Known for his upturned moustache and sensation-inducing paintings, Salvador Dalí was one of the 20th century’s most famous artists. And he knew it.
“Compared to Velázquez, I am nothing,” he said in 1960, “but compared to contemporary painters, I am the most big genius of modern time.”
But though his work has been obsessively catalogued by curators and historians, one of his sculptures—a rare Christ of St. John of the Cross made of wax—was thought to be lost.
Now, it’s been found. On Wednesday, a Hawaiian gallery exhibited the rediscovered work on what would have been the artist’s 118th birthday.
Just 14 when his works were exhibited for the first time, the Surrealist created dream-like works with different themes ranging from religiosity to memory throughout his long life. The sculpture commemorates his 1948 mid-life return to the Catholic faith.
The work had been stored in its original Plexiglas box for over four decades in the vault of a private collector from the United States. Although the seller asked to remain anonymous, a spokesperson from to Harte International Galleries confirmed that they had a “close relationship” with the artist, writes the Art Newspaper‘s Kabir Jhala.
The gallery’s co-owners, Glenn and Devon Harte, discovered the piece after contacting the collector to purchase an art book.
Created in 1979, the wax sculpture was used as the model for different editions of Dalí’s bas-relief sculptures Christ of St. John of the Cross made from platinum, gold, silver and bronze. This work could be considered a 3-D variation of the artist’s 1951 painting with the same title currently displayed at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow.
The piece is now referred to as the Lost Wax, in reference to an ancient process called lost-wax casting that is still used to create reproductions of Dalí’s three-dimensional works.
The preservation of wax sculptures is complex and unusual, and most experts expected that the original mold had not survived.
“Harte International Galleries has sold a number of the ‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’ bas-relief sculptures throughout our history, but no one thought the original work—done by a senior Dalí in wax—still existed,” said Glenn Harte, co-owner of Harte International Galleries, in a statement.
The gallery collaborated with Nicolas Descharnes, a Salvador Dalí specialist, and Carlos Evaristo, an iconographic expert, to authenticate the sculpture. Descharnes’ father, Robert Descharnes, was Dalí’s secretary until his death, and his family has worked on authenticating the Spanish Surrealist’s works for over 40 years to maintain his legacy and protect it from forgeries.
In 2018, for instance, Descharnes authenticated a Dalí painting that had been stored in a private collection for 75 years, wrote Brigit Katz for Smithsonian magazine. Descharnes spent nine months searching through archives and conducting infrared photography tests to ensure that the painting was not a fake reproduction.
The market for Dalí sculptures has long been contentious. In 2008, ARTnews reported on longstanding controversies about how many sculptures Dalí actually made, which of the purported Dalí creations on the market were actually created by the artist, and who owns the right to produce them.
“There are always two levels to authentication,” Descharnes told the Art Newspaper‘s Gabriella Angeleti in 2018. “One is the technical level, with which I’ll have the help of other experts, and the other is just pure knowledge.”
“ … Little is ever as it appears to be in the world of Salvador Dalí,” ARTnews wrote at the time. But enthusiasm for the sculpture is real—and though the gallery won’t say how much it paid for the artwork, they’ve valued the sculpture at $10 million to $20 million.