Years 1 to 1000
early 1st century CE - The Syon Aphrodite
2014 SOLD for £ 9.4M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated in 2020
The draped Aphrodite of Munich-Syon-Pozzuoli type is copied from a highly elegant Greek statue made around 420 BCE. An attribution to Alkamenes has been proposed. The Syon Aphrodite was sold by Sotheby's on July 9, 2014 for £ 9.4M including premium from a lower estimate of £ 4M, lot 17.
At 203 cm high, it is larger than life. This specimen, which had lost its forearms, had been admired by Aldrovandi in Rome around 1550 in the garden of the Cardinals Cesi. She was then considered as an Agrippina. It entered in 1773 alongside other monumental marbles in the Great hall of Syon House, the residence of the Dukes of Northumberland, identified as a Livia dressed as Juno.
This Aphrodite was too beautiful, with her oval face, her parted lips and her hair tied in a tiara. It remained in Syon, dismissed by the experts who believed that the head was modern because of a crack along the neck. Some restorations had been made in the 18th century, including the fitting of a pair of forearms. The discovery of its twin sister around 2002 in Pozzuoli finally confirmed the admirable state of conservation of the Aphrodite of Syon. It dates from the Julio-Claudian period, at the beginning of the 1st century CE.
Germanicus for Lord Elgin
2012 SOLD 8.1 M$ including premium
Augustus established a new autocratic regime, thus raising the Emperor's succession as a critical issue. He adopted Tiberius as his successor and then forced Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, in the year 749 of Rome, 2016 years ago.
These two potential successive heirs hated one another. Germanicus was young and beautiful. He was also one of the best generals in the history of Rome, and not interested in politics. When dying at the age of 34, he announced being certain that he had been poisoned.
Some years later, in 790 of Rome, the very unpopular Tiberius also dies, and his successor is the son of Germanicus : Caligula.
The popularity of the father is a good excuse to promote the son, whose criminal fantasies are not yet predictable. Marble portraits of Germanicus are then reissued from a model made at the time of his glory.
One of these marbles, 52 cm high, was purchased in Rome in 1799 of our calendar for the collection of Lord Elgin. This purchase was regular, unlike the removals of the Parthenon marbles made at the same time by the same Lord abusing his position as ambassador to Constantinople.
This portrait is impressive and in very good condition. The aquiline nose has an almost photographic accuracy, and very long sideburns and somehow rebellious curls attest the fashion of Julio-Claudian hairstyles.
It is estimated $ 3M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 6. Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
The catalog was convincing about the exceptional quality of this marble bust. Its price, $ 8.1 million including premium, far above the higher estimate, is well deserved.
Julio-Claudian Marble Torso
2010 SOLD for $ 7.3M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated later in 2010 before the sale of another Torso by Christie's (see below)
This marble without head and members was 110 cm high, larger than life as it was often the case with the statues of Roman emperors. The interest lay in the very fine carving of the breastplate, with animated and varied figures.
There are some similarities between this lot and another marble torso, 119 cm high, which was sold for $ 2.2M including premium by Christie's on December 9, 2010. it is a half-century later to the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and could represent Trajan. Its decoration is less dense than the example above.
133-138 The Bust of Antinous
2010 SOLD for $ 24M including premium by Sotheby's
narrated in 2020
Around the Mediterranean sea, Hadrian shows himself passionately Philhellene, which is politically clever since it is necessary to avoid the eternal rivalries between the Greek cities. He was in Athens in 129 CE and in Egypt in 130.
A Bithynian about 20 years old, whose physical beauty matched the canon of Dionysus, was part of the emperor's suite. His biography contains no verifiable element : in fact he was more useful dead than alive. His drowning in the Nile reminds the epic legend of Osiris. His name was Antinous. The emperor deified him by imperial decree and multiplied the posthumous honors.
The emperor is powerful and the courtiers are numerous. The iconography of Antinous-Dionysus-Osiris takes on an unprecedented scale, which will cease to be useful after Hadrian's death in 138 CE.
A larger than life marble bust, 84 cm high including the base, was discovered in the 19th century in Banias, on the Golan Heights. It was inscribed in Greek by the dedicatee, belonging to a Roman patrician family : "from M. Lucius Flaccus to the god Antinous". Such a signature is unique in the iconography of Antinous.
