Q. I enjoy your column in the Mercury News and now I have a question. I have inherited a small figurine from dear friends who lived in East Berlin during the cold war. They collected many things while working as intelligence officers for the U.S. They had many great stories of that scary era and one was about this figurine. I remember them saying it was from the mid-1800’s and spoke to a period of depression and food scarcity I think in Germany. I would like to know more and if you could help or direct me I would very much appreciate it.
A. You have an absolutely delightful Vienna Bronze. The term is sort of a catch all for the output of dozens of small foundries producing small works of art from the mid 19th through the mid 20th century. Vienna bronzes are known for their exquisite attention to detail and they often have exotic, humorous or anthropomorphic shapes.
Your bronze is signed Nam Greb and is marked by a letter B in a U-shaped cartouche. This identifies it as having come from the Franz Bergmann foundry in Vienna.
Franz Xavier Bergmann (1861-1936) inherited a small foundry from his father and greatly expanded its scope of production, becoming one of the most prolific and well-known creators of bronzes in the Art Nouveau period. The foundry was famous for its depictions of Ottoman style harems, carpet sellers and dancers: the works exhibited superior sculpting, casting and painting. It is not known how many artists worked in the Bergmann foundry, nor is it known which, if any, of the figures were designed by Bergmann himself.
The foundry also produced a number of indecorous erotic sculptures. These nymphs, satyrs, and harem girls were most often concealed within an innocent appearing figure: a hinged skirt might lift to reveal a nude dancer underneath; a turbaned man might open his robes to reveal a sensuous woman. Scholars tend to attribute these to Bergmann himself: conventional wisdom says that the Nam Greb signature (Bergmann spelled backwards) was a way to hide his identify.
Your figure, with a well-dressed woman hiding food under her coat, is one I’d never seen before. Considering the time it was made – somewhere towards the beginning of the First World War – she is a politically charged figure even more taboo than the nudes.
By 1914, Vienna’s population of more than 2 million people imported more than one third of their food. The British embargo in the autumn of 1915 resulted in food shortages and rationing. Consumers could buy no fats on Mondays or Thursdays, no meats on Tuesdays and Fridays, and no wheat on weekends. Your little smuggler hides a string of sausages, a chicken and a sack of wheat - certainly a provocative and mouth-watering haul.
I was not able to find reference material identifying her so I went a different route. First I asked retired machinist Bob Neiderhouser if he could identify the nut bolt holding her to the base: a modern bolt might indicate a reproduction. Bob determined that the nut was hand made and could very well have dated to the early 20th century.
I next asked Chuck Morganstern of Woodchuck Antiques in San Francisco if he had an example like your figure in his collection of Art Nouveau bronzes. He did not but he had seen a version of this figure and was quite sure Bergmann designed it. As Chuck said, “He’s nutty enough to do this - he signs his name backwards and probably had a screw loose.” I was hoping that your sculpture’s scarcity and humor might put it at a higher value than most other Bergmann figures from the time but I was wrong. Aside from his editorializing, Chuck pointed out that your figure needs restoration: she has lost a lot of her original finish. At auction she would sell in the $400-600 range.