Iron flamingos and jockeys are out. What America is collecting these days is reproduced Tutankhamun treasure—everything from $10 pendants to $1,850 gold statues of the Egyptian goddess Selket (for the likes of Anwar Sadat and Henry Kissinger). The artist who creates these magnificent fakes is A. (for Arthur) Bruce Hoheb, 49, the moldmaker for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the two years that the Tut exhibit of 14th century B.C. works has been touring the U.S. (and awing five million viewers), more than $12 million worth of reproductions from Hoheb’s studio have been sold. At one point the Met had to take the pricey Selket off the market because Hoheb and his crew of 20 professionals could not keep pace with the orders.
Tut aside, the studio—the only one of its kind in a U.S. museum—duplicates other artwork from visiting shows or the Met’s permanent collection. The original works are coated with liquefied rubber, which hardens into molds. From these are derived the replicas in bronze or ceramic. In 1975 Hoheb journeyed to Cairo with a ton of equipment to prepare the molds for the Tut show. Working in a room with armed guards, he spent four months at it, one of which was totally devoted to the goddess Selket. Making a rubber mold of that delicate wood masterwork would have been too risky. Instead, he used calipers to measure 2,000 points across the surface, sculpted a clay model and, after four more months of refining, a mold was made from that. Has he ever damaged a piece of art? “Fortunately, I have batted a thousand,” Hoheb says. He has been at the plate, as it were, on 1,100 pieces since he was hired three years ago by the Met.
Hoheb began carving at 9 but, growing up a widow’s son in New York during the Depression, “You just didn’t take that sort of thing seriously,” he says. Instead, after graduating from Columbia in engineering, he worked for a construction firm until he was 30 and financially able to devote himself to art. He was soon hired by famed sculptor Jacques Lipchitz to produce enlarged finished works from models. Hoheb attributes such success to good luck. “If I came down in the middle of the desert, I would find a Carvel ice cream stand,” he jokes.
In 1968 he began teaching a course in casting and molding at Pratt Institute and after two years studying dissection at Columbia medical school, he added a pioneering anatomy course. Meanwhile he was enlarging a statue of Queen Elizabeth II by sculptor Leo Mol for the Canadian government, and six figures of sports stars sculpted by Joe Brown for Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium.
His daughter, Vanessa, now 24, grew up hanging around his studio. “I couldn’t get rid of her,” he claims, “so she became my right arm.” She is a moldmaking master at the Met and took over his course at Pratt (marrying one of her students). Father and daughter are now collaborating on a book on molding.
Home for the divorced Hoheb is a loft in Manhattan where he sculpts originals (he sold one bust and then, missing it, bought it back)—and displays no reproductions. He has just taken up photography and jogs two miles daily, but Hoheb doesn’t see that as a necessary escape from his exacting craft. “Five o’clock to me just means there are seven more hours until midnight,” he explains. “I leave work and go home and carve.”