Years 1 to 1000
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.
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.
A Young Faun with the Mask of an Old Satyr
2013 SOLD 3.5 M$ including premium
This statuette from the beginning of the Roman Empire, 60 cm high, shows a naked putto wearing an oversized mask of satyr covering his head and shoulders.
The attitude of the putto is threatening, as also his old bearded head with wide open eyes. Indeed this child is not a putto but a faun with a small tail in the middle of the back. This fantastic juxtaposition of the extreme ages of life on a single individual is fascinating.
This masterpiece of antique surrealism made 2000 years ago has two particularly notable features : a hand coming out of the mouth of the mask, and the well chiselled head of child visible through the eyes of the mask. This monster was acting with a frightened child also known in the Ludovisi collection but lost since a long time.
Upon excavation, the statuette was a sensation. It is known from a drawing and an engraving of the period, and was repaired in 1628 by Alessandro Algardi for a payment of 12 scudi. It is estimated $ 3M, for sale by Sotheby's in New York on December 12. Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
This fantastic sculpture was sold for $ 3.5M including premium.
193 The Auction of the Roman Empire
2019 SOLD for $ 4.8M including premium
This figure is the oversized portrait of a man in his mature age with an abundant beard and curly hair, in the fashion of the transition period between the Antonines and the Severans. He is a soldier, wearing a cuirass over his tunic.
The comparison with the coins identifies Didius Julianus, recognizable by the bump on the bridge of his nose and his protruding upper lip. This man was emperor for 9 weeks in 946 Ab urbe condita corresponding to 193 CE before being murdered or executed. He was hated during his reign as explained below and this bust cannot be posthumous.
The emperor Pertinax had just been assassinated by the Praetorian guard for attempting to reorganize the finances after the catastrophic reign of Commodus. The guards were awaiting retribution from any new emperor. Pertinax's father-in-law, Sulpicianus, promised to each man a bonus worth eight years of wages. Arriving at that time to try his luck, Didius Julianus gives way to the pressure of the guards and promises even more than his rival.
This way of taking power is considered by the armies as a shameful auction of the Roman Empire. It immediately triggers the civil war that will be won by Septimius Severus.
Raised by the mother of Marcus Aurelius, Julianus had hitherto made a successful career. The story of his short reign was told by Cassius Dio who worked for the Severans. It is certainly not objective.
Eastern Han - Nephrite Bear
2011 SOLD 8 M$ including premium by Elite Decorative
Eastern Han - An Archaic Jade appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor
2007 SOLD for HK$ 34.5M including premium by Sotheby's
Jade is the good stone, favored in China for 8000 years for its beauty and hardness and also for the possibility to sculpt it. Early jade discs centered by a round hole could be worn as an amulet. They are the Bi. Their symbolic decoration attracts the best auspices on the wearer. Their rarity makes them a discriminatory social attribute and their high ranked owners retained them in the grave.
The Qianlong emperor was a great connoisseur of ancient jades. His personal expertise of such pieces has been the subject of no less than 800 of his poems. On April 7 in Hong Kong, Sotheby'ssells one of the most exceptional jades from this former imperial collection, lot 3202 estimated HK $ 30M.
This bi has a complex shape for a total height of 24 cm. 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 dragons, chi, a 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 in our calendar, he did assemble it into a removable table screen in zitan 31 cm high. His comment was inscribed on the rim of the bi and on the reverse side of the screen. 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.
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 been executed during the second Han dynasty 1900 to 1800 years ago from our time.
This lot had been sold for HK$ 34.5M including premium by Sotheby's on April 8, 2007, lot 603.
Asceticism in Gandhara
2011 SOLD 4.45 M$ including premium
When he discovered the suffering and gave up his social status, Siddhartha tried to reach nirvana by a total asceticism. After six years of this life of renunciation, he realized that this extreme practice did not bring the solution and he achieved the awakening that enabled him to provide his teaching. Buddhism was born.
A schist figure of Gandhara 80 cm high, for sale by Christie's in New York on March 22, shows Siddhartha during this period. The body is skeletal, but the attitude shows that his powers are exacerbated by fasting. He sits cross-legged on the sacred grass. Below him, in a frieze, his followers pray.
Farther than asceticism, this realistic statue has a universal value by its representation of the self-control. It is a masterpiece, estimated $ 4M.
POST SALE COMMENT
I had no doubt about the importance of this work. Sold $ 4.45 million including premium, it has however not exceeded the expected price.
526 Northern Wei marble Buddhist Triad
2017 SOLD for $ 5.8M including premium by Christie's
650 the Qur'an of Uthman
2008 SOLD for £ 2.5M including premium by Christie's
narrated in 2020
The risk of spreading dialect variants that will provoke sterile theological debates is too great. Caliph Uthman (Osman) commissioned the same expert to establish a canonical version of the Qur'an in a single Arabic dialect, henceforth prohibiting any modification of the text. The annalists do not mention this work which was carried out around 30 AH (around 650 CE).
