Sculpture, of all the art forms, is most concerned with mass and space and how the two interact.
The word sculpture is derived from the Latin sculpere, which means “to carve.” Today, of course, sculpture isn’t only carved—it can be 3D printed, woven or sewn, constructed from found objects (like a banana duct taped to a wall), etc.—the list of options is as limitless as human imagination.
At the risk of stating the obvious, collectors of sculpture generally have a lot of space. However, two famous collectors (who have since become iconic art world legends) managed to collect hundreds of works by some of the most sought-after sculptors of the 20th century—all while living in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in New York City and earning a very modest living as civil servants.
Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who worked as a mailman and public librarian, respectively, ultimately acquired over 4,000 works of art, many of which were minimalist or conceptual sculptures. They created parameters for their collection, including the requirement that whatever they bought had to fit in a taxi. The Vogels bought art directly out of the studio—to the noted dismay of many gallerists—and often paid artists in installments, due to their middle class status.
The Vogel collection included many famous names: Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Sol LeWitt, John Chamberlain, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Dan Graham, Tony Smith, Joel Shapiro, and so on. The Vogels ultimately gifted their entire collection to The National Gallery of Art in 1992.
A couple decades later, they initiated the donation of 2,500 works from their collection to 50 different institutions in 50 different US states. (In 2008, an excellent documentary on the couple was released.) The Vogels are thus proof that you don’t actually need a lot of space—or particularly deep pockets—to collect sculptures by artists you admire. Still, it helps!
In terms of “art collecting-as-investment”, sculptures are considered highly-collectible, partially because of their durability. Commonly used sculpture materials, such as bronze and marble, are very expensive. Contemporary sculptors like Jeff Koons and Richard Serra might spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars creating a single piece. Those production costs are factored into the final price, so sculptures tend to run on the expensive side.
At this past summer’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland, for example, the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth sold an 11-foot steel sculpture of a spider by Louise Bourgeois for $40 million. As impressive as that sounds, however, five years ago a bronze sculpture from 1913 by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi that measures only 10.5 inches sold for $57.3 million at Christie’s New York. Even small-scale sculptures can thus be an excellent investment—depending on the artist, provenance, material used, and edition size (or scarcity) of the piece in question.
Here’s an introductory guide to collecting sculpture, whether you’re in the market for taxi-sized works or looking for major statement pieces.
Left: Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash. Right: Photo by Tal Gara on Unsplash.
A Very Brief History of Sculpture
Primitive sculptures in the form of carved rocks have been discovered dating as far back as the Stone Age (approx. 230,000-700,000 BCE). Arguably the most famous example of prehistoric sculpture is a carved fertility goddess known as The Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE).
Beyond fertility, sculpture has always been a very important genre for spiritual and religious worship. Icons and other devotional figures, ornate temples and depictions of royalty were traditionally the inspiration behind early sculptures.
Sculptures have also traditionally been used for memorials of all types. Sculptures commemorate important people and events and have also been significant social metaphors—when empires or governments fall, sculptures depicting those leaders are often toppled as a symbolic gesture of revolution.
In terms of modern art, sculptures became a vessel for the avantgarde in the early 1900s. One of the most famous sculptures of all time was actually a urinal, signed R.Mutt and submitted to an artist society for an exhibition in 1917. The work, entitled Fountain and actually created by the renegade French artist Marcel Duchamp, caused a scandal. (It would later be revealed that the actual creator of Fountain was a woman, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.)
The urinal, as well as Duchamp’s sculptures of a bottle rack and a bicycle wheel on a stool, became known as “Readymades,” and ushered in a new era of conceptualism in art. Later, in the 1980s, Jeff Koons would expand the concept of the Readymade with his sculptures of ordinary household items, such as vacuum cleaners.
In the 1990s, the YBAs took the art world by storm, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, both of whom pushed the boundaries of sculpture. While Hirst worked with dead animals, Lucas used everyday detritus—old mattresses, stockings, school desks, buckets, etc.— to create her uncanny soft-sculptures, an extension of pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s soft-sculpture works from the 1960s.
African artist El Anatsui rose to prominence in the early 2000s with his astonishing works, made entirely from recycled materials and found objects including thousands of flattened bottle caps. Indian sculptor Subodh Gupta also found fame during this era with his sculptures that incorporated everyday materials ubiquitous in India like milk pails and bicycles.
