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The Dancing Queens of Demetre Chiparus

The grace of youth and the confidence of beauty... that's how author Alberto Shayo describes the figures produced by Demetre Chiparus.

Born into a wealthy Romanian family, Demetre Chiparus spoke fluent French and was well versed in the upper class fashions of his time. When he left Romania on July 30 1909 at the age of twenty-two, he had a four-month visa for travel in Italy but he was never to return to his home country; for the next sixteen years he would live on the money inherited from his mother's estate.

In 1912 he went to Paris and applied to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, becoming an official student there at the end of November. His first grades were mediocre... he scored 13.5 out of 20 for drawing the classical figure, but was awarded just 5 out of 20 for anatomy and 3 out of 20 for history. As a result he was placed on probation. Ironically he is quite possibly one of the school's most successful students.

Life behind the art

In 1924, Chiparus met Julienne Lullier, a clerk in a perfume shop who was sixteen years his junior. Julienne's childhood had been difficult; after her father died when she was five, she and her brother were placed in orphanages for eight years, until her mother was able to support them. She said of her life with Chiparus, whom she married in 1939 - fifteen years after they first moved in together - "I was as happy as a fish in water."

Demetre and Julienne travelled the world, staying in the finest hotels and dining in the best restaurants. They had no children and Chiparus was devoted to his work, spending up to fifteen hours a day in his studio, working on sculptures.

Private dancers

In the 1920s, hotels and restaurants offered dancing to their clientele as an added attraction and this in turn led to the development of a new occupation: the professional dancer. Charming and socially adept young men, the professional dancers were employed to show the customers a good time on the dance floor and they were especially popular with middle-aged women. Popular dances at the time included the Charleston, the one-step, the foxtrot, the two-step and the tango - all of which were rich inspiration for Chiparus, who was also influenced in his designs by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes - the famous Russian dance company - and the music hall, where dancers appeared on stage partially or completely nude. Many of Chiparus's dancers are bare-breasted or partly covered in titillating costumes he would have seen on these dancers, although he never made exact copies of actual costumes.

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was opened in 1922, Egyptian mania swept the world and Chiparus created several sculptures representing Cleopatra and the exotic allure of Egyptian dancers. His figures appealed to a section of society that was looking for pleasant and diverting art objects, and although some sections of the artistic intelligentsia scorned his figures because they were so commercially successful - and therefore, it was deemed, could not be artistically authentic - there were many more who admired and desired his sculptures as pure decoration.

From high to low

His first series of sculptures - amusing and sentimental pieces known as the children series - was created when Chiparus lived in a small studio in the rue Barrault, where he was often visited by the neighbourhood children. "Those were the least expensive models of all," said Julienne. "They were content with a few sweets."

They left the rue Barrault in 1928 when Chiparus was reaching the height of his success, and moved to a large maison in an exclusive Parisian suburb. But the house had been purchased largely on credit, and although they seemed to be living a charmed life in which the world was clamouring for Chiparus's exotic sculptures, the onset of the Second World War would bring massive upheaval.

Most of the founders who produced bronzes in Paris were Jewish, and they were gradually forced out of business. Chiparus was left with nobody to produce his sculptures, and even if he could find a foundry that was still operating, there was no longer a market of customers to sell them to. In 1936 he was forced to sell the house and he and Julienne moved to an apartment. They sold their furniture to pay their debts, because, said Chiparus, "If you don't sell it, the creditors will sell it for you." He declared it was good to be rid of the house, and in truth the new apartment - in the chic Trocadero quarter of Paris - was lavishly decorated.

Not so the apartment to which they moved in 1939. Confined to one room, with a corner closed off to create the kitchen and a bed perched in a tiny mezzanine alcove, this was where Chiparus would live for the rest of his life. "The only thing that saved me from a nervous breakdown were the animals," admitted Julienne, whilst her husband seemed impervious to his reversal of fortune. He continued to sculpt for his own satisfaction, despite the fact he had no clients.

Animal attraction

In the early 1940s Chiparus obtained permission to work at the Vincennes zoo, and a special room was set aside for him next to the lions' quarters. One day when he was working on a sculpture, he looked up to see a lion standing before him. It turned out the keeper had forgotten to lock the door. Chiparus froze, and the lion eventually lost interest in him and returned to its quarters.

In 1942 the sculptor exhibited the plaster sculptures Polar Bear and American Bison at the Paris Salon, and the following year he showed a marble Polar Bear and a plaster Pelican.

His animal sculptures were to be the last subjects of Demetre Chiparus. One winter's day, after returning home from the zoo, he sat down for lunch with his wife and suddenly dropped his fork. He tried to speak but was unable - he was suffering a stroke. Three days later, on January 22 1947, he died. Ironically, he had just received a large sum of money from the sale of a sculpture.