In 133 and 134 Hadrian led a very deadly war in the Judaea raised by Bar Kokhba. Banias, romanized as Caesarea Philippi, had a long pagan tradition which justified an ostensible support to the emperor.
The bust is incomplete : the arms are missing, a shoulder is detached and the nose is broken. Despite this condition, it was sold for $ 24M including premium by Sotheby's on December 7, 2010 over a lower estimate of $ 2M, lot 9.
Roman Venus of Capitoline Type
2021 SOLD for £ 18.6M by Sotheby's
The goddess of love is featured standing with one leg very slightly bent, in modesty with a hand hiding the sex. The other arm is posed over a vase thrown with drapery upon it, raised here for assuring the stability of the heavy marble but also forwarding the idea of the preparation for a ritual bath.
The original marble was destroyed in a fire in 475 CE. The figure was highly popular and led to two Roman variants of the Venus pudica with sex and breast covered by the hands. They are known as the Venus de' Medici and the Capitoline Venus.
A Roman Imperial marble example of the Capitoline Venus was sold in Rome in 1776 by the art dealer Gavin Hamilton to the 8th Duke of Hamilton who was making his Grand Tour. While looking for customers in the previous year, Gavin Hamilton commented possibly wrongly that the head is not its own and rightly that the vase and its drapery are not antique.
The Hamilton Venus resided in Hamilton Palace in Lanarkshire for nearly 150 years and in the collection of William Randolph Hearst from 1920 to 1940. It went out of view in a private collection after an auction in 1949.
It has just resurfaced and was sold for £ 18.6M from a lower estimate of £ 2M by Sotheby's on December 7, 2021, lot 70. Some 18th century restorations are listed in the catalogue. The original marble plinth is now resting on a wooden base for a total height of 197 cm.
200 and 1770 An Archaic Jade appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor
2021 SOLD for HK$ 54M by Sotheby's
The Qianlong emperor was a great connoisseur of antique jades. His personal expertise of such pieces has been the subject of no less than 800 of his poems.
On April 22, 2021 in Hong Kong, Sotheby's sold for HK $ 54M one of the most exceptional bi from this former imperial collection, lot 9 estimated HK $ 45M. It had been sold for HK$ 34.5M in the same auction room on April 8, 2007, lot 603.
This jade piece 31 cm high includes a 24 cm pierced disc. The wide inner ring is engraved on both sides of a tight pattern of nails. The outer ring and the protrusion are pierced and carved with dragon, chilong, phoenix and two large letters. The color varies between dark celadon and honey brown.
The emperor took a special care to highlight this piece. In the Gengyin year, 1770 CE, he had it mounted into a removable table screen in zitan. His comment was inscribed on the rim of the bi and on the reverse side of the screen.
The Qianlong emperor knew that this piece was created a millennium and a half before him, symbolizing longevity both in its decoration and its age. It had indeed been executed during the late Eastern Han period some time around 200 CE. The end of the imperial poem is questioning "to whom did you belong ?" assessing that it was for the emperor a symbol of the forgotten imperial past.
25-220 Eastern Han - Nephrite Bear
2011 SOLD for $ 8.1 M by Elite Decorative Arts
This piece is 35.5 cm high and 19 cm wide and weighs 18.3 kg. Its calcification is extensive after centuries of burial in the grave of a significant figure. A cup shaped opening on the top of the head leads to consider that it was conceived as a stand for a flag, a table or a bell. The skin is covered with decorative relief patterns.
It was sold for $ 8.1M by Elite Decorative Arts on December 10, 2011, lot 100 here linked on the bidding platform LiveAuctioneers. The result in the region of $ 8M is confirmed by Auction Central News and by Paul Fraser Collectibles and is consistent with a $ 7.05M hammer price plus a 15 % premium.
Tang - Horse by Han Gan
2017 SOLD for $ 17M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The Tang are great protectors of the arts. Narrative paintings feature groups in complex situations, with picturesque detail. The Taizong emperor also inaugurates the Tang's passion for the horse, that indispensable auxiliary of the warrior. He commissions the portraits of his favorite horses to Yan Liben.
The Tang imperial horses are the subject of a selection, integrating the best foreign breeds. The peak is reached during the reign of Xuanzong. His stable is reputed to house 40,000 horses, some of which are specially trained to dance in front of the emperor. Polo, hunting and jousting are practiced with passion. The main horse painter is Chen Hong.
