LONDON - William Wetmore Story was one of the greatest American sculptors of the 19th century. Two of his finest works are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I was consequently astonished when, in 1997, I stumbled across Story’s lost Orpheus by chance in a private collection in the English countryside. To this date, the discovery is one of the most important additions to Story’s oeuvre – and the piece returns to auction in the sale of 19th and 20th Century Sculpture in London on 11 December.
William Wetmore Story’s Orpheus with His Lyre. Estimate £120,000–180,000.
The Orpheus comes to us from a Swiss private collection, having been sold at Sotheby’s in 1997. It is truly remarkable for the beautifully carved drapery and the delicate undulating musculature of what seems to be a living, breathing, figure. My personal favourite element though, is the superbly carved lyre held in Orpheus’ hand. It is such a powerful image that we decided to feature it on the front cover of the sale catalogue.
Story was a poet and a music lover. His choice of subject, Orpheus, thus seems likely to have had personal resonances for the sculptor, and the marble was carved for his most loyal patron, the Hungarian aristocrat Count János Pálffy. The sale of the Orpheus is likely to be one of the last opportunities to acquire a great work by Story at auction.
Alexander Kader is Head of Department, European Sculpture & Works of Art, Sotheby’s Europe.