What you see: A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback, created between 1690 and 1699 by François Girardon. Christie’s estimates it at £7 million to £10 million ($9.1 million to $13.1 million).
Who was François Girardon? He was a French sculptor who rose to fame by glorifying the image of King Louis XIV, who was also known as The Sun King. Girardon created a monumental equestrian statue of the king in 1699, which was installed in Paris and destroyed during the French Revolution. Girardon died in Paris in 1715, when he would have been 86 or 87.
The expert: Donald Johnston, international head of sculpture for Christie’s.
Ok, forgive me if this is a stupid question, but why is this bronze described as a “group”? What makes it a group? It’s a convention. I think the horse makes it count as a group. If it was Louis XIV standing, it would be a figure. Because it’s Louis XIV and a horse, it’s called a group.
And would the horse and the Louis XIV figure have been cast separately, or… They were cast together, but that’s really quite unusual. A bronze of this size and complexity is normally cast in different parts. This is technically very accomplished. The baton [in the king’s right hand], the two forearms, the horse’s reins, and the plinth [the slab the horse is attached to] were all cast separately. The figure of the king and all his drapery, and his armor, his legs, the horse, and the horse’s legs–those were all cast together.
François Girardon would have supervised the casting of this sculpture, but do we know what genius technician would have actually done the work? Some sculptors did do their own casting, but that’s relatively rare. We know the name of the caster or founder for the monument [the oversized original, now lost, on which this reduced sculpture is based], and they’re known to have done one of the other reductions. We don’t know who did this one, but it’s probably the same person. The armatures [an internal structure that supports the sculpture, kind of like a skeleton] for the sculptures in the Louvre and in Windsor Castle have been X-rayed, and they look virtually identical to the armature of the one we have.
The lot notes say the Girardon bronze re-emerged in 1993. Can you tell me more about how that happened? It was bought by the present owner in an auction in Toronto on the basis of a photo. We don’t know how it got to Toronto. The person who bought it believed it was 19th century, and it was cataloged as 19th century. Only when he saw it in the flesh did he realize it was period.
Have any of the other three reduced versions that François Girardon made of the now-lost monumental original gone to auction? In modern times, not that we know of. Eighteenth century auction records describe bronzes that seem to be this model. The other three were already in the collections they’re still in by the early 19th century. They haven’t gone anywhere in 200 years.
And how rarely does anything by François Girardon go to auction? It’s extremely rare for something actually thought to be by him [to come to market]. Casts [bronzes made after Girardon died] have appeared at auction. That’s what the owner thought he bought at auction in 1993–he thought he was getting a 19th century cast.
At one point, François Girardon owned two of the reduced-size sculptures. Is it possible to know if those two were the same size? Contemporary records [from Girardon’s time] discuss four casts done in his lifetime. Four exist today, and all are the same size.
And this Girardon bronze is definitely the one shown in the engraving? Yes, yes. You can see the baton quite clearly. The other three casts have the right hand in a completely different position, and there’s no baton.
The lot notes say this Girardon bronze weighs 232 kilograms, or 511 pounds. Why is it so heavy? It is big. It is big for a “small” bronze. It has most of its core material still in it, and its iron armature is still inside. And it’s on a heavy marble base. When I took it to Hong Kong, it took nine men to move it carefully and properly. You’ve got to move it with a winch and slide it from the winch to a pedestal.
Ok, so you can’t put this thing on a mantle or a dining room table. Where can the Girardon bronze go in a house? Do you need to put it on the floor? No. Most houses would be structurally strong enough to support it. You do have to make sure you have a reinforced pedestal. It would look great in a grand house with a huge entrance hall.
How did you arrive at the estimate for the Girardon bronze? The world of sculpture is not like the world of paintings, where there are very obvious comparisons. I have to look at what the top-end bronzes and pieces of sculpture have made. There are very few things in this price range in my field, which goes to 1830. There have been bigger sales by Giacometti and Degas, but those belong to a different field. We sold an Adriaen de Vries bronze for $28 million in 2014. The next-highest prices are another de Vries sold in 1989 by Sotheby’s for $6.2 million, hammer [without premium and related fees]. In 2003, we sold a bronze roundel for just over £7 million plus premium. I looked at prices for top things and what they achieved. And there’s a certain amount of instinct. I’ve been at Christie’s for 27 years. You get a feel for what people are going to pay for things.
What’s the auction record for a François Girardon? I couldn’t think of anything that was really close. There is a record bronze group that sold in 1987 in Paris for 13,600,000 French francs, or $2.4 million then. If that’s correct, it would have to be the record. If this sculpture sells, it will definitely beat the record. It’s going to have to sell for £7 million plus.
What is the Girardon bronze like in person? There’s a real sense of grandeur about it. It’s impressive in its scale–one meter four high [almost four feet high]. You think it’s a big bronze, but until you stand in front of it. you don’t feel the presence of it. And it has incredible quality. The detail, the finish–it’s an incredible work.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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