seals are wonderful, small objects that are incised with graphic
images and sometimes writing that were the "signatures"
of dignitaries, officials and the well-to-do in the Ancient Near
East. They are made of hard stones, often black or dark green,
but also of lapis lazuli, chalcedony, agate, jasper, marble, carnelian
an essay in this auction's catalogue, W. G. Lambert observed that
"Cylinder seals are the only object from the ancient Near
East surviving in quantity over the entire time span." "So
for the history of art they are unique. In addition, some carry
inscriptions naming the ancient owners, or giving other valuable
information, which is also unique since captions on objects are
extremely rare in this area and period. And, since cylinder seals
are small and mostly made of stone, many have survived intact,
while other objects such as large sculpture in the round and large
stone reliefs have rarely survived intact, if at all. Victorious
armies often destroyed them of set plan, or plunderers and vandals
as well as the elements took a toll of them over the centuries.
Thus, a major collection of cylinder seals has an importance well
beyond the size and bulk of the objects," Mr. Lambert wrote.
seals are somewhat akin to Chinese scrolls in that they need to
be "unraveled," or "rolled out." Because they
cannot be seen completely without turning them, they are sort
of early animations. Some have one continuous scene, others are
"compartmentalized," and some have inscriptions. Many
of the earliest ones have simple geometric patterns, and there
are many traditional scenes involving nobility, gods, hunters,
and beasts. Most are meant to be scrolled horizontally but the
Surena collection has one that is meant to be scrolled horizontally.
There are small seals and large seals, some lean, and some fat.
In many instances, the incised images are very hard to discern
directly from the seal, often because of the stone's particular
coloration, and most seals that are auctioned nowadays come with
a gray clay tablet on which the seal's impression has been made,
which makes it much easier to visualize. Remarkably, the
of the carving is usually quite pronounced. Collectors prize the
quality of the images, but Mr. Lambert emphasized that the Surena
collection also included many that were of historical importance
because of style or specific inscriptions.
auction contained a very broad range of seals, some of which carried
quite modest estimates and some of which had quite ambitious estimates.
proved to be a rather amazing auction with many seals fetching
extremely high prices even as some sold for less than $500. Only
62 percent of the 153 offered lots sold, but prices were sufficiently
high on many lots that the auction sold 88 percent "by $."
Surena Collection of Ancient Near Eastern Cylinder Seals was a
complete triumph," declared G. Max Bernheimer, senior vice
president and International Specialist Head for Antiquities of
Christie's, after the auction. "The sale was spearheaded
by a Western Asiatic chalcedonyseal that sold for an amazing $424,000,
the world-record by far for any ancient seal ever sold at auction,"
seal, Lot 526, is shown at the top of this article and the $424,000
sales price included the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned
in this article. The seal, which was acquired by an "international"
dealer, had a pre-sale estimate of $60,000 to $80,000.
price was all the more remarkable because it was not the highest
estimated lot in the sale and, more importantly, because it was
"unfinished." The seal had not been drilled for wearing
and only half of it was incised.
his catalogue essay, Mr. Lambert made the following observations
about this lot:
is an unfinished cylinder seal, with two standing figures, the
first probably meant as a king in domed hat and long decorated
robe, the second, which is shorter, is an attendant, perhaps a
eunuch, holding up a fan behind his master. Then in front of these
two is a rearing stag, something totally unexpected in the Mesopatamiam
art of this period. While at first glance the two figures might
pass as products of an Assyrian seal cutter of the reign of
III of Assyria (746-727 B.C.), closer inspection reveals big
First, the Assyrian (and Babylonian) convention of these times
requires heads to be level, which is not done with the king and
his attendant. Then the designs on the dress of the two figures
are entirely different from what is seen in contemporary or earlier
or later Mesopatamian figures. Finally, the rearing animal in
a worship scene, especially in front of a king, is totally strange
for Assyria or Babylon. We are left to guess what would have been
on the empty spaces of this unfinished seal, and no doubt a deity
would have been depicted, probably a deity for which the stag
was a sacred symbol. The area of origin can only be guessed, but
there is reason to suspect that Northwest Iran is the area, and
one of the kingdoms there, such as the Mannaeans, might have been
the source of this fine art."
catalogue entry for the seal, which measures only 34 by 20 mm,
attributed it to Northwest Iran, circa 800-700 B.C.
is no question that the quality of the carving on this seal is
sublime, but its "unfinished" state, its difficult cultural
attribution and the fact that many seals are much, much older,
and many are much larger, make its price truly stunning. Given
the incredibly high prices of some contemporary art, however,
antiquities have long been overdue for major market revaluations.
