There are 73 different Edgar Degas bronze sculptures in the world, and Deba Gray stumbled across an original version of No. 26 in a New York City foundry warehouse where she had rented space to paint.
“I said to the owner, ‘Do you realize you have a Degas sculpture with no security? It’s just sitting there,’ ” Gray recalls.
The owner sheepishly confessed he often used the heavy bronze piece as a doorstop.
Gray, the owner of Gray’s Auctioneers in Cleveland, later learned the sculpture had been purchased for $25 in the 1960s from a New York City art dealer. She expects it will sell for between $30,000 and $50,000 when she auctions off the work on Nov. 14. The piece is missing its base, which makes it worth less than it otherwise would. Last year, a similar Degas sculpture sold for $3.7 million at Sotheby’s.
The piece Gray discovered, titled Le Tub, is one of the black wax sculptures that Degas’ family bronzed after his death. It was made in 1888, around the same time the artist was creating his well-known paintings of dancers. “It is almost the birth of modern art, the turning point,” Gray says.
To confirm the find as authentic, Gray embarked on a search to uncover whether the sculpture was stolen or was taken during war because the base containing the signature and foundry name was missing. She later learned the sculpture had once belonged to Broadway producer Billy Rose. A fire in his home had damaged several pieces of art, including the Degas sculpture.
“That was one breakthrough,” Gray says, “but I had to prove it was a real Degas.”
In September, after hitting many dead ends, she connected with Degas expert Walter Maibaum, who invited Gray to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to compare her version of Le Tub against the museum’s version. (Degas always cast a series — A through T — of each work: The Met has Le Tub No. 26 A.)
“I jumped into my car with the Degas bronze and drove to New York,” Gray says. “They weren’t expecting anything amazing. They thought it would be a recast, but nope, it’s real.”