The foundries behind the figures

Chiparus worked with two main foundries: the Edmond Etling and Cie Foundry in Paris, run by Julien Dreyfus, and Les Neveaux de J. Lehmann. Instead of selling individual pieces as he completed them, he sold the reproduction rights to the foundries, and after the initial model was finished the founder became responsible for all the steps leading to the eventual creation and sale of the piece.

The figures were assembled from separate pieces - limbs and torsos carved or moulded in small workshops - and intricate patterns were chased into the metal. The costumes were highlighted by cold-painting and then sealed with a lacquer. Most figures were made in several sizes, the smaller ones for cabinets and dressing tables and the larger ones for display on commodes, pedestals and mantlepieces.

Ivory was the material of choice for the flesh of the chryselephantine figures, and thanks to Belgium's plundering of the Congo there was plenty available at a low cost. Pure, smooth and silken to the touch, it was perfect for Chiparus's designs. As awful as its use seems today, in the early 20th century there were no regulations regarding the killing of elephants and the use of ivory was actively encouraged. All of the larger foundries ran their own ivory-carving workshops, with a master carver whose job it was to create an exact reproduction of the sculptor's prototype.

Chiparus mounted his figures on bases of marble or onyx for which he selected the choicest stones. The bases were designed to complement the figures and some are sculptural in their own right. Individual pieces within a particular edition of statuette were often mounted on differently coloured or shaped bases, and occasionally a base would be used for more than one piece. The base is usually where you will find a signature, although sometimes the bronze itself is signed. Certain large and expensive pieces, including multiple figures mounted on a single base, were produced in limited editions of less than five.

A question of fakes

At the height of his popularity in the 1920s and '30s, Chiparus was already being copied. Lesser quality statuettes imitating his style were turned out in the Paris's furniture manufacturing quarter, with spelter being used in place of bronze and ivorine, a type of plastic, instead of ivory. Just to confuse the issue, Chiparus recognised the need to supply a wider market and himself created a figure named The Eternal Story using spelter and ivorine.

Because most Chiparus figures are signed on the base rather than the bronze, it's possible to mount a forged figure on an authentic base and sell it as an authentic piece. There should be telltale signs of rough casting, new patina or a lack of definition, but the best option is to seek the advice of a specialist dealer.

The vagaries of fashion

Almost immediately after his death, Chiparus's sculptures fell out of fashion. Considered frivolous and even vulgar by some, they remained unappreciated until the 1970s, when collectors began to value their superb craftsmanship and decorative qualities. At that time, a Chiparus figure would easily have cost less than one thousand dollars.

Back in 1929, the prices for different models of figures varied far lass according to subject matter than they do today. For example, a figure of children playing with a wheelbarrow was offered on the market for 3300 francs, and a figure of a woman with two borzoi - Friends Forever - was only one-third more expensive at 4600 francs. (When Chiparus was modeling Friends Forever, he rented a Russian borzoi as a model, returning it after the allotted twenty-five days in order not to become attached). But if you wanted to buy either of these figures today, it's likely you'd be paying at least ten times more for Friends Forever; in 2010 an example of this statuette was sold at Christie's New York for US$68,500.

According to Sydney consultant and valuer Dalia Stanley, the heftiest prices were paid in the 1990s and early 2000s. "These figures reached their zenith during the boom times from the 1990s until 2007," she told the Australian Financial Review on July 15 this year. "They mirror the macro-economic climate." It was in 2007 that Sotheby's New York sold Les Girls - a chorus line of five dancers - for US$936,000.

But the market for Chiparus has strengthened in recent years, as UK expert Judith Miller noted in 2013. "Over the last year or so, the auction and retail prices for Chiparus's dancing figures have been little short of phenomenal," she wrote in the UK Telegraph newspaper on June 24 of that year. Notable examples cited by Miller included Russian Dancers, modelled on Nijinsky and Ida Rubinstein in Scheherazade, from the Ballet Russes, fetching £58,000 at Sotheby's, London, in May; Starfish Dancer going for £120,000 at Christie's London, also in May; and the sale of Les Girls for US$934,000 at Sotheby's New York.

So why are admiring collectors with deep pockets prepared to dig so deep, Miller was asked. "Well, first there is Chiparus's exquisite and subtly sensual modelling of the female (and also male) form," she noted. "Secondly, there is the high quality of the casting - at the prestigious Parisian foundries of Edmond Etling & Cie, and Les Neveux de J. Lehmann. And thirdly, there is the exceptional decoration." Above all of these desirable characteristics, however, Miller listed the fact that Chiparus successfully encapsulated in his dancers the spirit, the essence of a most distinctive age. "Inspired by Serge Diaghilev's innovative and colourful Ballets Russes, by sexually liberated French theatrical revues such as Les Folies Bergere, and also by the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian art," she said, "Chiparus's dancers appear to personify that most glamorous of eras and that most distinctive of styles: 1920s Art Deco."

This information first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit