Treasure: Mystery bronze keeps its secrets close

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

In the world of antique appraisals, there are sure things and there are research projects, Richard Federowicz recently told Carol Hart. And then, there are “super research projects,” mysterious pieces that are among the most challenging to decipher.

Hart recently brought a piece to DuMouchelle’s for appraisal that Federowicz considered one of the latter. She inherited it from family and was hoping to use it and another piece she brought to help fund college tuition. “I am attaching photos of some pieces that my mother-in-law gave us and which we would like to know more about,” she wrote in an email asking for more information. “I believe that all of the items were acquired by my mother-in-law’s late husband but I don’t know when or where. She recently passed them on to us. I hope that you and your experts can help us learn more about them.” She told the appraiser that she thinks her mother-in-law’s late husband was from a Cleveland suburb and that he had traveled frequently, when he may have acquired the work.

Federowicz said the work, a bronze sculpture of what looks like kingfishers and cattails, looked similar to others he had seen that were made in France in the late 19th century. Because of that, he first turned to books on that era and genre, but he ultimately reached a dead end. “I have looked through every book we have on animal sculptures like these, to no avail,” he told her. “My gut is that this is indeed 19th century, probably 1880-1890, when this type of work was commonly done as part of what is called the Animalier school in Paris.”

Unfortunately for both Hart and Federowicz, no signatures were found. “There are bits and places that are worn and look as if the finish wore off, but they are not in places we would traditionally have found a signature,” he told Hart. Other possible reasons for a lack of signature, he said, is that the piece is a later casting, and the signature is faint, or that people have overpolished it and rubbed it off. He doubted that either was the reason he couldn’t find anything on Hart’s piece, but said it was possible. Research did show him that Hart’s piece is similar to three well-known sculptors of the era, Ferdinand Pautrot (1832-1874), Paul Edouard Delabrierre (also Delabriere) who lived from 1829-1912, and Jules Moigniez (1835-1894), who concentrated on game birds. All were French; more information on the artists and school is available at 1st Dibs, an online site, currently has signed works by Moigniez and followers ranging from $3-$7,000.

Federowicz said Hart’s piece was of good quality, and that it was possible it was done by one of these artists, but doubtful because of one reason. “These artists always signed their work,” he told Hart.

Even without a signature, he said there would be a market for the piece at auction. “It’s a well-done piece, so much so that you’d expect them to have a signature,” he told Hart. One of the stalks is broken, but Federowicz said he wouldn’t advise she did the repairs unless she intended on keeping it. “There’s a bit of damage, which would hurt the auction value a little, but collectors like to have their own person fix it, so I’d leave it unless you wanted to keep it.” As an unsigned 19th century bronze, he said he’d appraise it at $800-$1,500 at auction, knowing and hoping that it could bring more if more information came to light.

“It’s a total mystery at this point,” he said to her. “But someone out there knows what it is and who made it. If you left it for auction, there’s a good chance we’d find out. We have clients from all over the world.”

Hart said learning more didn’t change her mind about the work’s ultimate fate. “She gave them to us to sell for our children’s college fund, so they’ll be sold.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item : Bronze sculpture

Owner : Carol Hart

Appraised by: Richard Federowicz, DuMouchelle’s

Estimated value : $800-$1,500 at auction