2017-06-14 16:40:02
Mastering the Master: A London Gallery’s Homage to Rodin

LONDON — Millions of dollars of insurance. Transport logistics. Paperwork. Labor. Movement sensors. Export duties. Artwork passports.

Sometime this summer, Auguste Rodin is probably coming to a city near you, as institutions worldwide honor the centenary of that French sculptor’s death, at 77. The journey is mostly being undertaken by museums with deep pockets, administrative teams and huge parking lots in which to unload and safely transfer large bronzes.

But down the not-very-wide Duke Street in Mayfair here, the modestly sized Bowman Sculpture gallery has just opened “Rodin: The Birth of Modern Sculpture” (through July 27), an exhibition of 32 works in bronze and terra cotta, as well as eight rarely seen drawings.

“It’s a tour de force,” said Jérôme Le Blay, who is preparing an online catalogue raisonné of Rodin’s sculptures under the auspices of the Auguste Rodin Committee in Paris. “You can’t put something like this together in a year. You need 10 or 15 years of work on Rodin to know where to buy, how to get the pieces. Even the biggest art dealers and many mainstream museums couldn’t do this.”

Robert Bowman, 59, the founder of Bowman Sculpture, has had longer than 10 or 15 years. His passion for Rodin, he said, began when he was working as director of European works of art at Sotheby’s in the late 1980s. “It started with a piece called ‘She Who Was Once the Helmet Maker’s Beautiful Wife,’” he explained. “I realized how he sees beauty in nonconformity, even ugliness.”

Mr. Bowman started to look for, and study, Rodin works wherever he could find them, and spent time at the Rodin Museum in Paris learning about its collection and the casting process.

After opening his own gallery in 1993, it took him a few years, he said, before he had enough money for his first major acquisition, a “Thinker,” in 1997. “We paid $150,000 for it, and I had to go to the bank for a loan,” he recounted. “Recently I sold a similar one for $3.2 million.”

He has been buying Rodin ever since, becoming one of the world’s pre-eminent dealers of 19th-century sculpture. “We try to buy anything good that comes on the market that we can afford,” Mr. Bowman said.

What is a “good” Rodin piece? The sculptor is one of France’s most celebrated artists, and one of the few worldwide whose work (“The Kiss,” “The Thinker”) has an instant-recognition factor, even for those largely uninterested in the fine arts.

“They are images emblazoned in cultural consciousness,” said August Uribe, a former deputy chairman of the Americas at Philips auction house. “There is a finite number of those, and the world is willing to pay a price for that.”

In relative terms, however, Rodin’s work is still far less expensive than that of his painter contemporaries, like Monet or Gauguin, or than that of more contemporary sculptors like Giacometti or Brancusi. (Mr. Bowman’s top price in this exhibition, for a 1905-10 cast of “The Kiss,” is $1.53 million.) That’s because Rodin was both prolific and canny, allowing large numbers of his sculptures to be cast in different sizes, and granting licenses to foundries to produce editions. Identifying authentic pieces and their provenance is “a big jigsaw,” Mr. Le Blay said.

“During Rodin’s life, he could produce as much as he could sell, and until 1968, there was no legislation in France to limit an edition to 12 pieces, as it is now,” he explained.

Rodin also began to work with an assistant in the 1890s to create editions of his work in different sizes, much of it monumental in scale and inaccessible to private collectors. “He was adapting his work to the market, but it wasn’t just a commercial thing,” Mr. Le Blay said. “The size changes the way you see a sculpture, and Rodin was interested in that.” The price depends on quality and rarity, “and whether they are lifetime casts or made posthumously,” he added.

Mr. Bowman said that it had taken him four years to assemble the pieces for his current show, which includes different sizes of the famous pieces. “You certainly have to have ‘The Burghers of Calais,’ his most famous public monument,” he said, ticking off the essentials. “I wanted to show some early work before his commercial success, and also what happens later. If you look at the dance figures we have here, made toward the end of his life, the way the forms are squished, you can see the line forward to Matisse and even Giacometti.” (There are no monumental sculptures in the exhibition, he said, because almost every lifetime cast is in a museum.)

The eight drawings include a rare portrait of a Cambodian princess and an explicitly erotic “Sapphic Couple.” “The drawings show Rodin experimenting with line and form in a way you see later in his sculpture,” Mr. Bowman said.

The insurance on these works runs into the millions and involves specifications about how works are displayed. (Anything below a certain size and weight must be shown in a Perspex acrylic box, so that it can’t be stolen.) Any piece worth more than $50,000 must have its own passport.

“If import duty is imposed post-Brexit, you’ll have a mass exodus of art dealers,” Mr. Bowman said. (For the moment there is no duty within the European Union.)

Even without duty to pay, there are other obstacles; he mentioned that he had been unable to include three Rodin works from Paris, because of the time it would take to get the export license that France requires for works that are considered part of its cultural heritage.

Lovingly stroking a “Fugit Amor,” Mr. Bowman said the headaches had been worth it. “Look at this,” he said, gesturing to a small terra cotta head for Rodin’s “The Age of Bronze,” positioned alongside letters written by Rodin to his model for the work, Auguste Neyt. “Rodin did his own terra cotta models, so you know his hands have cast this. There are more expensive works here, but to get a piece like this is just thrilling.”