By Carter B. Horsley
The important fall 1998 antiquities auctions were surprising as Sotheby's had a very successful sale while many of the major lots at Christie's failed to sell.
The offerings were good, but not spectacular and the prices, at Sotheby's at least, were quite strong.
Indeed, Richard Keresey, the director of Sotheby's antiquities department, declared after the sale that "we are absolutely thrilled with the stellar results," noting that a very nice collection of Greek Athenian black-figured vases, presented in its own catalogue, was 100 percent sold and achieved "twice the pre-sale estimate." The graceful artistry of such vases has long been rather undervalued in the market.
Despite the fact that it only sold 62 percent of the lots in its main antiquities sale, G. Max Bernheimer, head of the department at Christie's, said December 18, 1998 that "1998 has been a triumphant year." "Today's sold total of $1,846,245, combined with $329,763 for the Haddad Family Collection of Ancient Erotic and Amulet Art, and $2,547,207 from the June sale, makes this the best year in the history of the department....An important private collection of Greek and Sassanian engraved gems performed superbly in the afternoon session. We look forward with great anticipation to 1999 with our first sale at Christie's new Rockefeller Center premises in June," he said.
(Sotheby's, on the other hand, has elected to stay put on York Avenue after contemplating a move to the controversial and long-delayed new, mixed-use tower planned for Columbus Circle. To its credit, however, it has moved very quickly with an expansion of its present facility, which is still terribly inconvenient for most New Yorkers.)
Neither auction had much of consequence in Near Eastern antiquities and the Egyptian works offered were not astounding.
The top lot at Sotheby's sale, shown above, was lot 26, a limestone, curved-topped stele from Thebes, 18th Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep III, which had been estimated at $150,000 to $200,000 and sold for $398,500. (All sales prices quoted in this article include the buyers' premiums.) The buyer was an American museum. The 26 1/4-inch-high work was very finely carved in sunk relief and showed the figure of Iuffer-bak, guardian of the storehouse of the Temple of Amun, with his wife and two sons in the central portion of the stele with smaller depictions of his other children in the lower register. The work came from the family collection of Edward Roger Pratt of Norfolk, England, who had toured Egypt in 1833 and 1834.
A smaller stele from the same collection, lot 24, also did very well, selling for $112,000, well over its high estimate of $60,000. Only 17 inches high, it had considerable remnants of paint on its surface.
Lot 25, a very finely carved diorite head of the Goddess Sekhmet, from the same period as lot 26, was stunning, although unfortunately missing its ears. The 10-inch-high sculpture sold for $189,500 and had a high estimate of $125,000. "The head is from a statue that once stood among over six hundred images of Sekhmet, goddess of war and protector of the king, which adorned the courts and passageways of the great temple Amenhotep III built in honor of the goddess Mut at Thebes and where some still stand in the ruins of that complex," the catalogue noted.
Lot 28, a very fine and serene, but somewhat placid Quartzite head of a goddess, 19th Dynasty, reign of Seti I or early in the reign of Ramesses II, circa 1290-1260 B.C., sold for $68,500, way over its high estimate of $25,000, a reflection of its fine condition. Another excellent lot, 30, also fared very well. A limestone sunk relief of Sheshonk III, 22nd Dynasty, reign of Sheshonk II, 831-779 B.C., showed the king in profile on a fragment of a cartouche 20 1/2-inches-by-27 1/2-inches. It sold for $244,500 and had had a high estimate of $150,000. Quality Egyptian works obviously now demand good prices.
Various other smaller and popular works, like bronze cats, generally fell within their reasonable estimates although one polychrome limestone ushabti, 9 3/8 inches tall, lot 37, did very well, selling for $19,550, well over its high estimate of $3,500.
An unusual pair of Cypriot pair of horses, circa 5th Century B.C., carved from a single limestone block and deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928, lot 105, sold for $25,300 and had carried a high estimate of only $6,000, reflecting the fact that the horses in the sculpture no longer had legs.
The Thetis Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, consigned several excellent objects, most of which fared very well such as lot 110, a marble Greek head of a Goddess, Attic, circa late 4th Century, B.C., that sold for $101,500, a very impressive price since the work was only 6 3/4 inches high and the goddess was missing part of her nose and part of her right cheek. It had a high estimate of $50,000. In contrast, lot 139, a Hellenistic marble head of a queen or goddess, circa late 4th/early 3rd Century, B.C., sold for $162,000, more than double its high estimate, a reflection of its finer quality and condition and the fact that its 10 3/4 inches high.
