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Letter from London

Ian McKay | June 16th, 2013

Ian McKay, ianmckay1@btinternet.com

There is much Meissen in this month’s selection—the all-Meissen “Delphinium” and Marouf collections sold by Bonhams and the magnificent Meissen menagerie that made up the main portion of a Sotheby’s sale that dispersed property from the collections of Sir Gawaine and Lady Baillie.

Add to that an Iron Age gold bracelet, an ancient Persian glass bowl, a bronze vampire, some cometiana, a couple of falcons (kept well away from the Meissen birds), the egg of an extinct elephant-bird, a garden swing and two little Chinese agate boys that, like a number of other lots in this month’s report, completely demolished presale valuations, and there you have this month’s mix.



Modelled by J.J. Kändler and dated to 1734-40, this 11" high pair of green woodpeckers are examples of a second, slightly smaller but still life-size version of a pair made in 1733 for the Meissen menagerie in the Japanese Palace at Dresden. Like the kingfishers seen elsewhere on these pages, they were acquired by Lady Olive Baillie in 1937 from Maison Jansen of Paris, a firm that she regularly engaged to decorate and fill her homes with works of art. The woodpeckers sold at $85,550.


Another 1937 purchase from Maison Jansen, these kingfishers are not in fact a true pair. That on the left was modelled by J.J. Kändler in 1735 for the Japanese Palace, but the companion piece on the right was created by J.F. Eberlein in 1739. They sold for $68,050. The kingfishers were always rare figures and though four in all were delivered to the Japanese Palace, only two remained at the time of a 1770 inventory, and even that entry was later crossed out with the note “broken during cleaning.”


According to J.J. Kändler’s records, this 10½" high pair of Indian rose-ringed parrots were modelled in 1741 for the Countess von Moschinska—after a bird in her own aviary. Both are perched on cherry branches and one, as Kändler wrote at the time, is eating a lump of sugar. The other holds a cherry in its beak. The pair sold for a much higher than expected $209,205. Parrots were a very popular Meissen subject, and it is recorded that in 1746, Frederick the Great, during the occupation of the city by his forces, made off with 230 bird models—92 of them being parrots in three different sizes.

The Magic of Meissen

I: The Baillie Menagerie

An extended report on the rich selection of Meissen wares that has passed through the London salesrooms in recent months begins with a Meissen menagerie sold at Sotheby’s on May 1.

This came from the collections of Sir Gawaine and Lady Margot Baillie, but its origins lie in the collecting passions of Sir Gawaine’s mother, Lady Olive Baillie. It was in 1924 that Olive Paget (along with her sister), daughter of Lord Queenborough and his American wife, Pauline (whose father was a member of one of America’s more prominent families, the Whitneys), bought and set out to restore and transform my local castle, the stunningly beautiful and moated Leeds Castle in Kent that has been featured before on these pages.

Seven years later, Olive married Sir Adrian Baillie, and for many years their married life would follow a regular residential pattern. They would spend the weekdays in their large London house in Lowndes Square, but travel the 40 or so miles down to Leeds Castle for the weekends, where their house parties attracted such varied guests as the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming, Douglas Fairbanks, and Errol Flynn. Then in the winter they would decamp to their estate on Harbour Island, Nassau.

The couple divorced in 1944, and three years later, Sir Adrian died, but those weekends in the castle continued to be enjoyed by Lady Olive Baillie until her last years. I know this from the fact that in the early 1970’s, my neighbour was Albert, Lady Baillie’s chauffeur and general handyman, who would drop her off at Leeds before carrying on down the road to the little terraced cottages in which he and I then both lived.

Lady Baillie loved birds and animals, both in real life and in porcelain. She established the aviaries at Leeds and stocked the lake with exotic ducks and black swans that you can still see today, but though for Leeds she focused on Chinese export porcelain, the dining room of the Lowndes Square house was home to her Meissen menagerie.

Following Lady Olive’s death in 1974, Leeds Castle became a foundation, a tourist attraction, a concert venue and has even been used for high profile international meetings of world leaders—a moated medieval castle being very security friendly, as well as appealing.

Sir Gawaine Baillie*, an engineer by training, an amateur racing driver, a businessman and farmer, retained many pieces from his mother’s houses, including the Meissen wares, and in their own Sussex home, he and his wife, Lady Margot, continued to add to the menagerie. The sale also included furniture and decorations with a strong French flavor—in line with Lady Olive’s preferences—but the Meissen wares presented what was arguably the most important collection of 18th-century birds and animals in private hands.

