Letter from London
Ian McKay, <email@example.com>
Antiquities take centre stage in this month’s report, with no fewer than 15 items from two April sales held by Christie’s and Bonhams in London providing a fascinating mix of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman treasures, along with a couple of items with other cultural backgrounds.
A “frogstrich” and a comic blowfish are among the more curious residents of a decorative arts menagerie, and the supporting acts to the antiquities also include a magnificent Montague Dawson marine painting commissioned by an American dentist with the sea in his blood; a commemorative George Washington jug; and, drawn from out-of-London sales, a couple of 18th-century Russian gold medals sold in Dorset and a Plains Indian outfit that brought bidders in person and on the telephone to an Irish country sale.
There are also a couple of trailers for next month’s “Letter,” which will include items from the exceptional Canadiana collections of the late Peter Winkworth, sold by Christie’s South Kensington, and items from the armoury of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, that made huge prices at Bonhams.
The World of Antiquities--Curious and Beautiful Glimpses of Life in Ancient Times
Despite the last-minute withdrawal of four lots thought to be linked with the activities of art dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina, previously convicted of trafficking millions of dollars worth of antiquities, the Christie’s antiquities sale of April 15 saw around three-quarters of their other 162 lots sell for $4.87 million. They probably count the day a success and will look forward with some confidence to their June 4 sale in New York City.
The challenge to those four withdrawn lots was made by Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis of the University of Glasgow, who has made similar moves in the past, but there is considerable frustration that while what are known as the Medici archives are available to academics, the salerooms and the trade are denied access, principally because of confidentiality issues regarding their use as evidence in any criminal investigation.
Christie’s will of course help with Art & Antiques Squad investigations into the provenance of these lots but, like other trade professionals, have called for the Medici archives to be made freely available—at least to more law enforcement agencies and to stolen art registers.
Also featured in this report are items from the 148-lot Bonhams sale of April 16, two-thirds of which sold to raise a total of $2.31 million.
Lots described below are keyed to the accompanying images by bold letters.
Egyptian royal jewellery is exceedingly rare, so it is no surprise that a silver diadem (A) offered at Christie’s should live up to full expectations in selling at $286,890.
Only one other silver diadem is recorded, in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden—found at Thebes in the 1820s and associated with the tomb of Nubkheperre Intef. The Leiden diadem and the Christie’s lot show many similarities in materials used, design, and manufacture. Both are dated to the 17th Dynasty (1580-1550 B.C.) and each was most likely made for a royal personage. The double uraei(sacred serpent) motif suggests that the Christie’s diadem was the property of an Egyptian queen, and a connection with Mentuhotep, the great royal wife of Sekhemre-Sementawy Djehuty, has been suggested.
Her tomb was discovered in the first quarter of the 19th century and its contents, including a canopic chest with cosmetic contents now in a German museum, were widely dispersed. Until the early 1950s, this diadem was in a museum in York (England) but was then sold off to raise funds.
The diadem consists of a circlet constructed from a single band of sheet silver that has chased “basket-weave” decoration and is fronted by two separately made uraei with incised cross-hatching and Vs on their front, their heads finely modelled in the round and engraved. The rear of the diadem shows a separately made bow, consisting of a disc with hatched border flanked by lotus buds with stippled outer petals and pendant ribbons—all cut from a single sheet of silver.
Silver was restricted to the highest echelons of Egyptian society. With few, if any natural sources within the kingdom, silver was rarer and more costly than gold, having to be obtained by commerce or as war booty. As a consequence, it was held in higher esteem.
For the past few years, this diadem had been on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas.
One of a number of lots that brought much higher than expected sums in the Christie’s sale was an Egyptian shabti figure, carved in serpentine and a little under 9" tall (B), which sold for $322,290 to a U.K. dealer, rather than at the suggested $45,000/75,000 level.
Perhaps related to the cult of the mummiform god Osiris, shabtis were first made in wood and wax and would be placed in a miniature coffin, wrapped in linen and anointed with preservative oils. They were destined to take the place of the mummy, should it be destroyed, and in the 11th to 12th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom (2055-1773 B.C.), when well-carved stone figures like this example appeared, there was also developed a belief that the shabti could be called upon by the deceased in the afterlife to perform any task.
This mummiform shabti, whose prominently defined “portrait” features might suggest a royal worship, said Christie’s, wears a bag wig and broad necklace and the three horizontal bands around the body represent bandages.
Gently curving, their terminals in the form of bewigged Nubian heads with almond-shaped eyes, small ears, and pursed lips, a pair of 8½" long wooden clappers (C) sold for $109,890 by Christie’s could be Middle or New Kingdom survivals (1985-1295 B.C.).