auction, like those this season in other collecting categories,
indicated that the buying public is willing to go "overboard"
for very exceptional pieces, but that such inflated values do
not apply across the board and many fine, but relatively conventional
works go unsold. The amount of buy-ins at this auction and several
others this season was quite high, which is not healthy because
of the uncertainty it creates for many future consignments as
well as the difficulty it creates in establishing values.
huge success of Lot 526 was not a fluke as witnessed by some of
the other very strong prices for some of the auction's other fine
lots. Lot 427, for example, shown above, is an Akkadian green
serpentine cylinder seal only slightly larger than Lot 526, but
much older, dating to circa 2334-2154 B.C. This lot was estimated
at $30,000 to $50,000 and sold for $88,125. In his essay, Mr.
Lambert noted that this seal "has a unique design: two pairs
of fighting heroes, one pair merely wrestling, but the other pair
trying to stab each other. The captive bird-man and guard serve
as means of keeping the two pairs separate, and an inscription
names the ancient owner." The accompanying clay tablets usually
show a bit more than the entire scene of the seal.) The bird-man
is known as Anzu.
bigger Akkadian seal from the same period is Lot 429, shown above,
has the following catalogue description:
carved with fine detail with Nissaba, the goddess of barley and
writing, seated to the right wearing a horned tiara, a necklace
and a loung flounced robe, her hair falling in a long plait with
a curl at the end, with three ears of barley sprouting from her
shoulders, holding an ear of barley in her right hand and a tablet
in her left, a bearded deity standing before Nissaba extending
both hands toward her, wearing a horned tiara and a long robe
with a zig-zag pattern, with plant-shoots projecting from his
body, behind him a bearded figure carrying a plow in both hands,
wearing a horned tiara and a long creased robe, behind the goddess
her spouse Haya stands wearing a horned headdress and a long fringed
robe, with a long beard and a plait of hair with a curl at the
end, with many ears of barley sprouting from the sides of his
body, the terminal a small figure of a worshspper wearing a log
fringed robe, with short hair and heard, holding a kid over one
shoulder, one arm raised."
40 by 24 mm seal had an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000 and sold
for $127,000. There are many seals of presentations to goddesses
or queens, but few have such imagery and variety as this.
433, shown above, is another Akkadian seal, 35 by 24 mm, from
the same period is also quite extraordinary for its details and
composition. The catalogue provides the following description
scene divided into three parts, one part composed of two dogs
seated on their haunches looking up at an eagle in the sky carrying
a man, a large pot between the dogs and a spouted vessel above
the dog to the right, a man to the left wearing a kilt, standing
with his right arm extending forward and his left arm raised,
further to the left another scene with a standing shepherd, carrying
a vessel on a rod over his shoulder, guiding three goats with
whip in his right hand, between them a tripod from which hangs
an oblong object, and the third scene above the goats consisting
of two men engaged in a task involving an uncertain object, the
two surrounded by circular objects, the terminal in the form of
a fence...The man being carried by the eagle is Etana, thirteenth
king of Kish. Etana had no son and prayed daily to Shamash, the
sun god, to grant him a child. Shamash directed him to an eagle
caught in a pit, where it had been trapped by a serpent, having
eaten the young of the snake. Etana freed the eagle who, in gratitutde,
carried the king on his back to heaven. Upon his arriven in heaven,
Etana was brought to the throne of Ishtar where he begged the
goddess or a son, since his queen was barren. She gave him the
plant of birth which he had to eat together with his wife...."
seal measures 35 by 24 mm and was estimated at only $10,000 to
$15,000 and sold for $11,750.
the carving of Lot 433 is considerably cruder, albeit very charming,
than Lot 526, Lot 479, shown above, is another lot with exquisite
carving. It is a Kassite obsidian cylinder seal, circa 1350-1200
B.C., and one of the biggest seals in the auction at 58.5 by 17.5
mm. It also carried a high estimate of $100,000. It sold for $138,000.
catalogue notes that "horses were never wild in this region,
and only in the 2nd millennium B.C., did they gradually come into
use for pulling chariots. Towards the end of the millennium they
were ridden for quick travel and military purposes."
of the later, or more recent, seals is Lot 550, shown above, a
Graeco-Persian chalcedony cylinder seal, circa 5th-4th Century
B.C. It depicts a Persian man spearing an charging boar. It was
estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 and sold for $14,100.