The lots illustrated here, principally birds, are drawn from the life-size models, many of which are reworkings of those originally commissioned by the porcelain obsessed Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (1670-1733), as part of the reconstruction of the Japanese Palace in Dresden that he had originally built to house his vast collections of Asian porcelains. These were models that his successor, Frederick Augustus II, allowed to be manufactured for sale—but only to the rich and well-born, of course.

*The name of Sir Gawaine Baillie will also be known to serious philatelists, for following his death in 2003, it was revealed to the wider world that he had assembled an astonishing collection of unused stamps of Great Britain and the British Empire—a philatelic wonder that was subsequently dispersed over no fewer than ten separate sales and raised millions.

Both standing 14¼" high, these bitterns are a little smaller than the models originally created in 1735 by J.J. Kändler for the Japanese Palace and show considerable variations, both in the treatment of their plumage and the reed bases. They are also later—a date of 1753 has been suggested—but they sold very well indeed at $265,200.

Perhaps inspired by The Monkey who has seen the World—a satirical engraving after a drawing by John Wotton that shows a fashionably pigtailed monkey taking snuff in a 1727 edition of John Gay’s Fables—this 19" high white figure of a monkey taking snuff is one of those recorded as modelled for the Japanese Palace around 1732 by J.J. Kändler. A 1779 inventory lists four white monkeys, but this one was sold from the collection in 1849. Almost a hundred years later, it turned up at Sotheby’s, and the following year, 1948, it was bought from a dealer by Lady Olive Baillie, who kept it at her Nassau residence. Like other large, white, early Meissen animals, it has a few cracks—the largest running down its back, through the monkey’s belt—but it was still the star turn and sold at a much higher than predicted $1,273,110.

Two Eberlein models of circa 1737 depicting cockatoos sold well in the Baillie sale. These would have been among those pieces added to the collection by Sir Gawaine and Lady Margot; they last appeared at auction in 1988, as part of the estate of Henry Ford II. Slightly smaller than the model made three years earlier for the Japanese Palace by Kändler, the Eberlein cockatoos were most likely created for the factory to sell on the open market. This one, 8¼" high, sold at $104,680, while the other, slightly larger ex-Ford model (not shown), its beak and chest plumage painted red, sold at $93,325.

When a pair of J.J. Kändler’s life-size models of guinea-fowl were sold at auction in Munich in 1905, the price of 38,000 marks was an extraordinary one for the time—as was the sum paid for the pair in the Baillie sale. The whereabouts of the three other guinea-fowl made in 1735 for the Japanese Palace remain unknown, though at the time of that 1905 sale of the pair from the collections, Walter von Pannwitz, in an article in The Athenaeum, cited two others—in the “Palace at Dresden” and in the Johanneum at Dresden, where the Japanese Palace collection had been moved in 1876. This pair are thus of the utmost rarity.

In 1944, they were offered for sale as part of the Ole Olsen collection in Copenhagen, passing first to a local dealer and thence to Angela, Gräfin von Wallwitz. Just when they passed into the Baillie collections is not recorded—though it is known that Sir Gawaine was always fond of guinea-fowl—but in the Sotheby’s sale they were bid to a treble estimate $862,480.


The Augustus Rex bottle vase of circa 1730 sold for $174,125 as part of the “Delphinium Collection.”

II: The “Delphinium Collection”

Sold by Bonhams on March 20 was a 76-lot British collection of 18th-century Meissen wares that was also formed several decades ago and thus market-fresh. Among the more costly lots, at $174,125, was a 7½" tall Augustus Rex bottle vase of circa 1730, painted in an extended Kakiemon palette with Indianische Blumen and flowering branches on which a brightly coloured bird perches.

That vase is illustrated here, but to ensure that this “Meissenfest” is not wholly devoted to very expensive lots—and reflecting the interesting mix of pieces offered—I have included not one, not two, but three illustrations of a more modestly priced small mug of circa 1745.

One of only three recorded examples of this “January” mug (the other two being in museums in Amsterdam and Hamburg), it is of a type known as a Wermuthkrügel, or vermouth mug. It is painted with a winter scene in which on one side is seen a couple on a horse-drawn sleigh, with skaters in the distance, while on the other side appear two vignettes of dwarves after drawings or prints by Jacques Callot—one ice-skating and the other sitting by a fire. A charming piece, it sold at $13,220.

The Meissen “January” mug that made $13,220 in the “Delphinium” sale, and details showing two vignettes that appear on the other side.


