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A striking and large stone garden sculpture of a mask earned €4,200 ($4,515) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

Garden sculpture turns backyards into open-air art galleries

NEW YORK — In the collecting world, more is usually better. But in the realm of garden sculpture, the opposite is true. A few well-chosen, well-placed pieces transform the outdoors into an open-air gallery.

“The auction market for garden ornament is terrific. There are wonderful pieces to be had at all levels of collecting in all styles,” said Nan Zander, a longtime specialist in garden decor at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina. “We look for period pieces, and the market for them is very, very strong,” she said.

This Anna Coleman Watts Ladd bronze garden sculpture from 1914, depicting Anteros and Eros, sold for $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
This Anna Coleman Watts Ladd bronze garden sculpture from 1914, depicting Anteros and Eros, sold for $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

But choosing sculptures for a garden requires thought and planning. They can’t just be tossed in a truck bed or an online shopping basket. Many garden sculptures are huge, heavy, or both, which forces buyers to think through how best to transport them, as well as where, exactly, they should be displayed, and how to ready the display site for their arrival.

“Garden statues and garden decoration are different from a lot of collecting fields,” Zander said. “If you’re going to collect paintings, it doesn’t matter how many you buy. With garden statues, it crosses over into a different area, because these are things you’re not really going to move around your yard. You’re going to place them, and they’re going to be integrated into a landscape.”

Profile view of a striking and large stone garden sculpture of a mask that earned €4,200 ($4,515) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.
Profile view of a striking and large stone garden sculpture of a mask that earned €4,200 ($4,515) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021. Image courtesy of Sheppard’s Irish Auction House and LiveAuctioneers.

Whatever is chosen, be it a cutting-edge contemporary work or a textbook classical sculpture, should be granted the space – both literal and figurative – it needs to cast its spell. The garden sculpture pictured at the head of this article, a 41in-high stone mask that sold for €4,200 ($4,515) plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021 at Sheppard’s Irish Auction House, gains visual power from its setting within the landscape.

This is also true for a group of Four Seasons statues in cast stone that attained $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Brunk Auctions. The foursome came out of a large Southern estate, where they had been set in equidistant positions in a corner of a courtyard hedge. The naturalistic setting made the statues look as if they belonged there and had been there for ages.

A set of Four Seasons garden sculptures in cast stone was well placed in this garden area, partially set into a hedge. The foursome went on to make $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A set of Four Seasons garden sculptures in cast stone was well placed in this garden area, partially set into a hedge. The foursome went on to make $28,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Moving the Four Seasons sculptures to their original spots on that Southern estate certainly called for many hands, as well as a dolly or heavy equipment, custom crates, and protective packing materials. The task would have also included prep work, such as leveling the areas where the statues would be installed and putting a slab of stone or brick underneath each to limit their contact with soil moisture and to stop them from settling into the ground.

Size is an important consideration when choosing garden sculptures. Backyard-style landscapes look better with fewer and smaller garden sculptures, while a large formal estate can accommodate a grander layout. Regardless of how many acres there are to play with, breaking the property down into smaller sections is key to avoid overloading a given area with too many artworks that compete for the viewer’s attention.

“The most successful landscapes incorporating garden ornament have one focal point that you see within your vision,” Zander said. “If you’re looking down your backyard, you’re not going to want to see five different things in there. You’re going to want one thing. Then you walk somewhere else, say a side yard, [and] you can have another piece.”

Two bronze garden sculptures of deer, resembling ancient models from the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum in Italy, took $8,125 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
Two bronze garden sculptures of deer, resembling ancient models from the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum in Italy, took $8,125 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, garden statues that look like classical antiques have a ready audience. Two 20th-century cast bronze deer modeled after originals found in the garden of the Villa dei Papiri in the town of Herculaneum in central Italy proved this point when they secured $8,125 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at John Moran Auctioneers, Inc.

