By Carter B. Horsley
The Spring 1998 Antiquities sales at Sotheby's and Christie's were a bit uneven with the former achieving more successful results. Neither sale had many blockbuster lots, but the market continued to be strong for high quality items.
With 416 lots as compared to 334 lots at Christie's, Sotheby's had more to offer and generally it was of better quality with corresponding results.
The cover illustration, Lot 63, a black granite or basalt relief fragment from the 30th Dynasty/Early Ptolemaic Period, reign of Nectanebo II /Ptolemy I, 360-282 B.C., for example, had been estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 and sold for $211,500 (including the buyer's premium). Only 7 5/8 inches high, the gray stone relief, shown at the left, was exquisitely sculpted with the head of a queen or goddess wearing a tripartite wig with vulture headdress. Given the lot's beauty and condition and the strong market for significant Egyptian artifacts, the high price for such a late work is not surprising.
A pair of larger and earlier polychrome limestone reliefs, Lot 38, that had been estimated at $80,000 to $120,000 sold for $167,500. Dating fom the 6th Dynasty, late in the reign of Pepi II, circa 2150 B.C., these handsome and colorful reliefs were impressive and in fine condition, each with a large, colored figure and numerous hieroglyphs.
Another good-size limestone relief, Lot 40, from the late 25th/early 26th Dynastry, circa 680-640 B.C., also did well. It had been estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 and sold for $107,000. Although its condition was not pristine, it had five well-carved figures and lotus blossoms.
Bronze cats continue to do well and tiny but wonderful faience amulets from the collection of Marianne Maspero did quite well. Lot 52, a blue cat had been estimated at $800 to $1,200 and sold for $2,587 and Lot 53, a green falcon, had been estimated at $1,200 to $1,800 and sold for $4,600.
A superb Hellenistic marble figure of Aphrodite, circa 2nd Century B.C., Lot 107, had been estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 and sold for $104,500, actually rather surprisingly low considering how fine a work this is. The 21 3/8 inch tall statue was in fine condition except for a broken nose, top of her head and one missing arm. With one leg gently resting on the neck of a small swan, the goddess was remarkably beautiful and very finely sculpted and a significant museum-class work.
A large Greek terracotta protome of Demeter, from Boetotia, 470-460 B.C., Lot 114, has a finely modelled sculpture that had been estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 and sold for $101,500. A less static and very romantic Greek terracotta figure of a dancing lady, circa mid-4th Century B.C., Lot 117, had been estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 and sold fo $31,050. The 9 1/4 inch tall piece was similar to many Tanagra pieces in its gracefulness although not as finely detailed as some. Its charm, however, was self-evident as was a smaller and more impressive piece, Lot 116, a Greek gilt terracotta applique, Taras, 4th Century B.C., of a griffin in combat with an Arimasp warrior. This wonderful, 6 1/8 inch long piece was in fine condition and had been estimated at only $2,500 to $3,500 and sold for $4,887. A large and very animated Greek terracotta figure of Apollo, circa 3rd Century B.C., Lot 118, had been estimated at $5,000 to $8,000 and sold for $24,150.
Among the Roman pieces, Lot 141, a 13-inch high bronze figure of Aphrodite, circa 2nd Century, A.D., sold for $76,500 and had been estimated at $40,000 to $60.000. It was in good condition with gold earnings, but was not exquisite. Lot 143, a bronze figure of Zeus from the First Century, A.D., on the other hand, did not sell and had been estimated at $8,000 to $12,000, reflecting its fine workmanship. The 6 1/2 inch high statue was missing an arm and leg. Lot 144, a very charming bonze of Aphrodite that was 6 inches tall sold within its estimate of $4,000 to $6,000, but two other good lots, 146 and 148, a 10 3/8 inch high statue of Nike and a 6 3/8 inch high statue of Hermes, estimated respectively at $10,000 to $15,000 and $12,000 to $18,000, did not sell. Lots 146 and 148 were very fine pieces in excellent condition and were not over-estimated. The market apparently for bronze statues evidently is a bit inconsistent. Lot 150, a finely sculpted pantheress did not sell and was estimated at $9,000 to $12,000, a bit high.
Perhaps the most striking work offered at Sotheby's was Lot 162, an agate table leg depicting the head of a lion, circa 2nd Centuy A. D. The brown and yellow stone sculpture, shown at the left, was 7 1/4 inches high and had been estimated at $6,000 to $9,000 and sold for $12,650, a bargain given its ferocious and magnificent tactile quality.
Mosaic murals and cylinder seals did well at the auction. Lot 178, for example, an Akkadian Serpentine Cylinder seal with Presentation Scene, circa 2400 to 2200 B.C., had been estimated for $4,000 to $6,000 and sold for $14,950. The lot was only 3.5 centimeters high.
The smaller sale at Christie's had many interesting lots although the overall quality was not as high at Christie's.
For connoisseurs, perhaps the most exciting piece at either sale was Lot 63 at Christie's, a large wood bust from an anthropoid sacrophagus, late period, 30th Dynasty, 380-343 B.C. The 21 7/8 inch high work was described in the auction catalogue as: "Preserving the head and upper left shoulder of a life-sized sarcophagus, the idealized face with lips curved up in a sickle-shaped smile, the indented filtrum shadowed by the prominent nose, with almond-shaped eyes, the long cosmetic lines and pupils painting in black, the tripartite wig remaining above most of the face, falling behind the exaggerated proper left ear, a pin-hole under the chin for the now-missing beard."
