and some are more contemporary and timeless,” said Melanie Clore, a partner at the London art advisers Clore Wyndham, citing the 11.6 million pounds, about $16.7 million at the time, paid at Sotheby’s in February 2016 for Rodin’s large-scale 1890-91 bronze of an abstracted female nude, “Iris, Messagère des Dieux.”
“That could have been put beside a beautiful Rothko,” Ms. Clore added.
But abstraction and primitivism are not typical of Rodin. As the British sculptor and teacher William Tucker wrote in the 1974 book “The Language of Sculpture,” when “taken as a whole,” Rodin’s work strikes us as being “heavy with the 19th century.”
And that isn’t where the really big money is.
Correction: April 14, 2017
An earlier version of a home page summary with this article misspelled the given name of a French sculptor. He was Auguste Rodin, not August. And an image accompanying the summary was posted in error. It showed a work by Edgar Degas, not one by Rodin.