By Carter B. Horsley
The winter antiquities auction at Christie's Dec. 18, 1997, offers an interesting variety of fairly unusual items including a good collection of pre-medieval jewelry, part of the more than 120 lots being offered at the end of the sale from the estate of Neil F. Phillips Esq.
Many of the 347 lots in the entire sale are reasonably priced although estimates are likely not to be too good a guide at this sale. Surprisingly, many of the lots fell within Christie's estimates, although several of the most important lots failed to sell and there were enough disappointments that the sale could not be considered strong, or a success (at least, for the sellers).
One of the nicest offerings is lot 26, three Achaemenid bronze fittings, each quite small and depicting horned animals in wonderful poses with fine detailing. It is estimated at $3,000 to $4,000, which is probably on target. It sold for only $1,725.
Lot 30, an old Babylonian terracotta cunieform barrel, about 4 and a half inches high is a remarkable piece. It is covered with an inscription by Sin-iddinam, provider of Ur, king of Larsa, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad that describes the creation of a dam on the Tigris. A great collector's piece, this is estimated and $20,000 to $30,000 and it is hard to imagine it not winding up in the Getty, or the Louvre. It sold for $25,300.
It is far more interesting that the cover illustration, lot 73, a black granite royal portrait of Nectanebo II, dated from abut 360 to 343 B. C. Almost a foot high, this is an imposing portrait of considerable power, but the nose is broken and that might make its estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 a bit of a reach. Nectanebo II was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Lot 73 failed to sell at $500,000.
In contrast, lot 75, a black granite portrait of a pharaoh from a sphinx, is just about perfect. Less than seven inches tall, it once belonged to Avery Brundage and is very conservatively estimated at only $35,000 to $45,000. It sold for $63,000.
Another star of the sale is lot 165, a Roman marble head of an Olympian, more than 14 inches high. A broken nose again, but this time the excellent treatment of the hair and the beard make the imperfection a bit more palatable. It is estimated at $80,000 to $120,000, reflecting its very strong impact. It was passed.
Lot 188, a Roman bronze figure of Aphrodite is estimated at $30,000 to $50,000 and is quite stunning. More than seven inches tall, its blackish patina and fine modeling are excellent, but her pose is intriguingly open and arrogant, but also quite relaxed. The nude figure, however, is not terribly exciting. It passed.
Far more desirable is a Gallo-Roman bronze wing with busts, lot 191, which is estimated at only $5,000 to $7,000, although it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990-1 in the exhibition, "Glories of the Past, Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection." The wing, which is only a bit more than 4 inches long, is adorned with five fully protruded heads. A similar piece, according to Christie's, is in the British Museum. Despite its diminutive size, this is an extraordinary piece of superb quality and a bargain at many multiples of the estimate. It passed.
Several of the Phillips pieces are fabulous. Lot 227, a Sumerian shell inlay, circa 2600 B.C., depicts a bearded warrior and is excellent and worth its estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. It sold for $13,800.
Lot 234 is a delightful group of four small Late Uruk/Jemdet Nasr amulets that are charming and only estimated at $4,000 to $6,000, while lot 235, a Mesopotamian speckled stone frog amulet is the jewel of the auction and only estimated at $1,000 to $1,500. Only three-quarters of an inch long, it, nevertheless, is more ravishing than any mere diamond. Lot 234 sold for $4,600 and lot 235 sold for $1,955.
Lot 281, a Roman bronze figure of a feline, dated between the first century BC and first century A. D., is a wonderful example of its kind and a bargain at the estimate of $2,500 to $3,500 because it is not too small - two inches long - and very lively with its front paws raised as it is ready to pounce. It passed.
There are many very interesting brooches and fibulas and belt buckles and pins and reliquaries from the Phillips collection in the sale dating from the first Century A.D. to the 11th Century from several different European cultures. The best piece is a hippocamp, one of 9 Romano-British enameled bronze brooches and fittings in lot 295 which is estimated at only $4,000 to $6,000. Any woman who wears this hippocamp will be the belle of any ball. The lot sold for $6,900. Lot 297 has several fine pieces and is only estimated at $2,500 to $3,500. It passed.
The sale also has a good assortment of Greek vases and Egyptian and Roman sculpture.
One of the few lots to signficantly exceed its high estimate was lot 162, a 17-inch-high Roman marble torso of Aphrodite. It sold for $51,750 and had been estimated at $25,000 to $35,000.
The Christie's sale sold only 230 of 347 offered lots, whereas the Sotheby's sale Dec. 17, 1997, was more successful, selling 366 of the 467 lots it offered.
The star of the Sotheby's sale was a green basalt statue of General Pa-Kyr. It sold for $684,500 and its high estimate had been $250,000, proving that good-sized Egyptian antiquities in fine condition are still much in demand.
Another Egyptian lot that exceeded its estimates substantially was lot 37, a fine polycrhome faience Ushabti of Ay from abut 1350 B.C., that sold for $189,000. Its high estimate had been only $60,000. Another small faience work from the approximate same period, lot 60, a fish flask, sold for $68,500. Its high estimate had been $15,000.