Ai Weiwei, a dissident Chinese artist who spent years under house arrest, also uses bicycles in his large-scale sculptures, as well as other “universal symbols of humanity and community”—although his focus is usually critiquing Chinese authoritarian rule, such as surveillance cameras rendered as marble statues and other sardonic works. Currently, African-American artist Simone Leigh is among the most sought-after sculptors in the global art market—her 2022 Venice Biennale pavilion won the Golden Lion for best national presentation. Leigh works in ceramic, bronze, and raffia to create sculptures that invoke the nobility and traditions of her African ancestors.
Sculpture by Jeff Koons, with a wall sculpture work by El Anatsui to the right. Photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash.
Buyer Beware (This Sculpture Could Kill You)
To put it simply, collecting sculpture is not for the faint of heart—or budget. Depending on the scale and materials employed, sculptures can require a great deal of care and maintenance throughout their lifetimes.
One of the most famous contemporary sculptures, Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is composed of a dead tiger shark in formaldehyde. After dealer Larry Gagosian notoriously sold the piece to hedge funder and Mets owner Steve Cohen for $12 million, it was reported that the shark was decomposing and would need to be replaced.
Hirst has used many animal carcasses in his works, which deal with themes like mortality and existentialism; but these “bio-materials” are obviously not intended for long-term display. In fact, whenever a work by Hirst that uses formaldehyde to preserve a dead animal, such as his piece “Away from the Flock,” needs to be relocated, an art handling team dressed in full hazmat suits and gas masks is generally called in for the task.
Outdoor sculptures, on the other hand, are obviously meant to be exposed to the elements, but they can also easily fall victim to “acts of god” and/or the effects of climate change—flooding, fires, hurricanes, etc. Outdoor installations may also require a concrete footing, or a section of ground may need to be leveled, for which permits may be required. All of that adds up, both in terms of time and money—and should thus be factored into one’s art budget.
Meanwhile, indoor sculptures—again, depending on scale, weight and other factors—may require strengthening the existing structure, like reinforcing the foundation.
Installing heavy sculptures can also be dangerous. An art handler was actually killed in the 1970s when a Richard Serra sculpture fell on him while being installed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Two art installers died while installing an Alexander Calder at Princeton University.
And, one of the more ironic tragedies, artist Luis Jimenez was killed while creating a massive public artwork—a bucking bronco that adorns the entrance to the Denver International Airport—when part of it fell on top of him, severing an artery in his leg.
The previous examples are, of course, rare exceptions. Most sculptures do not kill people. Still, it’s important to respect the effort that may be required to safely and successfully install whatever artwork you ultimately acquire. Sculpture is a serious art form and should be treated as such.
That all being said, sculpture can also be whimsical and fun, mysterious and unexpected. Collecting sculpture simply requires a few additional considerations to be made prior to acquisition—and an understanding that not all materials are created equal.
Some Common (and Uncommon) Sculpture Materials
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most-typically used materials in sculpture and their characteristics to know.
Considered a soft stone, alabaster has been used for centuries to create sculptures. It’s typically white, bordering translucent. Alabaster should not be installed outside, because it is water soluble. Also important to note: never use water to clean alabaster, “even a damp cloth can cause damage to the delicate stone.” Instead, use saliva or mineral spirits.
One of the more affordable metals, aluminum is popular with sculptures because it is lightweight and therefore easier to work with than heavier materials. Aluminum is also resistant to corrosion, which is important for outdoor sculptures. Because aluminum is easy to scratch, however, it’s recommended to clean it using a soft cloth.
Among the most expensive—and heaviest—of all the metals used in sculpture, bronze has a fabled history that dates back to 2500 BC. Bronze is generally composed of two or more metals, such as copper, tin, zinc, etc. Bronze casting was historically used to make many different tools, including weapons.
Ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman civilizations were all masters of the “lost wax” casting technique, which allowed for ornate details and life-size statues. Bronze will develop a patina over time naturally, due to oxidation. Some artists choose to add patinas to their sculptures through chemical applications. It is possible to coat a bronze sculpture in wax in order to lessen the patination process. For more cleaning tips, read this.
Cement / Concrete
Cement is actually one component of concrete, although the two tend to be used almost synonymously (however erroneously). Cement was not invented until the mid-1800s. Modern and contemporary artists use cement for sculpture because it is quick to dry and relatively easy to cast and/or mold. If your cement sculpture breaks, it’s possible a professional restorer could glue it back into place. Cracks can be filled with concrete, but it’s important to make sure the concrete is the same color as the sculpture (a best practice would be to use the exact same type of concrete, if possible).