A far finer work from the foundation was a bronze statue of Aphrodite, Roman Imperial, circa 1st to 2nd Century, A.D., lot 149, which sold for $29,900. The 6 3/4-inch-high statue, shown above at the left, showing the goddess standing with her weight on her right leg and leaning down to remove a sandal with her left arm resting on a now missing support, had been estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 and is as exquisite a sculpture of a nude woman as can be imagined for this size and will probably be worth ten times what the buyer paid for it in a decade or so.
A less graceful, but still impressive bronze figure of Lar, from the same period and about the same size, lot 150, shown above at the right, surprisingly failed to sell and had been estimated at $10,000 to $15,000, a not unreasonable though slightly ambitious range.
A slightly smaller, but more charming bronze figure of a seated Aegypta Captiva, also from the same period, lot 151, sold for $25,300, just over its low estimate.
The market for quality small bronzes, which are particularly appealing for most collectors because of their size and relatively low costs, continues to climb, albeit rather slowly. Lot 185, a wild boar 5 7/8 inches long, had carried a high estimate of $8,000 and sold for $13,800, a decent price because the work was very dynamic and stylized. Lot 153 was an exquisite bust of a young satyr only 3 15/16-inches-high that sold for $16,100, well above its high estimate of $9,000.
Greek works tend to bring higher prices than Roman works apparently reflecting their greater age. Lot 113, for example, a Greek bronze figure of Zeus, or Poseidon, circa late 4th/3rd Century, B.C., sold for $39,100, a remarkably high price given that the figure was missing the thunderbolt in his right hand and his entire left arm. The 7 3/16-inch-high figure had been estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 and considering the rather glum expression on the face, the well carved figure was not exceptional. Indeed, artistically it could not compare with the Roman Imperial period bronze statue of about the same height of Hermes, lot 112, that sold just above its low estimate of $20,000.
Another Thetis lot, 187, a silver bowl, 4 3/4 inches in diameter, finely decorated with ivy leaves and berries, also from the Roman Imperial period, sold for $51,750 and had had a high estimate of $30,000. However, another silver bowl that was more interesting and older, albeit from a different culture, Pre-Achaemenid, circa 9th/8th Century, B.C., passed. The 4 13/16-inch-diameter cup, lot 219, was decorated with moufflons and the tree of life and had a low estimate of $30,000, not inappropriate for such a work in silver.
Another passed lot, 218, was an impressive but rather ungainly bronze cauldron appliqué, Urartian, circa late 7th Century, B.C., of a winged bull, that had a low estimate of $25,000, a bit ambitious but not really unreasonable since the piece was only 5 inches wide and in good condition.
Mosaics have begun to show up more frequently at the auctions and lot 182, a large panel of the Triumph of Dionysus, from the Roman Imperial period, sold within its estimate for $63,000, surprisingly low given its dramatic subject matter and impressive size. One might prefer a bit more color, but still this was an excellent panel.
Cylcadic art continued to be a strong attraction for many collectors although the works offered here were less than stellar. Lot 99, a marble head of a goddess from the Thetis Foundation, sold for $29,900. The 5 1/2 inch-high-head was not in good condition and had had a high estimate of $25,000. A slightly taller head in much better condition, lot 102, sold for $48,875 and had a high estimate of $30,000.
Another Thetis lot, 128, a 15 7/16-inch-high Attic Black-figure Neck Amphora, circa 520-510 B.C., painted with reveling satyrs beneath a grape bower, sold for $42,550 and had had a high estimate of $30,000.
The J. L. Theodor collection of Athenian Black-figure vases was presented in its own catalogue and every piece sold, many above the high estimates. The collection had been exhibited in Amsterdam at the Allard Pierson Museum from November, 1996 to March, 1997.
"While putting about in various museums and enjoying looking at Greek sculpture and pottery I noticed that I missed the experience (always forbidden!) of touching, holding, turning, and scrutinizing the objects which were all displayed behind glass. And while scuba diving - which I did quite often in the past for biological research - I occasionally had the exciting experience of literally bumping into a chunk, large or small, of a wine or oil amphora lying on the sandy (and sometimes murky) bottom of the Mediterranean....After a fortunately short-lived phase of making somewhat unguided and indiscriminate purchases, I gradually began to acquire an appreciative eye and a basic knowledge abut the market for ancient artworks - obviously important factors in establishing a sound collection. Eventually I began to err less openly and in a less damaging fashion against both taste and budget: one has to learn from experience and gradually one does," Mr. Theodor, the Belgian collector, wrote in the catalogue, adding that he has donated several vases to the Allard Pierson Museum.
