The Case of the Bronze Girl and the Secret Garden

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We recently received a claim for an unmarked and unsigned bronze sculpture of a girl holding a birdbath. This sculpture was the central point of a fountain located in a formal garden on a grand drive leading to the insureds’ stately home. The insureds were claiming a value of $17,000, with an original purchase price of $10,000. No documentation was provided. The insureds remember that the work was purchased 25 years ago in New York at the recommendation of their interior designer, but they did not remember where. They believed this to be an original work of art. The photographs submitted to us for valuation showed the sculpture after it was knocked over in a windstorm.

Cracking the Case

Without an artist’s name or background information, we began our research by identifying key characteristics of the sculpture, then searching for those characteristics in sculptures described in public collections and galleries. Nestled in the heart of Central Park’s only formal garden, the Conservatory Garden, and standing at the end of a small waterlily pool, we found a sculpture of a girl wearing diaphanous clothing, one leg bent and holding a bowl, which serves as a bath for the birds who gather. The girl gently twists to look down and over her right shoulder, while the young boy rests at her feet playing the flute. This is the memorial fountain for Frances Hodgson Burnett, as created by artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955). It depicts Mary and Dickon, the protagonists of Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. The sculpture was a match.

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