THE HIGH COSTS OF BRONZE SCULPTURE

Why does bronze sculpture cost so much? I get asked that question quite often and the answer tends to be long and involved.


For one thing, the foundry process is very labor intensive. Once I deliver a completed clay sculpture to a foundry, the actual physical work of producing a finished bronze piece is only about 30% complete. Without going into much detail, production steps at the foundry include: (1) Making a mold of the clay original (2) making a wax replica of the original, using the mold (3) chasing or smoothing the wax replica, removing mold marks etc. (4) making a ceramic mold around the wax replica. This takes several applications of ceramic slurry, which must dry between coats (5) firing the ceramic mold to drive out to wax replica (hence the term lost wax process) (6) pouring molten (about 1800 degrees F) bronze into the ceramic mold (7) after it hardens, removing the ceramic mold/shell by breaking and chipping it from the underlying bronze (8) welding the piece back together. You see, in order to make a mold of, say, a horse, the legs, tail and probably the head must be molded separately, otherwise the mold could not be withdrawn from the original clay model. So appendages, protrusions etc. are severed from the original model and molded and cast separately, then welded back together after the bronze is poured. (9) chasing or smoothing the bronze piece. This consists of grinding off weld marks, ceramic mold marks and imperfections in the metal, as well as recreating such surface detail as hair or feathers that may have been obliterated by the welding and chasing.

(10) sand blasting all or parts of the piece (11) an applying the coloration or patina. This is quite time consuming and, if done correctly, requires an artistic specialist who fires the oxides or acrylics onto the surface of the bronze with a huge blow torch. This phase is almost always done under the artist's supervision. (12) basing, or installing the piece onto the base, usually either wood or stone. Incidentally, the typical base costs for table model-sized bronze pieces is currently about $75 to $125, though I recently paid $250 for a base. With labor charged at $65 to $85/hour all these steps add up.


The cost of materials is also a big factor, as the cost of bronze has skyrocketed over the past few years. Most bronze used in fine art casting is silicon bronze; 95% copper, 4% silicon and 1% manganese (an alternative formula is 92-4-4). The price of copper has risen 500% in just a few years from a low of near $.75 to around $3.50/lb currently. Most artists have tried to eat some or all of the rising foundry costs to keep prices down, but this has gotten to be too much to bear for most.


Those are the hard costs of producing a piece of fine art bronze. Travel costs add up rapidly. The nearest foundry I've found that does good fine art sculpture is 600+ miles away. Kalispell, MT has a foundry I like, and that is 1050 miles from here. So, add in the soft costs of campground fees, diesel fuel, motel rooms when we don't take the fifth wheel etc., and well, let's don't even go there. Suffice it to say that each new piece or pieces require one trip to the foundry to deliver the clay model and one to oversee the patinization. It is not unusual for an artist to travel a couple thousand miles one way to work with a foundry that measures up to his or her standards.


 

So much for the production costs. Now, is the piece of bronze art offered through a gallery? Gallery overhead is very high and gallery owners are not in business to lose money. A current pricing formula for a typical gallery is three times casting costs. Some high end galleries price at four & five times casting costs. That adds up enormously. But, you say, couldn't I just buy direct from the artist and save a bundle? That depends. How long would a gallery owner represent an artist if the two were in a price war bidding contest over the same piece of art?

Some artist/gallery contracts even stipulate that the gallery will get its full commission even if the artist generates the lead and sells the piece himself. Still, some artists will undercut the gallery and arbitrarily lower the price, but it's not really ethical. I recently opted out of gallery representation. I pulled eight pieces from a big gallery on the Oregon coast. There are some really big name sculptors represented there, so I may have made a dumb move. Anyway, mybronzes are now priced much lower, but I will have to take a more proactive marketing stance to reach potential buyers.


Have I answered your question? In future writings I'll address the pros & cons of buying limited edition bronzes Vs the mass produced discount store bronzes (that discussion may surprise you), how to enjoy a bronze sculpture during your life time, then leave it to someone special that is not named in your trust, and the increasing value of bronze sculpture, will it continue to be a good investment?

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