During the summer of 2011, MIR Appraisal received an inquiry from a client in central Illinois, with regard to a large sculpture installed in the backyard of their beautiful estate. Although previous art world sources, including auction house specialists and other experts, had deemed the sculpture inauthentic and relatively worthless, the client remained convinced of its value and sought an additional opinion from MIR Appraisal’s senior appraiser.
The initial photographs of the work indicated that further investigation was needed, and our senior appraiser traveled to the estate to view and evaluate the sculpture on-site. This on-site visit initiated a lengthy research process that would ultimately result in the authentication of a museum-quality Hermon Atkins MacNeil bronze sculpture.
The story of this sculpture begins with the artist himself. American sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil was born on a Massachusetts farm in 1866 and studied at the Normal Art School in Boston. Following his graduation, he moved first to Cornell, New York to study industrial art and modeling, and then to Paris in1888 to study sculpture. MacNeil immersed himself in the artistic culture of late 19th century Paris, and studied at the illustrious École des Beaux-Arts and Académie Julian under sculptors Henri Chapu and Alexander Falguiere.
In 1891, MacNeil left Paris to settle in Chicago, where his sculptures were exhibited in the 1893 Columbian Exposition. At this time, MacNeil was also introduced to the Native American cultures featured in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. MacNeil developed a keen interest in the Native American community that would shape his life and work for the rest of his life. The sculptor traveled to the American Southwest to observe the Native American cultures in their native environments, which gave his sculptures a highly documentary quality.
In 1895, MacNeil was awarded the Rinehart Roman Scholarship, which took him to Rome to study Classical sculpture. MacNeil applied Classical techniques and styles to his Native American subjects, as exemplified by his most well-known sculpture, The Sun Vow. The base of the sculpture is marked “R.R.S.” in honor of the scholarship that brought him to Rome.
Upon his return to America at the turn of the 20th century, MacNeil’s sculptures were well known and widely admired. He was awarded several key commissions, including the Standing Liberty Quarter (1916), the Marquette building in Chicago, and the east pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. He lived and worked in New York until his death in 1947.
The Sun Vow describes a coming-of-age ritual within the Native American culture. To achieve warrior status within the tribe, a young boy must shoot an arrow into the sun. If his elder cannot see the arrow in the blinding sunlight, the boy has successfully matured from boyhood to manhood. MacNeil’s image depicts the moment following the arrow’s release, and both the elder chieftain and the boy gaze into the sunlight. The boy’s delicate and childlike features, defined musculature and curved pose reflect the Classical influences that MacNeil explored during his time in Rome. The tight, centralized composition reflects the close relationship and strong bond between elder and boy, both locked in an intimate moment of shared suspense. The boy’s elongated arm draws the eye upwards, and serves as a reminder of the unseen arrow that defines the composition.
MacNeil created multiple versions of The Sun Vow in various sizes, the largest of which were previously thought to be available only in the collections of world-class museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Lost Masterpiece
In the summer of 2011, MIR Appraisal Services received an inquiry regarding a backyard sculpture in central Illinois. Our senior appraiser reviewed a series of photographs of the sculpture, and immediately determined that an on-site consultation was necessary. We scheduled an appointment, and drove several hundred miles outside of Chicago to view the sculpture in person.
Upon viewing the sculpture for the first time, our senior appraiser immediately perceived this piece to be an authentic version of MacNeil’s The Sun Vow. The high production quality and artistic merit “spoke” to our appraiser, and his visual and tactile observation of the sculpture supported this strong gut feeling. The delicate sculptural details, masterful composition, and the sense of movement and texture all contributed to the appraiser’s positive reaction to the sculpture.
However, one art world professional’s intuition alone is not sufficient proof of an artwork’s authenticity. When an artwork’s provenance is unknown, as in this particular case, proving authenticity requires professional research and expert consultation. In addition, sculptures of this size are frequently copied and produced even after an artist’s death, resulting in a sculpture that has the same appearance as the original but that is not an authentic work of a particular artist.
To develop a case for the sculpture’s authenticity, the MIR Appraisal staff began to trace the sculpture’s history based on the limited information at hand. For example, the fig leaf shown over the child’s genitalia implied that the sculpture was cast from the same version as the sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago (the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s version does not include this fig leaf).
The authentication process also required many hours of archival research, as well as consultations with scholars and museum professionals. After months of thorough research, we were ultimately able to attribute the sculpture to Hermon Atkins MacNeil. As a result of this attribution, the sculpture’s value was increased from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whereas other art world sources immediately dismissed this sculpture as relatively worthless, MIR Appraisal Services was able to prove the item’s authenticity through hours of painstaking research. Throughout its 20 years in operation, MIR Appraisal has continually upheld the highest research standards, which in this case resulted in the authentication of a previously unknown masterpiece by an American innovator.