The 10th anniversary of 9/11 placed the twin towers of the World Trade Center at the forefront of everyone’s mind again last year, but ask most people to name the monument that best expresses American values and they will surely cite the Statue of Liberty, or, as it is correctly called, Liberty Enlightening the World.
The statue’s fame has led to it being copied on myriad occasions, and doppelgängers abound, from kitsch tourist souvenirs to a 30ft replica that resides in the Brooklyn Museum. But when art dealer Guillaume Duhamel found himself wandering around the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris six years ago, his attention was drawn to a 2.77m-tall plaster maquette that somehow seemed rather better than any copy he had seen before.
Further investigation revealed that the reason it bore such an excellent likeness was that it was the actual, first plaster model for Liberty Enlightening the World made by the Alsace-born sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, who was commissioned by the Franco-American Union (a committee organised to promote relations between France and the US) to design a memorial that would be donated by the former to the latter.
Bartholdi spent from 1875 to 1878 perfecting the preliminary work, which was subsequently scaled up by around 16 times to create the finished article. It is made from beaten copper formed around an iron framework designed by the celebrated French engineer Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, who cleverly insulated the frame from the copper with asbestos soaked in shellac to prevent corrosion from the salty air of New York Harbour.
Raising funds to pay for a base on which to mount the statue took some time, but in October 1886 the monument was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland, having been completed in Paris prior to being shipped to New York in 1885 and reassembled on Liberty Island using an ingenious method of “invisible” riveting that gives the impression of a solid object.
The statue quickly became famous around the world, not least because of its location, which made it the first thing that caught the eye of anyone sailing into New York at a time when the city was attracting thousands of immigrants a week. Unfortunately for Bartholdi, its notoriety entirely overshadowed him and the rest of his work went more or less forgotten. He died in 1904 and, in accordance with his wishes, his widow donated the all-important first plaster model to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, where it remains today.
The model was delivered there in 1907 on a wooden pedestal decorated with bronze ornaments, together with dozens of documents relating to the many phases of Bartholdi’s ambitious project. Also included were two display cases decorated with dioramas showing how the original was enlarged in plaster, and how copper was hammered into a wooden model in an experimental process to determine how the final statue would be made. The museum also received a giant index finger in hammered copper and a commensurately large plaster ear – full-sized studies for parts used on the real thing.
Perhaps surprisingly, few people recognised the significance of the museum’s exhibit, and it remained relatively overlooked for an entire century until Duhamel discovered it during his visit.
“I was absolutely astonished when I learnt that this was the original plaster for one of the most famous monuments on the planet,” explains Duhamel. “It led me to undertake several years of research, during which I looked at the best of the many copies around the world to see if they had been created from Bartholdi’s plaster. Eventually, I and the many scholars who were involved determined that they had not.”
This fact proved crucial to the potential success of Duhamel’s ultimate plan, which was to work with the Musée des Arts et Métiers to create a series of bronze casts of the plaster, and which would represent the ultimate execution of Bartholdi’s original design.
“According to French law, in order to make an edition from an artist’s original maquette, one needs to fulfil three criteria,” Duhamel says. “The maquette must never before have been used for the purpose; the edition must be of exactly the same size and to exactly the same design as the maquette and the edition must be limited to a maximum of 12 objects – any more and it then becomes a reproduction.”
With the criteria fulfilled, Duhamel contacted the Fonderie Susse, France’s oldest art foundry, to create the bronze editions of Liberty Enlightening the World using the ancient lost-wax method, which involves making a new cast of the artist’s model, then using the foundry cast to produce a wax version that is “lost” during firing, but leaves a heat-resistant mould into which the molten bronze can then be poured.
In the case of Liberty Enlightening the World, the result is, quite simply, stunning. Every crease and fold of the flowing robes that Bartholdi achieved in his plaster is replicated in the 2.77m bronze; the diadem’s seven rays – evoking the seven seas and the seven continents – are crisp and sharp; the figure’s facial features are bold and beautifully defined.
Duhamel donated the first of the editions to the museum, which recently placed it on display in its entrance plaza. The second edition was sold to an anonymous buyer, the third Duhamel is keeping for himself to lend to exhibitions, and the fourth was inaugurated in New York a few weeks ago.
That, you will have calculated, leaves eight further editions still to be produced. The fifth of these is currently being created at Fonderie Susse and is available for sale at a price of $2m – a sum that could prove to be a bargain, since the price of each subsequent edition will rise as fewer examples become available.
All prospective purchasers need to consider is where they would like to site their very own world-famous monument. On a scaled-down replica of Liberty Island, perhaps?