Among the most ancient of fine art materials, ceramic has been used by ancient civilizations for a variety of functional and ceremonial objects. Ceramics are highly fragile and can be easily damaged. In Japan, there’s a tradition known as kintsugi that translates to “joining with gold, in which cracks in ceramic are repaired with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. For the Japanese, this technique represents their cultural philosophy that embraces—and celebrates—imperfection.
Fabric and Textiles
Soft sculptures, generally sculptures created with fabric, have a storied tradition in art history. Fabric sculptures may require vigilant pest control as a form of preservation and conservation. Since fabric colors can fade over time, it’s always recommended to keep soft sculptures away from direct sunlight.
This is when sculpture can get very radical, a la Hirst’s shark sculpture. Yes, even a dead animal carcass can be considered a “found object,” same goes for the discarded bottle caps that El Anastui uses in his monumental assemblages. These sculptures are the wildcards, since their materials could be a conservator's nightmare. In some cases, and especially for smaller sculptures made of highly delicate found materials, a plexi vitrine may be recommended to protect the sculpture from dust.
While glass is certainly fragile, it can also be used to create mammoth sculptures, such as Dale Chiluhly’s incredible installations. While glass was traditionally used to adorn churches (ie stained glass) or other grand interiors (ie Venetian chandeliers), modern and contemporary artists are constantly innovating how glass can be used in art today. Glass sculptures will need to be dusted regularly, either with a microfiber cloth or air compressor. Unlike other materials, glass can be displayed in direct sunlight without fear of damage.
Classical sculptures were often made in marble because of its elegant aesthetic and longevity. Marble is also incredibly heavy and expensive. Marble can be displayed outdoors or indoors. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an excellent breakdown of what to do (and not to do) when cleaning a marble sculpture.
Yes, even paper has traditionally been used by sculptors in a variety of ways. Paper is notoriously difficult to preserve. Depending on the scale of the sculpture, displaying a paper sculpture under a plexi vitrine may be recommended. Keep paper sculptures away from all sources of moisture and out of direct sunlight.
Plaster is often used to create molds for poured metals or maquettes for larger works—it can also be used in combination with other materials. Widewalls goes into great detail about the history of plaster. In general, plaster is affordable and easy to work with, so it’s always been a popular choice for sculptors from antiquity until now.
Steel sculpture is a popular choice among sculptors, especially for large-scale outdoor pieces. Steel is also incredibly heavy (it’s the material Richard Serra’s deadly sculpture was made from, same with Calder). Steel is often intended for outdoor display, but can also corrode if not properly maintained.
Stone is possibly the most ubiquitous sculpture material used by artists since the dawn of recorded history. Even prehistoric petroglyphs are considered early stone sculpture, as they required carving into a rock face. Stone sculpture is exceptionally durable. For a comprehensive overview of stone sculpture throughout history, read this.
Resin is a modern material that many sculptors choose because it is long-lasting and can be painted to resemble other materials. Casting with fiberglass resin makes it simple to create editions and reproductions in a variety of hues. Peter Alexander, for example, uses resin to create his translucent sculptures. Resin works will need to be dusted regularly and, occasionally, cleaned with a microfiber cloth.
Beloved by artists for millenia, wood sculpture can be incredibly detailed or completely abstract. Self-taught artist Thaddeous Mosely works in wood, creating anthropomorphic totems that feel almost primordial. Wood, however, is delicate and can suffer from exposure to humidity, bacteria, light, and heat. To learn how to protect your wood sculpture from these elements and more, read this.
Seek Out Artists and Works that Speak to You
It’s rare to find a gallery that specializes only in sculpture. More often, galleries will represent sculptors as part of their roster, alongside painters and other types of artists. To find sculptors whose work you admire, it’s recommended to visit museums, biennials and fairs, where you can see the work of many different artists at once. Fairs will give you the opportunity to speak to dealers directly and develop a relationship, which is always recommended prior to purchasing an artwork on the primary market.
Primary market means that the work has never been owned before, whereas the secondary market means that the work is being resold. Secondary market pieces are often more expensive than primary market works, but sometimes the secondary market is the only way a collector can have access to a piece by a rising star artist. Works being sold at auction are examples of secondary market pieces.
It’s also recommended to do as much research online as possible before committing to a piece. Online art marketplaces, such as Artwork Archive’s Discovery platform, allow you to filter by “sculpture” so you view many different types of sculpture available for sale and get a sense of pricing. Read up on the artists you covet, get a sense of their exhibition histories, which galleries they show with, and what kinds of pieces they create that align with your collecting parameters.
