Illustration by Joel Holland
Illustration by Joel Holland

Americans rightly take great pride in the freedoms afforded to us by the First Amendment. Which is what makes the ongoing self-censorship among a group of highly regarded art scholars, who work at some of our most prestigious and respected museums and universities, so deeply and profoundly disturbing.

Instead of speaking out publicly and forcefully against what they believe to be wrong -- specifically, a questionable multimillion-dollar trade in sculptures supposedly by Edgar Degas -- they instead meet in secret, communicate cryptically and repeatedly decline requests to be interviewed on the record.

These experts are keeping mum not because they have doubts about the accuracy of their opinions or their facts, but because they are afraid of being sued at a time when museum and university budgets are increasingly constrained and fighting potential libel or defamation lawsuits is a decidedly low priority.

Against this deeply unsettling backdrop, the silence of the experts almost makes sense. Unfortunately, it also allows a questionable trade to proliferate. Is this the way freedom of speech is supposed to work -- that it exists only for those who can afford the costs required to defend it?

This sad saga began in 2001, when a New York businessman, Walter Maibaum, and his wife, Carol Conn, got wind of the fact that a new bronze edition of the famous “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen” by Edgar Degas was being cast in the Valsuani foundry outside of Paris, which is owned by an art dealer and sculptor named Leonardo Benatov.

At first, Maibaum has written, he was skeptical that a new bronze of the famous sculpture could be in production. He was aware that the two known plasters from which bronze sculptures can be cast were in the National Gallery in Washington and in the Joslyn Art Museum, in Omaha, Nebraska. Neither museum had lent its plaster to the foundry to be cast in bronze.

Curious, Maibaum and his wife flew to Paris and eventually were led to a previously unknown plaster of the famous Degas sculpture, said to have been created during the artist’s lifetime. When Maibaum saw it, he had no doubts about its authenticity. “Only Degas himself could have created something so masterful,” he later wrote. It could not have been “a copy or a fake, for had it been, the compositional forms on this plaster would have more closely conformed to those” at the National Gallery and the Joslyn. Furthermore, he decided, “the figure’s structure and anatomy was perfect -- not clumsy in any respect.”

Degas, one suspects, was turning in his grave. Before his death in 1917, he repeatedly expressed concern that charlatans might highjack his legacy by casting his sculptures in bronze and selling them to collectors, and is said to have told his fellow painter Georges Rouault, “What I fear most is not dust but the hand of man.”

The “Little Dancer” was the only sculpture Degas ever allowed to be exhibited, at the sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. It was made of yellow wax and dressed in a cloth costume, including a gauze tutu and a ribbon in her hair. That wax sculpture is now in the National Gallery. Degas worked in wax and clay for almost 40 years, but he didn’t cast a single work in bronze. “To be survived by sculpture in bronze -- what a responsibility!” he said. “Bronze is so very indestructible.”

As he predicted, Degas’ heirs couldn’t resist cashing in on his legacy and, in the decades after the artist’s death, authorized the casting of something like 1,400 bronzes from plasters found in his studio. In 2009, a bronze “Little Dancer” cast in 1922 from a plaster made from the wax figure in the National Gallery was sold at Sotheby’s London to a collector in Asia for $19.2 million. There are said to be only 10 bronzes of the “Little Dancer” cast from the original left in private hands. Others are in museum collections around the world.

In any case, after seeing that plaster for the first time outside Paris, Maibaum was eventually introduced to Benatov, the owner of the Valsuani foundry, and he bought from him an unspecified number of “Little Dancer” bronzes. Maibaum refuses to say how many. (Maibaum is no stranger to controversy: He once sold a sculpture purported to be by Picasso through Christie’s auction house, for more than $6 million -- including taxes and commission -- to the collector and media mogul S.I. Newhouse Jr. After the auction house raised questions of provenance, the sale was rescinded on contractual grounds.)

Then, in 2004, the plot thickened. According to Maibaum, he was at Benatov’s foundry when suddenly, after lunch, Benatov leapt to his feet and took Maibaum to a locked storeroom. In front of him, Maibaum saw a cache of 73 more previously unknown plasters supposedly made by Degas. “It was a shocking sight,” Maibaum wrote. “To me it was the equivalent of opening King Tut’s tomb in Egypt or uncovering the terra cotta warriors in China. The moment I gazed upon these remarkable plasters I instantly knew that everything that had been written about Degas’ sculptures in the past had to be reconsidered.”

Maibaum and Conn bought the 73 plasters from Benatov through a new company they created -- the Degas Sculpture Project Ltd. -- and agreed to cast the plasters into bronze and sell them into the market. (In 2010, a New York dealer appraised a set of 74 bronzes -- the 73 plus the “Little Dancer” -- at $37.25 million.)

