Christie's December Antiquities Sale

Provenances can get lost over the years, as I've said again and again, or sellers might not want people to know they're having to sell items, so their names are not listed. But plenty of antiquities go through the art market with provenances that turn out to be a figment of the seller's imagination, designed to deliberately conceal the fact that the items were looted. I'm not saying that these items were looted. But I'd like to see a little more information about the provenances of some of these items.

Palmyrene sculpture pretty much only comes from Palmyra in Syria. Although odd examples have been found at other Syrian cities, and cities linked by trade to Palmyra such as Hatra in NW Iraq (JSTOR), Palmyrene sculpture comes from a pretty limited geographical area, and unlike, for example, Attic vases, was not traded widely. The style is pretty distinctive (for a summary see here), and this makes it easy to identify examples and to state that they almost certainly originated at Palmyra - just as Cypriot sculptures almost certainly came from Cyprus. Palmyrene sculptures have long been collected, and most large Western collections have good examples of them.

An inscription of Julius Aurelius Zebeida was recorded at Palmyra in the 18th century, so it was interesting to see this relief for sale at Christie's NY (Lot 24) of "Masheku, son of Zebeida, son of Zebeida, Alas!"

My problem is that the provenance has too many red flags:
"Private Collection, Lebanon, early 1980s.
Acquired by the current owner in Geneva, 2007"
Many antiquities were smuggled through the Lebanon during it's civil war, and had dodgy documents issued there. This piece may have been legally exported from Syria to Lebanon, and then legally exported from Lebanon to Switzerland, but I'd want to know a bit more information about the provenance of this funerary relief.

Greek vases on the other hand, although made in Greece, particularly Athens, were mostly found intact in Etruscan tombs in Italy - hence why so many American museums and collectors were forced to return vases looted and sold by Giacomo Medici to Italy rather than Greece. But unlike Palmyrene sculpture, an Attic black figure vase could in theory have been found anywhere around the Mediterranean or Black Sea, or possibly even traded as far as Germany.

Projects such as the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum mean that the majority of Greek and Apulian vases are published, so a lack of a publication in many ways raises as many questions with a vase as lack of a provenance, pariticularly when it comes to Southern Italian vases.

Luckily this amphora (Christie's Lot 69) has both: the provenance goes back to "William Randolph Hearst, San Simeon, California" (he bought most of his vases from old UK collections, so I suspect this could be pushed back into the 19th century with a little research), and it was published in "J.D. Beazley, Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters, Oxford, 1956, p. 605."

This Attic red figure cup attributed to the Tarquinia painter (Lot 109) has a collecting history going back to the 19th century:
"Said to be found in Etruria, possibly Tarquinia.
British government official, stationed in Italy, circa 1870; thence by descent, England.
Private Collection, England, circa 1923.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 14 November 1966, lot 120.
with Charles Ede, London, circa 1990."
I wish we had the name of the British official who bought it in Italy, but like that the seller is named:
And cup also has three publications:
"J.D. Beazley, Paralipomena, Oxford, 1971, p. 427, no. 77bis.
J.-L. Durand and F. Lissarrague, "Un Lieu d'Image?, L'espace du louterion," in Hephaistos 2, 1990, p. 98, fig. 14.
T.H. Carpenter, Beazley Addenda, Oxford, 1989, p. 300.
Beazley Archive Database no. 276018."
Most of the provenances at this Christie's New York sale of Antiquities seem more solid that those in recent Christie's London sales, probably because the department is run by people who have experience.

This little white figure lekythos (Lot 112) attributed to the Quadrate Painter is in terrible condition, and doesn't look like much ... but it appeals to me because it was formerly in the collection of the painter Oskar Kokoschka. Kokoschka is well known today as a painter, but people often forget that before he fled the Nazis (they'd branded him a degenerate artist), he had also been a playwright, writing several plays based on Classical themes such as Orpheus and Eurydike.

