I purchased this circa 1895 stunning 15″ x 15″ copper cornice lion this week, it arrived today in fact.
It came from a NYC building demolished in the 1980s, probably a building that would likely have been 7-12 stories in height given the size of the lion.
There’s not a whole of of copper cornices in the city, painted hot zinc dipped sheet metal was the most commonly used. Copper was used on more expensive buildings- hotels, municipal/city buildings, schools etc. usually the copper gets scrapped if the building is abandoend any length of time or demolished, so plenty of these fine examples of American 19th century die-pressed copper cornices have been destroyed for the few dollars worth of copper in a section of it.
This lion weighs about 5 pounds, in today’s copper scrap terms that’s about $10 or $15, as the art it is, it’s worth more than the $850 pricetag.
People today have no idea how much labor and time went into making something like this!
If you notice, it was made in several pieces- I count 7 pieces plus the shaped backer it’s riveted and soldered to. With the number 7 in mind, the way these were made I shall describe:
First, a master model had to be made, likely it was made of carved wood, undercuts have to be dealt with later by creating more mold sections, or on the wood master by eliminating or minimizing them.
I don’t know what process they used exactly, but that wood master needs a mold made of it and then 7 molds are made of each piece, that’s 7 molds, these 7 molds were used to make 7 steel die sets, I say “sets” because when pressing sheet metal there has to be two steel dies- a positive and a negative of the design, and the sheet metal is pressed between the two in order to take the shape.
The die sets have a small gap between them for the sheet metal.
Each die set after all the machining they may need to work properly now has to be set up on a press, I don’t know what size machine they used, it could have been 20 or 50 tons. Each die set had to be set precisely in the press so each half mates perfectly, if they don’t one will ruin the other if they collide under the tons of pressure on them.
It goes without saying that today you don’t do this kind of thing to make half a dozen of something like these lions, the setup costs today would be extremely expensive, and multipled by 7 setups in this case.
Next you would have the actual stamping production costs, trimming the individual pieces to fit, soldering and riveting.
Unlike reproducing cast-iron, terracotta, wood carvings, plaster casts and even stone carvings-all of the steps and costs makes something like this lion mask essentially impossible to replicate today due to the costs involved, yet back around 1895 these could probably have been ordered by the dozen from the maker’s list of available in-house patterns!
I would guestimate the cost to tool and make steel dies for each of the 7 pieces comprising the lion’s face would be several thousand dollars each, it would not surprise or shock me in the least if a metal stamping outfit quoted $25,000 to $50,000 just to make the dies, and it would be a hell of a job at that.
Now one more item about this, notice he still has his green copper patina, SMART people have left it alone and resisted “cleaning” it! too many fools out there would take acids or a polishing wheel or something and try “shining up” the copper, or removing the “dirty green stuff”
In three words: NEVER DO THAT!
let me repeat that:
NEVER DO THAT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!
The copper oxide takes about 5 to 10 years to develop in the direct rain and weather, once it develops into the green patina- unlike rust on steel the patina PROTECTS the metal from further corrosion! Ancient Roman bronze and copper artifacts buried in the ground and unearthed have been preserved for centuries because of that patina.