Salvador Dalí was known for his bizarre paintings, but even his melting clocks and grotesque figures can’t match the convoluted market for the late-surrealist’s late sculptures.
In an impressively investigated report on ArtNews earlier this month, Thane Peterson details a web of art dealers in Europe, America, and Hong Kong who are replicating Dalí’s sculptures so quickly, and under such murky legal authority, that it has become difficult for anyone to say what counts as a "real" Dalí sculpture.
Peterson explains that the confusion dates to rash decisions Dalí and his wife, Gala, made late in life to sell rights to his sculptures, typically under informal conditions for cash payments:
The documents show that the aging Dalí and his wife were willing to sell rights to virtually anything, including Dalí’s signature, to fund their lavish lifestyle, usually for one-time payments in cash and sometimes artist’s proofs of the sculptures created. The couple’s business managers, meanwhile, sold additional rights after the artist’s death.
The sculptures that Dalí signed away were often not sculptures at all. Peterson explains that in a rush to raise money, a declining Dalí hastily made dozens and dozens of wax maquettes—small, rough models used in the preliminary stages of sculpting—and sold the rights to cast larger replicas. In other cases, he sold the rights to make sculptures based on details from his paintings, meaning there are “Dalí sculptures” going around that he never actually touched in three-dimensional form.
The whole situation is a colossal mess. In 2008 Peterson wrote an initial report detailing the cross-cutting legal claims and shady international art dealers operating in a market where everything is in dispute: Who owns the rights to which sculptures; which sculptures are in fact by Dalí at all; and whether owners of real contracts are sticking to provisions that limit the size and number of replicas they’re allowed to cast.
If there is any hope for clarifying the market for Dalí’s late-sculptures, it lies with the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, the organization in charge of Dalí’s estate. The Foundation has been reluctant to litigate in this area (in part because these works are considered a minor part of Dalí’s oeuvre), but this past June it won a court decision against the Museo Dalí Escultor for misleading use of the artist’s name.
Peterson explains that the decision could give the foundation a precedent with which to bring actors in the Dalí sculpture market to heel. Still, it’s going to be a long time—if ever—before you’ll be able to shop for a Dalí bronze with any confidence that you’re getting the real thing.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.