The lot, shown at the right, had been estimated at $30,000 to $40,000. It did not sell! Part of the fascination with antiquities is their distress, particularly with fragments. Sometimes a truncated leg or arm can be very evocative and sometimes, as was the case in the Egyptian bas-relief that was the cover illustration of the Sotheby's sale shown above, it can seem just right, almost as if it should have created as it now exists originally. This stunning bust is particularly dramatic because of its sheer cut-off head and the "fortuitousness" of its missing body except for the left shoulder. Large wooden sculptures, such as this and 19th Century figureheads from whaling ships, were often executed in several pieces. Although often meant to be painted, the artists often used the highest quality wood, or stone, with special emphasis on the quality of the grain. Here, the wood grain is marvelous, especially in the lines the face. The "sickle-shaped smile" would surely have delighted Leonardo da Vinci. As a solitary work in a large room, this is divinely awesome. If there was any sanity in the art world, this masterpiece should have fetched in the mid six figures. The natural warmth of the wood and the serene shyness and perhaps sadness of the depicted's expression is both majestic and inspiring, mysterious and alluring, monumental and approachable, moving and loving.
A cute but encrusted and minor Canaanite bronze "smiting" god bronze statue, Lot 6, on the other hand, soared above its estimate of $5,000 to $7,000 and sold for $10,350, a goodly amount for a 6 3/4 inch high work of not much distinction.
Another small piece, Lot 20, a silver phyrygian figurine only 2 1/4 inches tall, sold for $32,200. The nicely detailed work had been estimated at $10,000 to $15,000. Works in silver and gold tend to sell for more than those in bronze, understandably. A rather extraordinary hedgehog in rose granite, Lot 38, failed to sell. The very abstract and subtle sculpture was 4 1/2 inches tall and had been estimated at $4,000 to $6,000 and was late predynastic to early dynastic period, circa 3200 to 3000 B.C., a remarkable connoisseur's piece of tremendous fascination, if not beauty.
A very fine bronze statuette of a lioness goddess, Lot 101, also failed to sell and had been estimated at $7,000 to $9,000. The sinuous and finely sculpted work with traces of gold and a rich red and brown patina was 8 1/4 inches high, but was missing its arms and legs, which did not detract from its considerable beauty.
Greek vases did well at Christie's. An Attic black-figure Lekythos attributed to the Edinburgh painter, for example, Lot 129, sold for $156,500. It had been estimated at $70,000 to $90,000 and depicted, with great flair, Herakles battling the Lernean Hydra with "Hera's crab threatening from below."
A Roman bronze tripod leg with a well-modeled head of a horse with flaring nostrils and open mouth, Lot 145, sold for $20,700. The 14 1/4 inch tall tripod leg had been estimated at $7,000 to $9,000.
Although his nose was broken off, a Roman marble head of Eros, Lot 163, was striking and sold just above its high estimate of $40,000, while one of the expected stars of the sale, Lot 165, a 21-inch high Roman broze figure of a nude satyr that had been estimated at $150,000 to $250,000 failed to sell. Missing only an arm and a hand, it was impressive but the fellow was not very attractive.
A fabulous chalcedony head of Pan from the First Century A.D., Lot 166, failed to sell. Its estimate of $15,000 to $18,000 might have been a bit high since the work was less than an inch high and Pan did not bear an expression of happiness.
Estimates were not easy to fathom all the time. A very good, 6 inch high statue of Mercury from the First Century A. D., failed to sell and had been estimated at $20,000 to $25,000, quite high for its craftsmanship and his missing caduceus. On the other hand, a more finely sculpted bronze statue of Herakles, also 6 inches high, was estimated at only $4,000 to $6,000 and sold for $10,925.
Although the Christie's sale was disappointing in the relatively high number of lots that did not sell, its cover illustration, Lot 182, a large Roman bronze bust of Serapis, circa 2nd Century A.D., shown at the right, did well.
Estimated at $70,000 to $90,000, it sold for $156,500.
The 14 1/2 inch high piece has all the grandeur one expects of ancient Rome. In superb condition, the work was formerly in the Roger Peyrefitte Collection in Paris.
"The cult of Serapis, perhaps introduced into Egptby Alexander the Great, was vigorously promoted by Ptolemy I Soter. The god embodied aspects of many different deities, including the Egyptian Gods Osiris and Apis and the Greek Gods Dionysus and Hades. It was hoped that this new god, whose main temples were at Alexandria and Memphis, would appeal to all the citizens of the increasingly cosmopolitan Egypt," the Christie's catalogue noted.
"This large bronze bust, one of the finest of its kind, is a faithful replica of the famous cult statue in Alexandria, scupted by Bryaxis circa 286-278 B.C. Although the orignal is now lost, the pose can be reconstructed from depictions on engraved gems of the Roman period. The god originally held a scepter in his raised left hand, which is abbreviated in the present example by having the left shoulder raised. The Ptolemaic eagle, which the gems show to have adorned the pediment of Serapis' temple, is here placed on the top of the kalathos," the catalogue continued.
Gems, incidentally, did very well at the auction. Lot 216, for example, a Greek amethyst ring, Hellenistic Period, circa 3rd to 2nd Century, B.C., had been estimated at $8,000 to $12,000 and sold for $27,600.
A 81-inch-wide Roman marble mosaic panel of a leaping goat sold for $48,300, well above its high estimate of $35,000.