We tend to forget that Greek pottery was created as a cheaper imitation of bronze and silver vessels - Alexander the Great would have drunk out of a silver cup, not a clay Attic one. The problem with metal vessels is that they could be melted down, and often were, so very few survive. Silver vessels without a solid provenance are the cause of great suspicion - for example the Sevso Hoard.

Again, I want to be clear that I am not saying this Greek 5th century silver cup (Lot 114) is looted - but if I were a collector or a museum bidding in the million dollar range for it, then I'd want something far more substantial as a provenance than these claims:
"Private Collection, Geneva.
Art Market, London.
Private Collection, U.S., 1996.
with Phoenix Ancient Art, New York and Geneva, 2008 (Crystal III, pp. 58-60)."
The only solid piece of information the provenance gives is that the cup was offered for sale by Phoenix in 2008, a dealer which has had questions raised about the provenances of several other pieces which have passed through their hands. It's all very nice quoting Herodotus in the 'Lot Notes' but it would be far more useful to know where this cup was pre 2008, and ideally pre 1970.

This bronze figuring (Lot 157) is said to be early 1st century BC and said to depict Mithradates VI ... The Christie's Lot Notes explain why this is a portrait of Mithradates VI:
"A passionate philhellene, Mithradates identified himself with Alexander the Great. This accounts for the style and stance of this bronze figure, relating closely to Lyssipan depictions of Alexander, such as the bronze in the Harvard University Art Museum, no. 38, p. 118 in Yalouris, et al., The Search for Alexander, an Exhibition, thought to represent the now-lost Lyssipan Alexander with a Lance. Like Alexander, Mithradates is shown here likely once holding the lance in his left hand.
For a marble head of Mithradates with similar wildly touseled tresses, see no. 84, pl. 52,3-4 in Smith, Hellenistic Royal Portraits, and on coinage, figs. 207-209 in Davis and Kraay, THe Hellenistic Kingdoms, Portrait Coins and History."
I know I'm probably just being my usual cynical self, but ... I can't see the great resemblance between this statuette portrait and the one in Smith, but ... there's a nice little academic article by Jakob Munk Hotje about portraits of this enemy of Rome, available online which illustrates most of the possible Portraits and Statues of Mithridates VI ... so maybe you can spot the resemblance I'm missing. (For more articles about him from the same book, see here).

And no sale would be complete without a Cleopatra, though in this case it's a little silver head of Cleopatra Selene (Lot 174).

It is similar enough to the Boscoreale emblema dish now in the Louvre (photo below) for one to assume that they are the same sitter, and the crescent preserved in the Louvre piece makes it possible that Cleopatra Selene, queen of Mauretania, daughter of the more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt, is indeed depicted. The cornucopia she holds is associated with the ruler-cult of Ptolemaic queens from the time of Arsinoe II onwards (Arsinoe can be identified because she was the only queen that held a doubole cornucopia).

The Louvre catalogue is more careful attributing, calling their dish (left), excavated in 1895, as an allegory or possibly Cleopatra VII or Cleopatra Selene. We know that the villa della Pisanella was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and scholars date the Boscoreale Treasure to the time of Augustus or Tiberius.

The portrait found at Cherchel, and mentioned in the Christie's Lot Notes is confusing, as there were in fact two portraits found there, one of which is believed to be one of the few certain Greek-style portraits of Cleopatra VII, and another of which is sometimes assigned to Cleopatra Selene (or sometimes a man - see plate 4 here), and which does look like the little head Christie's is selling.

If I were a collector, I'd want this in my collection. If the Christie's figure is genuine - and when it looks too good to be true, I bet someone will be asking Jack Ogden before they bid $2-3m - it still has issues of lack of any real provenance. It's apparently the property of a New York private collector, who presumably bought it on the "Art Market, New York, 1996." ... It strikes me as a little odd that the dealer he bought it off is not listed, and I'd want a hell of a lot more information about the provenance of such an important piece.

1 comment:

  1. What about that red jasper Egyptian head "acquired by current owner, Paris, 1977" and only exhibited in 1998?


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