Antiquities/Spring '97

By Carter B. Horsley

The antiquities auction market is one of the few that held steady during the downward slide of the art market after the 1987 stock crash.

It has continued to move upwards, albeit rather slowly, and to some observers, such as this one, still has very far to go to reach its proper plateau vis à vis the rest of the art market.

The auctions May 30 and 31 at Christie's and Sotheby's, respectively, are relatively small and disappointing, boasting no major-museum-quality blockbusters, but, as always, they contain many fine pieces for collectors on a relatively moderate budget.

As usual, at least for the past few years, the New York auctions pale in comparison of major works with the antiquities auctions the same houses hold in London. Antiquities and tribal art are the two major art categories where American tastes are not as sophisticated as those in Europe and England.

The good lots at Christie's include: Lot 24, a very stylish Egyptian bronze figure of Pitah, a little over 5 inches tall, dating from the Late Period to the Ptolemic Period, 644-30 B.C., with an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 (which, including the buyer's premium, did not quite reach its low estimate, selling for $2,990); Lot 52, an Egyptian chlorite amulet of a falcon, less than three inches tall, dating from 664-343 B.C., estimated at $10,000 to $15,000 (which failed to sell); Lot 60, an richly incised Egyptian wood anthropoid sarcophagus for Horsiese, almost 70 inches high, dating from 380 to 30 B. C., estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 (which sold for $21,275); Lot 63, an Egyptian wood lion support, dated from the first century B.C. to the first century A. D., about 22 inches tall, from a funerary bier with extensive surviving polychrome, estimated at $6,000 to $9,000 (which sold for $6,900); Lot 99, a Luristan bronze "divine couple" astride a horse, more than 2 inches tall, estimated at $3,500 to $4,500 (which sold for only $2,760); Lot 113, a Greek Attic red-figure pyxis (type C) circular box, circa 410-400 B.C., estimated at $20,000 to $30,000 with lots of figures, animals and monsters (which did quite well, selling for $46,000); Lot 123, an Italo-Corinthian olpe, circa 580-560 B.C., about 15 inches high with three bands of animals against a white background, estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 (which did well, selling for $19,580); Lot 173, a Roman marble head of a woman, 1st century B.C., more than 5 inches tall and estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 (which sold for only $1,725). There are 219 lots in this sale as compared to 417 at Sotheby's.


Despite a high number of buy-ins, Christie's had a few major sales, especially a group of Byzantine marble mosaic panels
from the 5th to 6th Century, A. D., that were estimated in the $5,000 to $12,000 range.  Lot 211, a pair of large panels, each with one rounded end, was estimated, for example at $8,000 to $12,000.  It sold for $111,400.

Other standouts in the Christie's sale was a Roman gilt silver figure of a bull, circa the 1st Century, A. D., that was estimated at $25,000 to $35,000; and a Roman marble relief, circa 2nd Century, A.D., more than 44 inches long, that was estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. The finely detailed and impressive bull which was missing part of its tail sold for $107,000.  The long relief was knocked down for $129,000.

The cover illustration at Christies, a Cycladic marble female figure, more than 9 inches tall, was estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.  It sold for $96,000.

At Sotheby's, a one-inch-long Mesopotamian Hematite Figure of a frog, circa 2000-1500 B.C., Lot 354, is, of course, the best bargain of the sale with an estimate of $600 to $900. Fat chance! It will probably fetch around $2,000, still a bargain.  It sold for $1,265 including buyer's premium.

The most museum-like lot is 164, an Iranian terracotta figure of a goddess from the Southwest Caspian area, circa 1100-900 B.C. Estimated at only $4,000 to $6,000, this abstract, rounded figure, more than 9 inches tall, is sort of a cartoon of Cycladic figures, but it is also reminiscent of some pre-Columbian figures and tribal art. It is quite exceptional and sure to attract the eye of experts. (It sold for $13,800.)

The Islamic art in the Sotheby's auction includes several very attractive tiles, especially Lot 178, a Seljuk early 13th Century star tile depicting a camel that has an estimate of $1,200 to $1,800.  It sold for $7,575, one of several Seljuk pieces that soared above the auction house's estimates.

Sotheby's has many fine pieces including:

One lot, 43, a medium size limestone relief fragment, 19th Dynasty, early in the reign of Rameses II, circa 1279-1250 B.C., looks as if it were sculpted this morning and has a superbly carved head of priest, perhaps Bak-en-Ptah. It comes from the Breitbart Collection and sold in 1992 for $75,000 when it had an estimate of $75,000 to $125,000 and now carries an estimate of $70,000 to $100,000.

It was one of the disappointments of the sales and failed to sell, reflecting a slackening of interest of Egyptian antiquities at this sale and the fact that it had been offered not too long ago.

Another lot, 159, a bronze figure of an ibex, Achaemenid or East Greek, circa 5th Century, a little over two inches tall, estimated at $20,000 to $30,000, was also on the auction block recently, failing to sell at Sotheby's June 20, 1990, when it had an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. The finely wrought and stylized horned animal is nice, but very small. It might reach the low range of the current estimate, which would still be a very impressive price for such a tiny object.

It failed to sell, not a great surprise.

The lower estimates on these two pieces reflects their recent appearance at auction rather than falling values.

Egyptian antiquities have been outpacing most other cultures in recent years at auctions. Lot 52, a limestone relief fragment, about 11 inches tall, dated 664-600 B.C., and estimated at $8,000 to $12,000 is quite likely to go twice as high as its high estimate because of the exquisite carving of the figure of a man and the general shape of the fragment, which is quite attractive.

It failed to sell, a great surprise.

A Greek bronze helmet, Lot 78, from the first half of the 6th Century, B.C., has a great sculptural form, fine patina and a high, but appropriate estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.

It went a bit above the high estimate at $90,500 including the buyer's premium.

The cover piece, Lot 93, a Hellenistic terracotta figure of a woman from Boeotia, Tanagran, circa late 4th/3rd Century, B.C., estimated at $6,000 to $9,000, is very attractive, but not as delightful as a very similar, but better figure estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 as lot 114 at Sotheby's in December, 1992.  This was the star of the Tanagra figures, which did well, and it sold for $24,150, probably reflecting its presence on the cover.


Other notable lots at Sotheby's included 64, a small Cycladic figure that had been estimated at 7$5,000 to $125,000 and sold for $178,500; lot 103, a small marble torso of a man from the first Century B.C. from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that had been estimated at $2,500 to $3,500 and sold for $32,200; lot 108, a marble head of a ram, dating a couple of hundred years later, that was estimated at $40,000 to $60,000 that sold for $180,000; and a group of small Seljuk ceramic tiles dating to the 13th Century, A.D., that did extraorindarily well, in some cases 10 times or more higher than the high estimate, indicating very strong new interest in Islamic art.

See The City Review article on the Antique Jewelry evening auction at Christie’s Dec. 8, 1999

See The City Review article on the Dec. 9, 1999 antiquities evening auction at Sotheby's of the Christos G. Bastis Collection

See The City Review article on the Dec. 10, 1999 Antiquities auction at Sotheby's


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