Dear Helaine and Joe:
This marble bust is signed "Vicari." It has been in the family for at least 100 years. We are trying to determine the value. Are you able to help us?
Dear B. A.:
Busts like this one made by European sculptors from the early years of the 20th century are not uncommon. Most are rather vapid, soulless representations of young women and look like they could have been cranked out by the dozen.
This one, however, is different because the portrait of a young woman in a jaunty hat covering springy curls shows a person with a small mouth and deep, expressive eyes. The clothing is rather conventional for this sort of bust, but the face and expression are engaging.
The artist who crafted the piece was Cristoforo Vicari (the large "C" is lightly superimposed over the "V" in Vicari). Vicari was born in 1848 in the Swiss municipality of Caslano, which is in the Canton area of Ticino (which looks a bit like a long beak thrust into Northern Italy).
Vicari studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan. After completing his studies, Vacari worked for a time in Zurich. At some point, he came to Lugano, Switzerland, where he worked, exhibited and died in 1913.
B. A. can find a listing for Vicari in Emmanuel Benezit's Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, which was first published in French between 1911 and 1923. Several editions have been printed since then, including one in 1999, which has the Vacari's listing on page 207 of Vol. 14. An English edition was published in 2006. The reference set is considered one of the most important and seminal sources for information on professional artists.
In his letter, B. A. refers to the piece as having been made from marble, and it very well may have been. But we have also found references to similar busts made from alabaster. Alabaster is a relatively soft form of translucent gypsum and is much more easily carved than marble, which is metamorphosed limestone.
We do not know which mineral this one happens to be, but we are not sure it matters all that much for the purposes of today's question. Value is the question here, and we can report a similar piece was sold at Hart Galleries in Houston in August 2004 for $1,500. Unfortunately, that was a long time ago, and more current sales figures seem to suggest the price has declined.
In recent years, large, important Vicari sculptures have sold for more than $100,000 at auction, but his smaller more commercial efforts do appear to be down a bit. But at about 18 inches tall we still feel the piece should retail in the $1,500 to $2,000 range.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at email@example.com. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.