Around 750 CE the self-taught artist Han Gan is noted for his artistic talents and invited to collaborate with Chen Hong. Han Gan abandons stylization for realism. The portrait of a horse, sometimes with a rider or a groom, becomes his exclusive theme. Each animal is observed individually.
On March 15, 2017, Christie's sold at lot 509 for $ 17M including premium the image of a horse by Han Gan, 32 x 38 cm, very readable but heavily cracked. The animal with an elegant two-tone hair walks with a dignified slowness. The colophon of the Qianlong emperor includes no less than twelve imperial seal marks and the artwork is listed in the catalogue of his collection, the Shiqu Baoji.
Xuanzong's long reign is culturally splendid and politically catastrophic. The emperor had abandoned management to devote himself to pleasures. He was deposited in 756 CE after a short civil war. This date is probably the terminus ante quem for an original painting by Han Gan.
756 Gods, Sages and Emperors
2011 SOLD 115 M RMB yuan by China Guardian
narrated post sale
The guqin is the first of the four treasures of the scholar, ahead of Chinese go, calligraphy and ink painting. It was known since ancient times and the Chinese tradition likes to assign it with a pre-dynastic origin. Confucius is quoted among the sages who improved the instrument.
The classical seven-string guqin provides a music of great subtlety facilitated by the dots of harmony distributed on the surface. The wooden back is also an invitation to the inscription of poems.
The Imperial guqins are of great rarity. One of them named Da Sheng Yi Yin (reminiscent of the great sage) was sold for RMB yuan 115 million by China Guardian in 2011.
It was produced for or by the Emperor Suzong of the Tang. Lacquered in black and brown, it wears a poem and a seal and its harmonics match the months of the Chinese calendar. Its date is corresponding to 756 in our own calendar. Both sides are illustrated in an article shared by China Daily.
In December 2010, Poly sold for RMB yuan 137 million including premium (US $ 20.7 million in the conversion rate of that time) an imperial Song guqin made for the Emperor Huizong in 1120 of our calendar.
900 CE Hebrew Bible with Masorah
2023 SOLD for $ 38M by Sotheby's
One of the earliest surviving Bibles remains nearly complete in all its three parts : Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings. Its Hebrew text is as the Jews are still using it in current days.
Already exceptional in its time, it was written around 900 CE by a single scribe on 400 30 x 36 cm parchment leaves that had required about 200 sheepskins. This manuscript includes punctuations and vowels for a better readability.
It was assembled as a codex, an antique technique recently forwarded to the Jews through the Muslims, much easier to use than a scroll, by which sheets inscribed with text in both sides were folded and sewn together.
Precise instructions on how to recite and understand it, known as the Masorah, were added in the margins. The Masoretic Bibles were used as references and not for liturgy and are extremely rare. Due to Rabbinic rules no similar system applied in the scrolls. The Masoretes were scholars-scribes who were also entrusted to maintain the text of the Bible unchanged throughout the generations.
Used for private worship in its first centuries, it was donated in the 13th century CE to a synagogue in Makisin, a town in Syria that was soon destroyed during the Mongol or Timurid invasions. Out of view after that event, the codex resurfaced as a time capsule in 1929, acquired in Frankfurt through a librarian by the scholar David Sassoon who was assembling the largest and most important private collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the world.
Remaining in private hands, it was sold for $ 38M from a lower estimate of $ 30M by Sotheby's on May 17, 2023, lot 1. This historical document weighs 11.8 Kg. It had been rebound by Sassoon. Only about 12 folios are missing.
A similar example is the Aleppo Codex prepared ca 930 CE, of which nearly 40 % of the pages were lost in the 1950s.
Buddy, can you spare $50 million??— Jennifer Schuessler (@jennyschuessler) February 15, 2023
I got an exclusive peak at the Codex Sassoon, the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, to be auctioned at Sotheby's in May.
Created c 900 AD, lost until 1929, since then in private hands. (Yes, I touched it! Magical) https://t.co/jieAMx6JX0
Coming to auction this May is one of the most impressive artifacts of human history and culture: The Codex Sassoon Hebrew Bible.— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) February 15, 2023
Over 1,000 years old, the bible puts an end to the great “silent period,” during which virtually no Hebrew literature survives. pic.twitter.com/DoKWEi2cXo