Music was an integral part of life in ancient Egypt, particularly where worship and rituals for the dead were concerned, and temples had their own troops of musicians. There are numerous depictions in reliefs and wall paintings of such clappers (which replaced the hand clapping of earlier times), and most examples are in the form of arms and hands, made of ivory or wood.
There were various ways they could be used. They were sometimes held one in each hand and beaten vigorously together, sometimes placed in pairs between the fingers of the same hand, or joined by means of a small tie and suspended from the wrist—something akin to the use of castanets.
Dated to 664 to 630 B.C. (Late or Ptolemaic Period), a bronze and gilt wood ibis (D), its legs folded beneath its body, made a considerably higher than expected $200,095 at Bonhams. It came to sale from the collections of Beverly Whitney Kean (1921-2011), who as an actress starred in a couple of 1940s films alongside Anthony Quinn, appeared on TV serials, and even had a spell as the Marlboro Girl in adverts, but who was also an art historian.
In 1983, she published All the Empty Palaces: The Merchant Patrons of Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Russia—republished in 1994 in a revised edition as French Painters, Russian Collectors. Originally inspired by a 1959 visit to Russia, the book deals with the extraordinary legacy of Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921), two Moscow textile tycoons who vied with each other to see who could assemble the most impressive collection of the greatest works of modern art.
What happened to the collectors, who in the Soviet era became non-persons; the manner in which the pictures, which Stalin at one point thought of destroying, ended up in the Russian state collections; and how Beverly Whitney Kean’s book was banned in Russia, can be found online—try, for example, an obituary published in one British newspaper (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/film-
Modelled as a 6½" long flatfish in green schist, an Egyptian cosmetic palette (E) that sold for a five times estimate $40,910 at Bonhams is the oldest of the items featured in this report, being dated to 3200 B.C., the pre-dynastic period known as Naqada II.
Like the Byzantine mosaic fragment featured elsewhere in this report, this was a piece from the collections of Hayford Peirce (1885-1946). Born and raised in Bangor, Maine, he read archaeology at Harvard, where he developed a passion for ancient art and in particular for the Byzantine period. During World War I, he served as captain in the Intelligence Service and after the armistice was sent to Berlin with the Gherardi Mission, with the purpose of gathering information on the potentially explosive political situation in Germany.
After the war, he divided his residence between America and Europe, in particular Paris, where he resumed his academic research and his collecting activity. In 1926, together with his colleague Royall Tyler, he published in London a book on Byzantine Art, but in 1937 moved back to Bangor with his wife, Polly.
Estimated at just $4500/6000 but sold for $137,610 at Bonhams was an enigmatic mummy mask fragment (F). A New Kingdom piece of 1550 to1070 B.C., it is sensitively carved with lips pressed together into a slight smile. The eyes are recessed for inlay, and provision has been made to attach a wig.
Both Bonhams and Christie’s had examples of those unmistakable Cycladic figures in their auctions. Bronze Age sculptures of 2800 to 2300 B.C., they have been an inspiration in their simple, stylised abstract form to many famous artists and sculptors of modern times, but their original function still remains uncertain.
It seems likely that they had both a votive and ritualistic roles and, often found in burial contexts, may have played some part in accompanying the deceased on their journey from one world to the next. Given the primitive tools available to their makers and the hardness of material in which they worked, the care taken in their creation shows that they were highly valued and cherished.
Just under 7" tall, the folded-arm female example sold at Christie’s (G), which would have had additional features added in bright pigments, was sold for double estimate $286,890 to a European dealer. It was formerly in the collections of the French bibliophile and collector of Greek antiquities Henri Paricaud (1915-1999) and his Greek wife, Photinie.
The Bonhams example (H), again categorised as an early Spedos type, or early Cycladic II (2700-2500 B.C.), was slightly taller at 8" and is one of a group which as well as having the bent knees also have their lyre-shaped heads tilted backwards. Previously in the collections of Edgar S. Bundy and last seen at auction in the 1980s, at Christie’s East in New York City, it sold at $137,610.
Sold for $198,390 to a European collector at Christie’s was an Apulian red-figured volute-krater (I) of the mid-4th century B.C. The surface of this imposing, 29" high vase is almost completely covered with figures, ornamental motifs and other objects and on the side shown here, the neck and entire upper register of the body are filled with images of a battle between the Greeks and the mythological race of female warriors, the Amazons—a popular iconographical device from the Archaic period onwards.
In contrast to this frenetic scene, the composition on the reverse is far more sedate, depicting mourners surrounding a stele and bearing offerings and adornments for the grave. A preoccupation with the hereafter and the cult of the dead is fitting for a vase which was intended for the tomb, rather than for actual use, said the cataloguer.
Standing close to 7' high, a marble figure of the Roman Empress Livia (J) seen at Christie’s was catalogued as a Tiberian or later piece dating from A.D. 14 to late 1st century A.D.
