Art/Auctions logo

Ancient Jewelry


6 PM, December 8, 1999

Greek gold Nike earrings

Lot 29, Greek gold Nike earrings, 3rd-4th Century, B.C.,

1 11/16 inches long

By Carter B. Horsley

Why would anyone buy expensive modern jewelry when you can get incredible baubles from antiquity at this auction?

Lot 29, which is shown above and illustrated on the catalogue’s cover, is fantastic and makes one wonder how new Art Nouveau was.

Without question the most spectacular work of art to be auctioned in the fall of 1999, this pair of earrings not only causes one to rethink one’s appreciation of the sinuous and sensuous lines of late 19th and early 20th Century Art Nouveau, but also to reconsider Classical art.

The Italian Renaissance was inspired in large measure by the discovery of many spectacular Greek and Roman antiquities and the purity of these Classical creations emboldened the artists of the 15th Century to raise their idealized standards of beauty, a collective act that resulted in the main corpus of "Western" aesthetics for four centuries. Those aesthetic notions of beauty and grace continued to be dominant through much of the 20th Century, although the gradual awakening to non-Western cultures and the advent of modernism began to significantly alter this cultural mindset.

Our perceptions of Classical Art have been greatly influenced by textbooks and public collections and not everyone has been able to travel extensively or have access to many private collections. It is still difficult for many to visualize that many of the famous architectural ruins and surviving statues were colored and not just marvelous marble works of art as they now appear.

One of the reasons that many collectors have fallen in love with Greek Tanagra figurines is that, in addition to their often fabulous flow of drapery, they have traces of paint, usually a pale blue, that reminds us that theirs was not a monochromatic world. The movies, of course, have depicted a Classical world in which women wore lovely clothes and centurions had their red robes and gilded helmets.

But nothing really prepares us for the flamboyance demonstrated by this small pair of earrings that are only 1 11/16 inches long.

The catalogue describes them as Greek gold Nike earnings, circa late 4th to 3rd Centuries B.C. and notes that "the high quality of these earrings is closely paralleled by a pair of Eros earnings said to be from Rhodovani, Crete, now in the Metropolitan Museum." Those, however, were much cruder in execution and are illustrated in color on page 67 of "Greek Gold, Jewelry of the Classical World," by Dyfri Williams and Jack Ogden that was published by the museum and Harry N. Abrams Inc., in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name held in 1994 at the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan in 1995.

The figures have their hair tied in two knots and are "depicted nude but for a wide himation which fans out behind, with folds of the garment held in the one raise and one lower hand, an additional strip flowing over one shoulder, the outstretched sheet-gold wings with finely chased details for the feathers. The figures hang from disks with eight-pedal rosettes at the center, each petal fringed with beaded wire. The disks are rather conventional and not of the same supreme quality of the figures, unfortunately, but that is a minor quibble.

There are, of course, many lively poses to be found in Classical sculpture, both in very large and very small works. What is exceptional here is the spectacular flare of the "skirt" of the garment, the joyous furl of the broad "belt" and the powerful dynamics of the spread wings.

One is tempted to conjure Rococo excesses, Pre-Raphaelite adorations of feminine beauty, and Rothkoesque immersive divisions. One also senses the infatuation and bravura of a Rubens, and the celebratory exuberance of Fragonard. Indeed, hopefully The Frick Collection will purchase this lot and put it a small case in its great Fragonard room close to the huge panel of a lady on a swing in some palatial gardens.

The lot is estimated very conservatively at $80,000 to $120,000, probably reflecting its small size. There is no provenance listed. It was passed at $65,000!

This auction was the most disappointing of the Fall 1999 season in which numerous records were set for individual artists and sales in general were very robust. Of 151 offered lots, only 103 were sold and many of the most important lots failed to sell.

Lot 35 is a charming, 1-inch-long, Greek gold Eros pendant, that shows the god holding a New Comedy mask in one hand and part of a shaft, perhaps a torch, in the other, with his feathery wings outstretched. It has an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. It was passed at $4,200.

The second best work in the auction is Lot 42, an exquisite, Greek gold pin 5 ¾ inches long that has Aphrodite, nude except for a coiled anklets and a pair of snake armlets, standing with a foot resting on a dolphin and supporting herself with her right hand on the head of a winged Eros who holds a mirror for her, both of them perched atop a Corinthian capital.

The lot is conservatively estimated at $100,000 to $150,000. It was passed at $70,000!