Another angle on an Anna Coleman Watts Ladd bronze garden sculpture from 1914 depicting Anteros and Eros, which sold for $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Another angle on an Anna Coleman Watts Ladd bronze garden sculpture from 1914 depicting Anteros and Eros, which sold for $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Garden statues differ from fine art in that many examples of the former were made by foundries or went unsigned. A notable exception is an Anna Coleman Watts Ladd bronze from 1914, depicting Anteros and Eros, which sold for $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023 at Brunk Auctions. Measuring 31¾ by 82 by 17in, the figural sculpture soared above its $7,000-$10,000 estimate for several reasons, as Zander explained: “It was slightly modern, so it appealed to both classical tastes and more modern tastes. It didn’t weigh as much, so it was easier to place. It was signed and dated by a well-known artist, so it had everything going for it.”

A Carrara marble garden sculpture of a woman with a dove and a serpent achieved $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers.
A Carrara marble garden sculpture of a woman with a dove and a serpent achieved $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022. Image courtesy of Vogt Auction Texas and LiveAuctioneers.

Materials matter more for garden sculpture than with other forms of art because it is meant to sit outside, taking the full brunt of the elements for years, decades, and even longer. A favorite choice is Carrara marble, which has been mined for centuries in Italy and was used to build Tajan’s column and the Pantheon in Rome. Garden sculptures fashioned from the stone bring prices in the $10,000 to $20,000 range and often feature classical themes. A Carrara marble garden statue of a lady with a dove and a serpent went for $19,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Vogt Auction Texas.

Cast bronze is a medium well-suited for garden statuary as it is durable and its luster improves as it ages. A fine-looking addition to any garden would be the pair of bronze guardian lions, each 56in tall, which brought $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery.

This pair of large bronze guardian lion garden sculptures, measuring 56in tall, went out at $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.
This pair of large bronze guardian lion garden sculptures, measuring 56in tall, went out at $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022. Image courtesy of Ahlers & Ogletree Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

One of the most popular and affordable materials for garden sculpture is cast stone, which is similar to concrete and weathers well. “Vintage cast stone is a viable and well-respected option,” Zander said. “Its affordability gives it a strong market share, allowing for buying at all levels.” Small pieces can cost a few hundred dollars, and even larger items, such as the Four Seasons set discussed above, sell for a fraction of what it would cost for an identical set produced in carved stone or marble. A pair of cast stone eagle garden sculptures, modeled with their wings spread, made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2024 at Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals. Set on round bases and dating to the early 20th century, the eagles measured an impressive 27½in tall and 28in wide.

This pair of cast stone garden sculptures of eagles with their wings spread made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2024. Image courtesy of Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers.
This pair of cast stone garden sculptures of eagles with their wings spread made $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2024. Image courtesy of Case Antiques, Inc. Auctions & Appraisals and LiveAuctioneers.

Buyers favor garden sculptures with a weathered appearance, and most prefer to site pieces in a naturalistic setting, instead of, say, lining a driveway with a procession of statues. Garden sculptures look great when placed in niches or among plantings chosen to heighten and enhance their visual impact. “I think for the most part people do want a sort of lived-in look, and most of the pieces have what I like to call a patina commensurate with age and use,” Zander said.

Boasting precisely that lived-in look is a circa-1850 carved stone garden sculpture of a Greek muse, possibly Comedy, done in a Neoclassical style. The sculpture, which stood 87in tall including its base, earned $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024 at Ashcroft and Moore LLC.

An antique carved stone garden sculpture of a Greek muse realized $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024. Image courtesy of Ashcroft and Moore LLC and LiveAuctioneers.
An antique carved stone garden sculpture of a Greek muse realized $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2024. Image courtesy of Ashcroft and Moore LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

Once a garden sculpture is maneuvered into place, its owner is not off the hook. Garden sculptures require maintenance and care, especially in climates that receive hard freezes. Taking smaller pieces indoors for the winter is generally recommended to prevent cracking, which will eventually break them. Pieces too large to move can be covered with plywood, a tarp, or a weatherproof bag.

Conversely, in warmer months and in Southern climates, high humidity and acid rain can damage garden sculptures, especially those made from marble. “Rain has to be okay, and if it’s not, sure, you can cover them, but then they really shouldn’t be outside,” said Zander, who also suggested that works rendered in metal can be protected from rust with a coat of paint.

Garden sculptures can turn an unadorned patch of land into a scene of paradise, but the effect only looks magical. Mundane acts of concentration, forethought, and toil bring these intensively manicured visions to life, and they originate with the visions of sculptors who create pieces designed for a very different sort of gallery, one in which the art is framed by greenswards, flowers, hedges, and sky.