It is known to have been at Stowe House in Buckinghamshire by 1777, having most likely been acquired by George Grenville three years earlier, during a visit to Italy as part of his Grand Tour. When, in 1848, it came up for sale in the Christie’s dispersal of the contents of that great house—on the 38th day of the auction, no less—it was listed as “Agrippina, as the Muse of History” and as such it passed into the collections of the Earl of Lonsdale at Lowther Castle, from where it was acquired in 1957 by a forebear of the Christie’s vendor.
Livia Drusilla (58 B.C.-A.D. 29) is an iconic and enigmatic figure who married the future emperor Augustus (in 38 B.C.) whilst already heavily pregnant, by her first husband, with Tiberius.
Nevertheless, the floor-length stola that falls in pleats to her platform sandals is a garment that was “reserved for the chaste married woman” and her head is crowned with a diadem decorated with flowers and sheaths of wheat, the attributes of Ceres, goddess of the harvest. Along with her Greek goddess hairstyle, these attributes are probably intended to denote her divinity, but while she may be garbed as the ideal Roman matron, there is another, much darker side to Livia.
The most salacious accounts cast her as a malevolent Machiavellian schemer at best, and at worst as a serial poisoner whose supposed victims include Germanicus, the darling prince of the Empire; Marcellus, Augustus’ beloved nephew; and Augustus himself.
Whatever the truth, family relations were undoubtedly strained, most notably with her own son, Tiberius, who at her death refused to probate her will or to deify her. The former action had to be performed by her great-grandson, Caligula, and the latter honour was bestowed only by her grandson, Claudius, in A.D. 41.
In that 1848 Stowe House sale, the statue of Agrippina/Livia cost what today would translate to about $70. In the King Street sale, it sold for $640,890 to a European collector.
The Christie’s sale also included a marble bust of Caligula (K), whose barbaric cruelty and notorious behaviour ended only with his assassination after a degenerate and mad rule of just under five years. This was the man who at one time planned to make a consul of his beloved horse, Incitatus; the Roman ruler who appeared in public dressed as a woman and in the garb of Jupiter, replete with golden beard; and the emperor who committed incest with several of his sisters—just for starters.
It is hardly surprising that surviving portraits of Caligula are few. Most of his likenesses were probably reused after his death, said the King Street cataloguer, and the condition of the present example may point to deliberate mutilation in antiquity. It shares the typical characteristics of the known portraits—the broad forehead, the high, hollow temples, and the thin, pursed lips that have been seen as conveying, along with the proud turn of his head, something of Caligula’s vanity. It sold at $304,590.
A Roman marble torso of Dionysius (L) that topped the Bonhams sale at $378,620 dates to the 1st century A.D. and is a Roman copy inspired by a classical Greek type by Praxiteles. Twenty inches high, it is a youthful depiction of the god, standing contrapposto, his weight resting on his right leg and his left arm raised.
Solid cast in bronze, a stocky little bull (M), just over 5½" high, that sold for $92,980 at Bonhams still has a thick layer of sheet silver over its head and neck and must have at one time been entirely covered in silver. A Canaanite figure of the 12th to 8th century B.C., it has deeply recessed eyes that would once have held inlays and on the top of its head are seen rows of incised curls between the small curving horns. In Canaanite art, the bull is thought to represent the animal form of the deity Baal, who may sometimes be depicted in human form but again with the horns of a bull.
Sold for $14,875 at Bonhams was a late Bronze Age sword (N) found in Ireland in 1985. Dated to 1000 to 800 B.C., this sword with its typical leaf-shaped blade, 25" long from tip to hilt, was found by James Kelly on the banks of the River Blackwater at Knocknacloy in County Tyrone, whilst he was carrying out drainage work on his land.
By the standards of the other items featured in this piece, the hardstone and glass “Cosmati” mosaic floor fragment (O) that made $44,630—ten times the low estimate—at Bonhams seems almost modern in being dated to the 12th to 13th century A.D.
Measuring roughly 6¾" x 8¾" and preserving a section from a larger pattern, it is composed of square and triangular tesserae of purple and green porphyry, white marble, opaque red glass paste, translucent blue glass, and gold sandwich glass, all arranged in a geometric motif of alternating bands of green, red, and gold and of purple, blue, and white, all set in plaster.
“Cosmati” mosaics are elaborate inlays of small triangles and rectangles of coloured stones and glass that are repeated endlessly to form decorative patterns on pavements and revetments, in particular inside churches. They take their name from a Roman family/dynasty of architects-decorators who over two centuries enriched several churches and monasteries in Rome and across the rest of Italy with fine decorative mosaics. They also worked abroad, and the presbytery pavement in Westminster Abbey in London was made by Pietro and Odesirio Cosmati around 1260.
Like the piscatorial cosmetic palette featured among the Egyptian pieces, this too came to auction from the collections of Hayford Peirce of Bangor, Maine.
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