Roman gold pendant of Fortuna

Lot 94, Roman gold pendant of Fortuna, 1 5/8-inches high

Lot 94 is a less finely sculpted Roman gold pendant of Fortuna, 1 5/8-inches tall, and hangs from a heavy, 46-inch-long chain. The goddess is shown holding a ship’s rudder in one hand and a cornucopia in the other. She is wearing a crescent headdress and the chain has a larger crescent ornament with a peal attached. "The present chain," the catalogue noted, "is extraordinary in terms of its length and the state of preservation. Another extremely long chain, of unknown provenience [sic] and now in the Naples Museum, relates to our example in that it too is adorned with a small lunar crescent pendant. The impressive solid cast pendant of Fortuna, the focal point of this ensemble, is a fusion of the goddess’s traditional attributes…with those of the moon goddess Luna (the crescent crown)."

The lot has an ambitious estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It was passed at $180,000.

Roman silver figure of Aprhodite

Lot 121, Roman silver figure of Aphrodite, circa 1st-2nd Century, A.D., 3 1/2-inches high

Lot 121 is far more alluring and charming. It is a 3 ½-inch-high Roman silver figure of Aphrodite, circa 1st – 2nd Century, A. D. The solid cast piece is nude except for a himation that she holds demurely to prevent slipping off her waist and a crescentic diadem in her center-parted hair. The catalogue notes that the statue’s ears were pierced for "now-missing" earrings. The lot has a slightly conservative estimate of $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $23,000 including the buyer's premium as do all the sales prices in this article.

Other impressive lots include Lot 26, a "massive Greek or Thracian gold arm band," circa 2nd-1st Century, B. C., 3 7/8 inches wide by 4 ½ inches in diameter, shown below. The piece is made of a solid round rod wound into 5 ½ coils, each end hammered into a bead and reel pattern and terminated by elongated stylized animal heads, "seemingly canine, with chased wavy lines indicating fur between the long ears, with large almond-shaped eyes and a point snout." It has an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000. It was passed at $65,000.

Greek or Thracian gold arm band

Lot 26, a "massive Greek or Thracian gold arm band," circa 2nd-1st Century, B. C.,

3 7/8 inches wide by 4 ½ inches in diameter

Two other gold open bracelets are being offered, Lots 13 and 14, both Achaemenid, circa late 6th-5th Century, B.C. The ends of both terminate in stylized engraved calf heads. The former is 2 7/16 inches wide and has a conservative estimate of $3,000 to $5,000 and the latter is 2 13/16 inches wide and has a conservative estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. The former has less decoration but has retained its curved shape better. The lots were passed at $1,900 and $2,400, respectively.

Lot 19 consists of four Scythian gold appliqués, circa late 5thCentury B.C., one in the form of a bird of prey, two in the form of stags and one in the form of a coiled feline attacking a smaller animal. The largest piece is 1 ¾ inches wide. The conservative estimate for this highly stylized and dramatic works is $20,000 to $30,000. It sold for $34,500.

Lot 50 is a very fine Roman gilt silver figure of a bull, circa 1st Century, A. D., 1 ½ inches long, that has a conservative estimate of $7,000 to $9,000. It sold for $12,650.

Lot 122 is a Roman gilt silver crossbow fibula, circa 3rd-4th Century, A.D., with a curved chalcedony cameo of an undulated and coiled snake, its raised head with open mouth oriented toward the crossbar. The piece was formerly in the Gans Collection and has a conservative high estimate of $4,000. "This fibula," the catalogue stated, "is said to have been found on the Insula Tiberina, which was the location of the temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing. It is impossible to know if the presence of the snake, which is the god’s attribute, inspired the provenance." It sold for $9,200.

The auction has many nice cameos, seals and necklaces.

Lot 44 is a Greek agate cameo, Hellenistic Period, circa 2nd-1st Century, B.C., which is finely sculpted with the face of a helmeted hero. The oval piece is 15/16 inches long and has an ambitious high estimate of $30,000. It sold for $19,000.

Lot 58 is a nice Etruscan carnelian scarab, circa late 4th-early 3rd Century, B.C., ¾ inches long. It depicts a satyr driving a triga and has an estimate of $4,000 to $6,000. It was passed at $3,200.

Lot 62 is a fine Roman red jasper ring that depicts a lion attacking a stag and has a conservative estimate of $2,000 to $3,000. It sold for $1,840.

Lot 97 is a roman gold and red jasper ring, circa Late 2nd-3rd Century, A.D., that is engraved with profile portraits of a man and woman facing one another. It has an estimate of $3,000 to $5,000. It sold for $5,175.

See The City Review article on the Antiquities auction at Christie’s Dec. 9, 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

See The City Review article on the June 5, 1999 Antiquities Auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1998 Antiquities auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1998 Antiquities auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's

See The City Review article on the Fall 1997 Antiquities auction at Sotheby's

See The City Review article on the Spring 1997 Antiquities auction at Sotheby's


Home Page of The City Review