By this time, Maibaum had joined forces with Gregory Hedberg, an art historian at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York, and Stuart Feld, the president of the gallery. Independent of Maibaum, Hedberg and Feld had heard about new Degas plasters floating around Paris, and the bronzes being made from them at Valsauni, and became convinced that not only were they authentic but also that Degas had made the newly discovered plasters himself, which if true would upset most of what Degas experts generally believed about the way Degas worked.

In late 2009, in an elegant four-color catalogue produced in conjunction with the first exhibition of the 74 bronzes cast from the new plasters at an obscure museum in Athens, Maibaum and Hedberg announced to the world their findings. Their essays in the catalogue were full of vim and vigor and were bursting with confidence.

“All the bronze sculptures in this exhibition were cast from recently discovered plasters made from Degas’ original waxes during his lifetime and with his consent,” the catalogue claimed. “This is remarkable since all the other bronzes one can currently see in museums and elsewhere were cast from masters made after the artist’s death. Therefore, the bronzes in this exhibition can be considered the original versions, and all the others the second versions of these sculptures.”

Not surprisingly, the catalogue -- and its hyperbole -- caught the attention of Degas experts worldwide. They were appalled by the claims of Maibaum and Hedberg that museums around the world -- including in Israel and Bulgaria -- had agreed to exhibit the bronze sets, and that they were being sold to collectors for millions of dollars.

A group of Degas experts agreed to meet discreetly in January 2010 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to discuss what, if anything, they should say or to do about Maibaum and Hedberg and their seemingly outlandish claims.

Attendees at the meeting have told me that among those present were Gary Tinterow, chairman of the department of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum; Richard Kendall, consultative curator at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; Theodore Reff, professor emeritus of European painting and sculpture at Columbia University; Patricia Failing, professor of art history at the University of Washington; Shelley Sturman and Daphne Barbour, conservators and Degas specialists at the National Gallery of Art; and Arthur Beale, retired chairman of the department of conservation and collections management at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and co-author (with Kendall) of “Degas and the Little Dancer.”

I heard about the secret meeting shortly afterward and then wrote a lengthy article about the growing controversy for ArtNews magazine, which appeared in the April 2010 issue. None of the participants in the meeting would speak with me on the record, nor would they confirm that it had in fact occurred, what transpired there or what they intended to do, if anything, about the Degas Sculpture Project.

Still, on the grounds that I would not attribute the comment to any individual participant, I was told there was universal agreement among the experts that these things were not what they were being advertised as. In declining to speak on-the-record to me, each attendee cited a fear of the potential legal consequences any criticism of Maibaum’s and Hedberg’s “discovery” might engender.

“It’s a shame that a scholar is afraid to offer an opinion,” John Cahill, a partner at the New York law firm Lynn & Cahill, which specializes in art law, told me last year. “The law is generally on the side of people who give opinions in good faith, but the cost and aggravation of litigation is a deterrent in and of itself.”

Since then, I have continued to write about the controversy, peeling back one layer of it after another whenever possible. Yet the Degas experts remain silent. Only Tinterow, of the Metropolitan Museum, has stepped slightly out of the shadows. In May 2010 -- after fully vetting it through the Met’s legal department -- he gave a brief statement to ArtNews about the controversy: “In my opinion, there is nothing that demonstrates that Degas had a set of plaster casts made of his sculptures during his lifetime.”

The Kabuki theater reached an apotheosis, of sorts, earlier this year when Sturman and Barbour -- the Degas experts from the National Gallery -- published their new, comprehensive catalogue of Degas. In it, they steered clear of the controversy, mentioning “recently discovered” plasters only in a footnote. Sturman and Barbour -- and the National Gallery on their behalf -- declined to answer any of my questions.

Unfortunately, such silence is not an isolated incident but part of what seems to be a growing trend nationwide among art experts, where fear of litigation seems to be stifling open, honest and constructive debate. Also keeping much quieter than they should on the matter of the Degas sculpture market are organizations such as the Association of Art Museum Directors, the Art Dealers Association of America, the American Association of Museums and the College Art Association. These groups should be using their bully pulpits, and their professed dedication to art scholarship and integrity, to engage in the scandal but they, too, have remained eerily silent.

One idea being bandied about among the Degas scholars and those collectors who have spent millions of dollars on Maibaum’s sculptures is to convene a symposium that will allow all sides of the debate to air their views in a “litigation-free zone,” if you will. “I’ve encouraged people to get over their litigation hang-ups,” Beale, one of the Degas experts, told me recently. “The concern for litigation is beyond the pale.”

Although the symposium has not yet been agreed to, Beale is right. It should be in the interest of all reputable dealers, museums and scholars to unravel the mystery of the Degas plasters.

(William D. Cohan, a former investment banker and the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: William D. Cohan at wdcohan@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.