One of Edgar Degas’ iconic “Little Dancer” sculptures broke the artist’s auction record Thursday when it sold for $41.6 million from the collection of the late Anne Bass, the former wife of an oil billionaire who championed American ballet.
“La Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans,” or “Little Dancer of fourteen years,” is a bronze cast of the only sculpture that Degas ever exhibited in his lifetime, based on a young ballerina named Marie van Goethem who was studying ballet in Paris.
Thursday’s winning bid for the sculpture—which sold at Christie’s—surpassed the previous record price for a Degas work at auction, which was last set in 2015 when another “Little Dancer” bronze sold for $24.8 million.
The record-breaking bronze last belonged to Bass, a longtime patron of the New York City Ballet and the one-time wife of Texas oil billionaire Sid Bass, who is worth $3.5 billion according to Forbes’ real-time wealth tracker.
This bronze was commissioned in August 1927 from the distinguished Hébrard foundry, which Degas’ family tapped after the artist’s death to cast the sculptures he left behind (though the Hébrard casts were created after Degas’ 1917 death, they are widely viewed in the art world as authentic pieces from the artist).
Bass acquired the sculpture from Sandra Payson, the daughter of industrialist Charles Shipman Payson and his wife Joan Whitney Payson, a member of the prominent Whitney family and the first woman to own a major-league baseball team that she did not inherit (Bass’ longtime Fifth Avenue apartment in New York was also formerly occupied by the Paysons, Christie’s said).
The original wax “Little Dancer” sculpture featured real hair, was dressed in a cloth tutu and caused a scene in 1881 when Degas first exhibited it in Paris, where critics called it “quite simply hideous” and a “flower of precocious depravity,” a reference to fact that ballet dancers in that era often worked as prostitutes. Fewer than 600 of the bronze “Little Dancer” sculptures were created before Hébrard closed in 1937 and the family authorized a different foundry, making the casts from that run coveted on the art market. The original sculpture, which Degas crafted around 1880, is part of the collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Bass died at age 78 of ovarian cancer last year. When she separated from Sid Bass in a highly publicized 1988 divorce, she walked away with a settlement believed to be between $200 and $500 million, reportedly the largest in Texas history at the time. Along with ballet, Bass was passionate about art and acquired one of the “most important American collections” to hit the market in decades, Christie’s auction house said when it announced the auction of her artwork in March. Along with the sculpture, paintings by Degas, Mark Rothko and Claude Monet fetched Thursday.