A double-handled beaker and saucer from the “Half-Figure” part service, decorated 1723-24 by J.G. Höroldt, which sold for $871,510 in the December 5, 2012, Bonhams sale of the first portion of the Marouf collection, and the whole lot displayed.


A pair of ormolu candelabra mounted with amusing Meissen figures of “Kammerhusar” Schindler, which made $108,285 in the December Marouf sale. Modelled by J.J. Kändler, circa 1745, they show a figure (a dog seated behind him) who is playing what can only be described as goat bagpipes!


Dated to 1726-30, this Meissen Hausmaler grotesque teapot and cover made $169,880 in the May Marouf collection sale. Based on a mid-17th-century engraving by Jacques Stella, this curious teapot is first mentioned in factory records in 1719 and may have been modelled by the Dresden court goldsmith, J.J. Irminger. It was decorated in Augsburg by Anna Elisabeth Wald, the Hausmaler.

III: The Marouf Collection

The 18th-century Meissen collection formed by Said and Roswitha Marouf has previously been displayed to great pictorial effect in a 2011 coffee-table book by Ulrich Pietsch, Passion for Meissen, but it has since been sold in two portions—on December 5 of last year and on May 2 of this year. Bonhams billed it as one of the most important private collections in the world, and indeed some of its pieces were shown in the 2010 exhibition held at the Japanese Palace in Dresden to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Meissen factory.

The collection was presented in two beautifully illustrated hardback catalogues, but selling rates of 40% or under—33 of 88 lots in the first sale and 37 of 90 lots in the second—surely reflect the fact that this undoubtedly splendid collection was one formed only in very recent times.

Nothing, however, detracts from the quality of the material in the collection, and one exceptional lot sold in the December sale for $871,510—and in so doing accounted for almost half the sale total.

This comprised pieces from a famous “Half-Figure” tea service that were acquired in the years 1989 to 2006. The service is decorated in a chinoiserie style, usually attributed to one of the great names of Meissen, Johann Gregor Höroldt, who in 1720 came from Vienna to introduce a multicoloured enamel and chinoiserie style of decoration to the factory’s wares.

Decoration of this service is characterised by figures engaged in various pursuits but shown with only the upper half of their bodies visible, hence the title. In the background are composite scenes, and all this decoration is set within ornate gilt and coloured frames.

The Marouf “Half-Figure” service, which is shown here in its entirety, comprises four doubled-handled beakers, three of which retain their saucers; two tea bowls with saucers; a sugar bowl and a cream jug, both with covers; and a hexagonal tea canister and cover. Other pieces are recorded in institutional collections or as sold at auction, but what, one wonders, happened to the teapot?

One of the double-handled “Half-Figure” beakers and its saucer is also illustrated on these pages, along with a pair of ormolu candelabra mounted with Meissen figures of “Kammerhusar” Schindler that sold for $108,285 and a chocolate cup and saucer from the celebrated “Swan” service that reached $88,960 in the first Marouf sale. Another piece from that celebrated service, an écuelle and cover, is one of two items from the second, May, sale that I have illustrated, in company with a grotesque teapot.

The “Swan” service was ordered in 1736 for the director of the Meissen manufactory, Heinrich, Graf von Brühl, and originally comprised over 2200 pieces, of which the larger part remained in the family’s possession until World War II. From around 1880, however, pieces were lent to museums in Dresden and Berlin or passed on to collectors, so that by 1900 only 1400 pieces remained at the family’s Silesian seat, Schloss Pförten. These remaining pieces were either destroyed along with the castle, or stolen, at the end of World War II, when Russian soldiers are also said to have thrown plates and saucers into the air to be used like clay pigeon targets!

In the December Marouf sale, $88,960 was paid for the ­chocolate cup and saucer seen above, modelled 1739-40 by J.J. Kändler and J.F. Eberlein. The white bodies of the cup and saucer are shell moulded with swans swimming among bulrushes, decorated with Indianische Blumen and (as did nearly all pieces in this great service) bear the arms of Count Brühl and his new wife, Maria Anna Franziska von Kolowrat-Krakowska.

Despite some damage and restoration not originally noted in the sale catalogue, the écuelle and cover from the “Swan” service, seen at right, was sold at $156,220 in the more recent, May sale of the Marouf collection.



The early 19th-century cometarium was sold for $61,470 by Bonhams.


The 7½" long Lalique comet car mascot was sold for $120,850 by Christie’s South Kensington.