On April 8, 2008, Christie's sold a Qur'an leaf 36 x 28 cm, lot 20, for £ 2.5M including premium, over a lower estimate of £ 100K. The image is shared by Wikimedia.
This double-sided manuscript folio is a palimpsest. The original text in Hijazi script was erased before the 9th century CE to reuse the vellum. The oldest text had left a corrosion in the vellum and it has reappeared over time.
It was of course sacrilege to erase a sacred text. One possible reason for this action was that the original manuscript was very early and did not fully meet Uthman's canon.
A leaf palimpsest from the same original codex was sold for £ 163K including premium by Christie's on May 1, 2001.
724 The Dinar from Arabia
2019 SOLD for £ 3.7M including premium
Taking advantage of the conquests, the caliphs exploit distant mines including Ifriqiya in Tunisia from 100 to 122 AH and al-Andalus. Around 100 AH the caliph Umar buys a mine in Hijaz, between Medina and Mecca, on a land bequeathed to the father of the previous owners by the Prophet himself.
The dies are made in Damascus. Some very rare prestige editions make a reference to the origin of the gold. Most of the coins were nevertheless striken in Damascus but the practice of traveling mints is not excluded because the necessary tools were not bulky.
The use of the Gold of the Commander of the Believers is indicated on a series of dinars in 91 and 92 AH. The dinar of 105 AH adds to this inscription a Hijaz origin. It is impossible to know if the gold of these two series comes from the same mine.
In 105 AH corresponding to 724 CE, the caliph Yazid dies after a long illness. The presence in Arabia of his brother and successor Hisham is attested in that year. Although it is impossible to conclude which of the two caliphs commissioned the gold dinar, a prestigious operation of the new caliph co-ordinated with a pilgrimage to Mecca is likely.
By its inscription, this beautiful dinar from Hijaz weighing 4.27 g is the most valuable of the Islamic Umayyad coins. One of them in Extremely Fine condition was sold for £ 3.7M including premium by Morton and Eden on April 4, 2011 over a lower estimate of £ 300K.
Another uncirculated example of this dinar was sold for £ 793K including premium by Baldwin's on December 6, 2012, lot 120. It had previously passed at the same auction house on April 25, 2012, lot 17 with a lower estimate of £ 1.5M. I discussed it in this column before these sales. It is now estimated £ 1.4M for sale by Morton and Eden in London on October 24, lot 11 here linked on the NumisBids bidding platform.
Morton and Eden are delighted to announce the sale of the extremely rare Umayyad dinar Ma'din Amir al-Mu'minin bi'l-Hijaz 105h, sold today for £3.720.000 (with premium), matching the record we set in 2011 for a similar coin. pic.twitter.com/dkN2oBdES2— Morton & Eden Ltd (@MortonandEden) October 24, 2019
724 The Gold of the Commander of the Faithful
2011 SOLD 3.7 M£ including premium
These coins are illustrated on both sides by an Arabic text, indicating in particular that they come from the mine of the Commander of the Faithful. They are dated 92 and 105 AH (711 and 724 of our calendar).
The latest coin certifies that it was made from a mine in Hejaz. Such a mine had been purchased a few years previously by one of the first Caliphs. The absence of coins of this origin between 92 and 105 could correlate such issues with pilgrimages to Mecca led by the Caliph himself.
Both are in very fine condition. They are estimated respectively at £ 250K and 300K.
POST SALE COMMENT
I had announced an event exceptional in its category. It was true.
The most prestigious of the two coins, dated 105AH (724AD), was sold £ 3.1 million before fees, 3.7 million including premium.
The photo of this exceptional dinar is shared by CoinWeek.
The other coin (92AH, 711AD) also far exceeded its estimate. It was sold £ 540K before fees, 648K including premium.
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.
Tang - Ten Virtues on the Face of Buddha
2013 SOLD 40.4 MHK$ including premium
To embody the ten virtues on the face of Buddha, a new technique identified as "dry lacquer" was developed in the Tang period. The goal was to obtain a perfect carving on a piece sufficiently light to be easily moved during the processions.
A mandrel of wood is plated with clay before being covered with the layers of lacquer-imbued hemp wherein the carving is performed. The artist has all the necessary comfort to improve his work until the desired effect is achieved. Then, wood and clay are removed.
The dry lacquer made in Tang period is extremely rare. Of course, many of these fragile pieces made to be handled have been broken over the centuries. They are so rare that we may assume that the Buddha figures using this technique were performed by a single workshop, perhaps unrelated to the imperial court.
A serene Buddha head is estimated HK $ 20M, for sale by Sotheby's in Hong Kong on October 8. The larger than life size, 46 cm high, is accentuating the majestic look. Its symbolic expression of the perfection of virtues through facial features is a masterpiece of the art of portraiture.
