By: Michelle Pham
January 26, 2018
What is “art”? This eternal, ever- vexing question became the center of one of the most significant clashes of art and law—the Brancusi v. United States case.1 Constantin Brancusi is celebrated as one of the most revered and influential sculptors of the 20th century. He made his “name” and rose to the ranks of popularity in the art world by rejecting traditional views of sculpture and, instead, favoring simplified, abstract sculptures that stirred much controversy among those in the art world and in the general public. Bird in Space, the subject of the Brancusi case (which now resides in the Seattle Art Museum), is a 4 1/4-foot-tall piece of highly polished yellow bronze sculpture with a gently tapering bulge. The U.S. Customs Court originally described it as “a production in bronze about 4 1/2 feet high supported by a cylindrical base about 6 inches in diameter and 6 inches high.”
Despite several earlier shows in the United States and much media coverage of the Bird in Space sculpture, U.S. Customs officials did not see a bird in Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space and refused to exempt it as a work of art when it arrived at New York Harbor in October 1926. Instead, they classified it as a “kitchen utensil” and imposed a standard 40 percent tariff on the sale price, or $240 (about $3,200 in today’s dollars).
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