There are sculpture parks, such as Storm King Art Center in New York and Kentuck Knob in Pennsylvania, that specialize in large-scale outdoor works. Becoming involved with a museum such as the Sculpture Center in New York City is an excellent means to meet many artists, curators, gallerists and other patrons who can offer insight and expertise as you begin your sculpture collection.
Mykhailo Dzyndra museum of modern sculpture in Bryukhovychi. Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash
Before buying your first sculpture, answer the following questions:
What is my budget?
Understand that shipping, installation, and insurance should all be factored into your budget, in addition to the price of the artwork itself.
Where will this sculpture live?
Do you have a place in mind? Selecting an installation spot will help you narrow down the field of sculptures you might ultimately acquire.
Is that location exposed to the elements?
Outdoor sculptures have different challenges than indoor sculptures, especially when it comes to conservation. Make sure the sculptures you are considering are actually intended for outdoor display.
Does that location have any weight restrictions or other logistical challenges?
If the sculpture you want to buy is incredibly heavy, you might need to reinforce your home’s foundation or hire an art handling company with special expertise.
Will I need a permit?
This depends on where you live, and what needs to happen to your property in order to install the piece. Once you know all the details of your sculpture and where you want to install it, you can speak to professional art installers and they can give you a better sense if any permits might be required.
If you live in an apartment complex, you will most likely need a COI (certificate of insurance) to present to your building manager prior to installing your piece. Also, make sure that your sculpture fits in the elevator!
Are there any potential conservation issues to be considered (like finding a replacement shark)?
Unusual materials may cause problems down the line, so do your best to get a sense from the dealer and/or artist if they anticipate any forthcoming conservation needs.
Photo by Michał Franczak on Unsplash
Transport and Installation
Transport of sculpture requires attention to detail. You will need to know the weight and any other important details, such as fragile areas that might require packing reinforcements. When the sculpture is delivered, photograph how it is crated and packed for future reference.
Make sure to document any installation directions, photos of the installation and other important details. Some artists may choose to be very involved in installation, and might request a site-visit. Archiving the entire process is highly recommended.
A database like Artwork Archive includes fields for a sculpture's dimensions, weight and up to ten images per artwork. Artwork Archive also allows collectors to upload additional documents to artwork records like certificates of authenticity, installation instructions, cleaning directions, shipping forms and invoices.
You may need a plinth or pedestal for your sculpture—these are not always included in the price and may not come with the piece. Ask the gallery or artist to recommend a carpenter to create your custom plinth, so that you have a proper display apparatus for your sculpture.
Documentation, Provenance and Ethics
As noted above, it’s imperative to archive the details of your sculpture. Take images of every angle of your piece. You can upload everything in your Artwork Archive account, which you can then refer to for insurance purposes, estate planning purposes, or to ensure provenance if you choose to resell the piece later on the secondary market.
If the sculptures that pique your interest are of foreign origin, it’s important to do your due diligence on their provenance. Lately, looted antiquities—most often sculptures—have been seized and returned to their rightful owners.
Indigenous artworks have been the subject of intense scrutiny lately as museums and collectors face their colonial-era origins and make concerted efforts at restitution. Keeping detailed records of your sculptures’ provenance is an important part of being an ethical art collector.
Conservation and Estate Planning
Maintaining your sculptures for future generations doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Seek out referrals for professional conservators who specialize in sculpture. Once you have a trusted conservator, save their contacts in your Artwork Archive account. Then, you can set up reminders in your Artwork Archive account for routine cleaning, so you’ll never forget.
You can also upload appraisals to your Artwork Archive account within the artwork record, and it will link to that contact record. This is important for estate planning as well, since your heirs will need to know the history of every sculpture in your collection, as well as any conservation or repairs that have taken place and proof of such. Those details will be needed in the event of resale. Having all your important details together in one place will help your estate executor and/or heirs know what to do with your legacy.
Finally, you can upload letters of intent or other documents related to donation, should you wish to bequeath your sculptures to a museum or institution. Create collections in your Artwork Archive account so it’s clear what objects are intended for whom—which will ensure that your collection is accessible to scholars, curators and aspiring artists for generations to come.
Ready to begin collecting sculpture? Sign up for Artwork Archive's free 14 day trial and get to know the database solution trusted by collectors in over 160 countries.