Bronze bookends, ashtrays, and inkwells were plentiful during the Art Deco era, but bronze figures were the most popular objects made of the copper alloy. In fact, the American affection for figural bronzes began in the 1890s, growing out the Art Nouveau figurative tradition in which female figures appeared to be draped rather than clothed, their hair flowing as if blown by a stiff wind.

By the 1920s, artists such as Demetre Chiparus of Paris were creating small, figurative sculptures designed to grace a side table or mantel. Chiparus’s dancers wore cold-painted costumes suggesting the Ballet Russes. Like many of his contemporaries, Chiparus also paired cast bronze with carved ivory to create what are known as chryselephantine sculptures.

A good example of such a piece is Chiparus’s two-foot-tall rendition of the ancient Assyrian queen Semiramis, whose outstretched ivory arms support curtains of pleated polychromed bronze. Her face is also made of ivory, as is her exposed midriff. The rest of her outfit, what little there is of it, might cause Lady Gaga to blush.

Ferdinand (Fritz) Preiss of Berlin actually began his career as an ivory carver, but he became known for his almost action-figure-like female athletes such as archers and tennis players, who were usually perched on marble or onyx bases. Other Preiss subjects included women in cabarets, some spreading their costume bat wings, others cradling a delicate mandolin.

While Preiss worked in a style that strikes us as cartoony today, Marcel-Andre Bouraine and Pierre Le Faguays were truer to Art Deco. Bouraine’s mythical figures are similar to the Paul Manship sculptures in front of Rockefeller Center in New York City. Le Faguays, who often signed his pieces Fayral, was perhaps more influential than his contemporaries, but the artists he inspired, including Preiss and Chiparus, achieved more success in their careers.

In the United States, upscale shops in New York City such as Alfred Dunhill did a brisk business selling these and other imported bronzes. This prompted U.S. silver manufacturer Gorham to open an entire bronze division in Providence, Rhode Island, to capitalize on the trend. One of Gorham's most successful artists was Harriet Frishmuth, who was known for her small nude statuettes and table fountains.

While many of the best known sculptors from France and Austria were men, Gorham gave women an opportunity to design. In addition to Frishmuth, there was Maude Sherwood Jewett, Ma...

When looking at Art Deco bronzes, make sure it's clear whether the piece is in the Art Deco style or actually from the Art Deco era. Objects from the 1920s and ’30s often show evidence of wear, especially surfaced that have been cold-painted. If the paint looks too new, it probably is. Pieces that are excessively polished are also suspect—real vintage bronze will have a greenish patina.

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