Q: I have come across these two figurines and need some help finding information about them and determining the value. I believe they are made from spelter and are probably French. On the tag, one says “Buchonne” while the other reads “Bucheron.” Is this the artist with his or her name spelled differently?
A: We have heard the term “spelter” defined as “French bronze,” but this statement is far from the truth.
Spelter is more synonymous with the chemical element zinc and is most familiar to us as the coating put on such things as iron buckets to protect them from corrosion. It has been stated that zinc was unknown in Europe until the 16th century, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was used widely to make inexpensive statuary and other items.
Copper and lead are sometimes added to zinc to make a harder, more durable metal. This is called “brass” and it is sometimes used instead of the much more expensive bronze. It is also common to find spelter figures that have been plated with a thin coating of bronze for aesthetic purposes — and this is the case for the pair of figures in today’s question.
These bronzed spelter figures can be real “foolers” for inexperienced collectors who see the bronze coating on the outside and assume that the piece is solid bronze. Usually, a quick peek underneath will reveal the silvery gray metal that says “spelter” rather than “bronze.”
On occasion, however, it may take a small scratch made with a sharp object in an unseen area of the piece to reveal the glimmer of so-called “white metal” rather than the ruddy richness of bronze. Why the fuss? Well, in general (but not always), spelter was used to make decorative objects while bronze was used to make art, and the difference in value can be significant.
Oftentimes when we see a name on a tag at the base of figures such as these, we assume this might be the name of the artist, but in this case, it is not. Instead, it is the title of the subject matter.
“Bucheron” is the masculine word for a lumberjack or woodcutter. And from the bundle of sticks being carried on the male figure’s back, we see that this is an appropriate designation. The other appellation, “bucheronne,” is merely the feminine version of the same job description. We see this is true because the woman is protectively carrying a lamb, which she may have rescued in some sense. We also see a bundle of flowers wrapped up in her apron.
This pair of spelter figures was probably made circa 1900, but in the past 100 years or so they have lived a very rough life. Much of their original bronze coating has rubbed off, leaving a surface that reminds us of the surface of the moon (well, not quite that bad), but due to these losses, much of their decorative value is gone.
At one time these were probably intended to be lamp bases or perhaps mantel decorations in a middle-class home. Unfortunately, their current insurance replacement value is modest and in the $125 to $175 range.
Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email email@example.com. If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.