The second highest price of the main sale was $387,500 for lot 213, an Assyrian Gypsum relief fragment, about 21 7/8 inches by 26 inches from the throne room of the northwest Palace of Assurnasipal II at Nimrud, 885-856 B.C. The work had been estimated at $150,000 to $200,000 and other fragments from this relief section are in Genoa, the British Museum, the Vatican and at Nimrud. Clearly, such works are exceeding rare and any collector would lust mightily for an example, and while not staggering this piece depicting two men is impressive.
Many of the finest lots at Christie's December 18, 1998 Antiquities auction did not sell, including lot 129, shown above, the superbly cast Hellenistic or Roman bronze lion protome, circa 1st Century B.C.-1st Century A.D, 17 1/2 inches long.
The catalogue noted that its origin is not clear: "The sharp left turn of the lion's head suggests that it was once paired with a symmetrical counterpart. Such a pair of heavy bronze lions mayhave been attached to the cat-head of a ship, which is a curved timber projecting from each bow for securing an anchor. Although it is possible that this piece could have ornamented a chariot or piece of furniture, the great size and weight advocates more strongly in favorof use on a ship."
Properly mounted and lit and exhibited so that it is seen to its best advantage, this is a marvelous piece that should have easily exceeded its high estimate of $200,000, but such levels are still hard to achieve at auction, especially for works with as much ferocity and character as this lion.
Another museum-quality work from the same period and culture that failed to sell was lot 119, a silver figure of a bull that was only 3 1/8 inches long and had had a very ambitious high estimate of $80,000. While the small sculpture was most impressive, its diminutive size made it far too expensive.
A slightly newer work, lot 279, a Roman bronze figure of a lion, circa 2nd-3rd Century, A.D., sold for $13,800, more than double its high estimate. The 7 1/2-inch-long figure had a marvelous green patina and, according to the catalogue, was originally affixed to a chariot. This work, shown below, was probably the most desirable work at either auctions for new collectors of antiquities and surprisingly did not go for a lot more.
Another fine work from the same period and culture was lot 283, an 11 1/2-inch-high bronze leg of a tripod or handle of a vessel that depicted an acrobat balancing himself on his hands on the extended forepaws of an upright lion. The piece was ascribed in the catalogue as either Roman or Parthian and was quite exquisitely sculpted, but sold for just beneath its low estimate of $25,000.
The star of the Christie's auction was a marble frieze from a muse sacrophagus, circa 3rd Century, A.D., from the Lansdowne Collection in London, England. It sold for $140,000, well above its high estimate of $80,000 and was in very fine collection but of less than masterful artistry.
Two other excellent, slightly earlier Roman works, lots 276 and 277, a marble support with lions' heads, and a mable torse of a male figure, both sold within their conservative estimates of $10,000 to $15,000 each.
Lot 223, illustrated on the back cover of the catalogue, also sold within its estimate for $51,750, a very respectable price for an East Greek chalcedony scaraboid only 11/16 of an inch wide. The auction had many engraved gems of high quality that sold well, almost all of which would put to shame any mere unengraved bauble of any price or size from Tiffany's, or Cartier's, but then there are many fools in the contemporary world. Among the great bargains at Christie's was lot 174, ten Roman enameled bronze brooches, circa 1st-2nd Century, A.D., which sold for only $2,185, far below its low estimate of $3,000, and included several fine and interesting pieces.
One of the most interesting works at Christie's was lot 57, a Cypriot steatite idol pendant just 15/16 of an inch tall, dating from the Chalcolithic era, circa 3500-2500 B.C. The cruciform work depicted a squatting female with triangular breasts in low relief and sold within its estimate for $5,520.
Christie's had several impressive Egyptian works that failed to sell. Lot 18 was a fine New Kingdom granite head of an official, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1307 B.C., an 11 1/4 inch high work that had been estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. A larger but more eroded work was lot 20, a New Kingdom granite bust of the goddess Sekhmet, 18th Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep III, 1391-1353 B.C., which was one of 600 created for the sanctuary of Mut at Southern Karnak and had been estimated at $100,000 to $150,000.