Comets and Cometaria

 Cometaria are mechanical devices intended to illustrate the movement of a comet about the sun, and their key feature is the ability to show an apparent increase in velocity as the comet moves from aphelion—the point in its elliptical course at which it is farthest from the sun—to perihelion, which readers will by now realise is the point at which it gets closest to the sun. In achieving this function, cometaria demonstrate Kepler’s second law of planetary motion—that a line joining a planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time.

The instrument that ultimately became the cometarium was one designed by J.T. Desaguliers and demonstrated to his fellow members of the Royal Society in 1732, but his instrument described the orbit of Mercury. The term cometarium was first used in the following decade by Benjamin Martin, though in the 1750’s the term equal-area machine was also used.

Scientific instruments sold by Bonhams on April 30 included an early 19th-century cometarium made by W. & S. Jones of London. On top of the 7" deep mahogany case that conceals the hand-cranked and geared mechanism is a brass model of the sun and a comet marker traversing an elliptical tract. The pointer below the sun moves over radial divisions of the outer brass scale, while a smaller pointer moves over a circular dial which shows the time and is divided into 30 divisions or signs.

The pointer and the side handle of this instrument were replacements, but the only other Jones cometarium that the auctioneers could identify was one now in London’s Science Museum, and this instrument sold at $61,470.

Far fewer words were needed to describe the other comet in this piece—fewer than 20 in fact. In a Lalique sale held by Christie’s South Kensington on May 22, it was described as “Comète car mascot, No. 1123, designed 1925, clear, with metal mount, wheel engraved R. Lalique France, 19 cm. long.” I have added a couple of commas for greater clarity, but in Lalique terms that, and a photograph, was all that was needed to ensure a double estimate winning bid of $120,850.


A complete egg of Aepyornis maximus, or the elephant-bird, sold for $101,615 at Christie’s South Kensington.

Pictured at left is a plate from Richard Owen’s book Memoir of the Dodo (1866), which sold for $6670 in April at Christie’s South Kensington, and at right is the recently discovered 17th-century Dutch watercolour of a Dodo, 10¼" x 8 3/8", that was sold for $71,520 by Christie’s in 2009.

Part of the femur of a Dodo, sold for $12,385 at Christie’s South Kensington.

In Search of Elephant-Birds and Dodos

Middle Eastern tales of Sinbad the sailor record that on one voyage he was stranded on an island on which he encountered a species of giant bird, the Roc or Rukh. Nothing daunted, the adventurous Sinbad attaches himself to one of these avian monsters and is transported to a valley of giant snakes that can swallow elephants and which serve as the Rocs’ natural prey.

It is no surprise therefore that when the eggs of Aepyornis maximus were first discovered in Madagascar, some thought they might be those of the mythical Roc, or elephant-bird. Partaking of a pachydermic snack would not have been an option, but the bird that laid the colossal egg seen here—larger than any known dinosaur egg—was undoubtedly a seriously big bird. Errol Fuller, in his fascinating 2000 book, Extinct Birds, likens it to a “gigantic and excessively ponderous emu” that stood 10' high and was massively built.

There were once several species of elephant-birds on Madagascar, and, though most died out a few thousand years ago, it is possible that when the French first claimed the island in 1642 Aepyornis maximus was still around. The first governor, Etienne de Flacourt, wrote of “a large bird which haunts the Ampatres…” and which, in trying to avoid the attentions of the locals, who valued both the content of the eggs and their potential as useful containers, “…seeks the most lonely places.”

Whether de Flacourt actually saw the bird or was merely relying on the reports of others is not known, and nothing more was forthcoming from him. While on his way back to France, he was killed by Algerian pirates.

Nevertheless, rumours persisted over the following two centuries, and in 1851 these were substantiated when three eggs were brought back to France by a Captain Abadie. Enough bones were also gathered to re-create a skeleton of the great bird, but if it had indeed survived into the era of European colonisation of Madagascar, it certainly seems to have become extinct by the 19th century.

Fragmented eggs are still found today, but the splendidly preserved example seen at Christie’s South Kensington on April 24, 12" high and almost 9" in diameter, made a very big egg price indeed at $101,615.

First recorded by Dutch sailors on the island of Mauritius in 1598, the Dodo is of course the most famous of all extinct birds—familiar to many through John Tenniel’s illustrations to Alice in Wonderland—and part of a leg bone from this odd-looking bird was another attraction in the South Kensington sale.

