Degas’ ‘Little Dancer’ fetches record $41.6 million at auction of late ballet patron’s art collection



One of Edgar Degas’ iconic ‘Little Dancer’ sculptures broke the artist’s auction record on Thursday when it sold for $41.6 million from the collection of the late Anne Bass, the ex-wife of an oil billionaire who defended American ballet.


“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans”, or “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”, is a bronze cast of the only sculpture Degas ever exhibited during his lifetime, based on a young ballerina named Marie van Goethem who was studying ballet at Paris.

Thursday’s winning bid for the sculpture – which sold at Christie’s – surpassed the previous record price for a Degas work at auction, which was last set in 2015 when another bronze ‘Little Dancer ‘ had sold for $24.8 million.

The record bronze was last owned by Bass, a longtime patron of the New York City Ballet and former wife of Texas oil billionaire Sid Bass, who is worth $3.5 billion according to Forbes’ real time wealth tracker.

This bronze was commissioned in August 1927 from the prestigious Hébrard foundry, which Degas’s family operated after the artist’s death to cast the sculptures he left behind (although the Hébrard casts were created after the death of Degas in 1917, they are widely seen in the art world as authentic pieces by the artist).

Bass acquired the sculpture of Sandra Payson, the daughter of industrialist Charles Shipman Payson and his wife Joan Whitney Payson, a member of the prominent Whitney family and the first woman to own a major league baseball team which she did not own not inherited (Bass’ longtime Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City was also once occupied by the Paysons, Christie’s said).


The original “Little Dancer” wax sculpture featured real hair, was dressed in a cloth tutu, and caused a scene in 1881 when Degas first exhibited it in Paris, where critics called it a “simply hideous” and “flower of precocious depravity”. a reference to the fact that ballet dancers of this era often worked as prostitutes. Fewer than 600 of the bronze sculptures of the “Little Dancer” were created before Hébrard closed in 1937 and the family licensed a different foundry, making the casts of this coveted race on the art market. The original sculpture, made by Degas circa 1880, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC

Key Context

Bass died aged 78 of ovarian cancer last year. When she split from Sid Bass in a high-profile divorce in 1988, she walked away with an estimated $200-500 million settlement, which would be the largest in Texas history at the time. . In addition to ballet, Bass was passionate about art and acquired one of the “most important American collections” to come to market in decades, auction house Christie’s said when it announced the auction. of his works in March. Next to the sculpture, paintings by Degas, Marc Rothko and Claude Monet retrieved Thursday.

Further reading

The $250 million collection of paintings and statues by arts philanthropist Anne Bass is up for auction (Forbes)


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