Here is the link to the catalog.
POST SALE COMMENT
The unusual technique and the beauty of the face of Buddha pushed this piece up to HK $ 40.4 million including premium.
Tang - Black and Roan
2013 SOLD 4.2 M$ including premium
During the same dynasty, the technique of ceramic ornament lives a breakthrough with the development of sancai. After the first firing, colors are added to the pottery which is annealed again, forming a glaze.
The usual number of colors in the sancai is three, but some masterpieces are much more varied. This easy technique can be applied to large ceramic sculptures.
On September 17 in New York, Sotheby's sells a wonderful pair of sancai horses. The two pieces are made from the same model. Here is the link to the catalog.
Nearly 70 cm high, they are standing in an attitude of waiting, the head slightly turned. The proportions are of perfect realism, with extreme attention to detail such as the teeth inside the mouth and the pupil and iris of the eye. They are harnessed but withnot excessive luxury, suggesting that they are used for battle.
The color is different, being varied and nuanced for each coat, hooves, mane and accessories. Each one in its own way is a technical feat.
One of them is black, one of the most difficult shades to achieve, providing a dignified and magnificent appearance.
The other one is between red and beige with inclusions of creamy patches. The roan is a genetic singularity affecting some horses by dotting them with white hair. This very rare representation of a roan "strawberry" horse attests to an intention to record the actual look of a real animal, no doubt highlighted by the emperor himself.
POST SALE COMMENT
This magnificent example of realism in ancient Chinese art was expected beyond $ 2.5 million. The lot was sold for $ 4.2 million including premium.
Art Deco with the Tang
2019 SOLD for $ 3.5M including premium
A Tang bowl 24.5 cm in diameter and weighing 1.05 Kg was sold by Sotheby's on May 14, 2008 for £ 1.14M worth at that time $ 2.2M, these figures including the premium. It is estimated $ 2M for sale by Christie's in New York on September 12, lot 551.
The technique is foreign but the refinement is Chinese. The bowl has the shape of an opened lotus flower, decorated on its outer wall with three overlapping rows of lotus petals. Each frieze is composed of eight elements. A narrow garland separates the upper frieze from the rim of the bowl. The interior is centered with a gilt medallion showing a round dance of eight birds in blooming branches.
Each petal is a cartouche that was made in repoussé before being gilded and very finely chiseled with motifs of peonies and pairs of birds. This illustration is perhaps more decorative than symbolic although the repetition of the eight is certainly not a coincidence. The shape of the petals takes into account the curvature of the wall, more flared at the bottom.
This piece was made with a thick silver sheet rounded on a mould. It is a feat with regard to the regularity of its repoussé. The experts observed two tiny reworks made by the artist to correct the hammering.
In the same 2008 sale and coming from the same collection, a lobed bowl of similar diameter and technology was sold for £ 1.6M including premium. This piece has retained its original cover. Its foliated iconography is less dense.
These extremely rare bowls are also known in pure gold and pure silver. This type did not survive the Tang, probably because of the development of the porcelain.
On September 12 in #NewYork our Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver sale will take place. Comprised of over 100 exquisite objects the collection, formed by Dr. Johan Carl Kempe, includes gold and silver works from the Tang period #AsianArtWeek https://t.co/Qt2FX4BOnJ pic.twitter.com/oZwbgmOVLB— Christie's (@ChristiesInc) September 5, 2019
early Song - The Partners of Amitabha
2019 SOLD for HK$ 45M including premium
The two bodhisattvas appear as identically dressed twins. They nevertheless have separate roles. Avalokiteshvara brings the infinite compassion and Mahasthamaprapta the power of wisdom. The main difference is the ornamentation of the frontal crown, a figure of Amitabha for Avalokiteshvara and the urn of wisdom for Mahasthamaprapta. In China they are respectively named Guanyin and Dashizhi.
Carved in the early Tang dynasty, a pair of limestone bodhisattvas 67 cm high was separated by Christie's on September 13, 2018, fetching $ 3.25M and $ 2M including premium.
Buddhism is persecuted in China from the reign of the Wuzong emperor of the Tang dynasty. The period of the five short-lived dynasties that follow each other from 907 to 960 CE after the fall of the Tang remains for Buddhism a period of weakness before its renewal under the Song. The altar figures are now made of wood, cheaper than bronze or stone. Polychromy is still applied.
On May 29 in Hong Kong, Christie's sells a pair of wooden bodhisattvas, lot 2713 estimated HK $ 40M. They are standing in an identical attitude in mirror inversion, for flanking an Amitabha that has disappeared. They are 145 cm high without including their modern stands. Traces of pigments have been preserved. Please watch the video where the sequences alternate with a monumental Qing Buddha.
Some details including the fishnet pattern of the necklace are typical of the early Song. A departure from the Buddhist canon during the dark period has lengthened the legs and slightly reduced heads and necks.