Less than a century after its discovery, sightings of the Dodo ceased. The hapless, flightless, rather plump ground-nesting bird had been hunted into extinction by Europeans as a readily available food supply, despite the fact that it was reported to be far from a delicacy. Van Neck, the first man to describe the Dodos, called then walghvogels, disgusting birds, because the longer they were cooked, the tougher and less palatable became the flesh, and Sir Thomas Herbert, in 1634, wrote that “they are offensive [to the taste] and of no nourishment.”

Errol Fuller’s book records 16 contemporary written reports and 15 illustrations*, but in terms of fossil remains, skulls at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and in Copenhagen, along with a foot in the British Museum (now lost, but once part of a live bird brought back to London, later stuffed but then destroyed) were for two centuries all that we had as physical proof of its existence. And some doubted that the Dodo had ever been.

Then, in 1865, George Clark obtained permission to dig in a bog in southeast Mauritius—rather charmingly, for a bog, called La Mare aux Songes, or the Sea of Dreams—and it is from this excavation that the ­majority of extant sub-fossil remains derive.

The naturalist Richard Owen obtained the first shipment from the site and in 1866 staged highly publicised lectures on the discovery before publishing his Memoirs of the Dodo in that same year. Fuller lists 25 institutions that now hold bits of Dodo, but few are thought to remain in private hands, and the 4" long fragment of a Dodo femur that Christie’s offered was, they thought, the first Dodo relic to be seen at auction since 1934.

Of its diet, habit, and call, almost nothing is known—although there is a theory that the name derives from a Portuguese description of its call—but while this bone fragment may add little on that score, it sold for $12,385.

A presentation first-edition copy of Owen’s book, which includes the imaginary portrait of the Dodo seen above left, was sold for $6670 in the Christie’s sale, but bid to a record $11,430 among the books was one of ten presentation copies (of an edition of 300) of an authoritative work of 1907 by Lionel Walter Rothschild that, like Fuller’s more recent tome, was called simply Extinct Birds.

* To the images listed by Errol Fuller can be added a previously unrecorded, 17th-century Dutch watercolour that Christie’s South Kensington sold for $71,520 in July 2009 (see illustration above right).


Fearsome Falcons—Egyptian and Japanese

The Egyptian granodiorite falcon pictured above, a 17" long figure dating from the 4th century B.C., was acquired in the 1840’s in Alexandria by a French diplomat and had passed by descent through his family before arriving for an antiquities sale at Christie’s on May 2.

The quality of the stone used, the perfectly polished surface and the fine execution of the carefully incised markings all make it a very desirable piece, but even so, the auctioneers were looking only for something in the region of $150,000/250,000. Bidders had very different ideas—a notion that occurs more than somewhat in this month’s selection—and the selling price was a fearsome $1,749,610.

The hawk seen at right is much later. A fully articulated iron bird, it was made circa 1894 in Japan and is attributed to Itao Shinjiro. With leg joints, clawed feet, wings, tail, and beak that all have smoothly operating parts, it can be made to convincingly imitate the movements and posture of its real life counterpart, and in an 1894 exhibition organised by the Japan Art Association it was awarded a silver medal.

Just over 11" tall, it perches on its original wooden stand, and in a Bonhams sale of May 16 it sold at $184,855.



Agathon Léonard’s Le Vampire was closing in on a million dollar bid before the hammer fell at $786,130 at Christie’s on May 1.

Spot the Transcendental yet Lustful Expression of Femininity, Obscurity, and Melancholia

As soon as I saw the catalogue illustration, I knew that we had to have Agathon Léonard’s 33" high, gilt and patinated bronze figure of a vampire in this “Letter from London,” but as I read on I realised, very quickly, that there was absolutely no point in my trying to compete with the cataloguer’s appreciation of this lot.

It begins simply enough with the statement that Léonard’s bronze, Le Vampire or La Chauve-Souris (The Bat), is a masterpiece of Art Nouveau, but then the cataloguer really gets his or her teeth into the piece. It is, we are told, “…a superimposition of tangible suggestion upon implied ambiguity, a sensual embrace of the innate need for mystery within human impulse. Towering atop yet integral to the rock upon which [she is] poised, a beautiful young woman—her movements chaste yet diabolic—unfurls towards the sky the veiled and bony wings that protect her nudity. With wildly flowing hair tumbling from [an] elaborate Balkan headdress, her neck cased in pearls and her lower body barely protected by the heavy jewelled belt and star-embroidered robe that anchors her to the earth, Le Vampire is neither human nor inhuman, neither from this earth nor beyond it, a transcendental yet lustful expression of femininity, obscurity, and melancholia.”

Le Vampire, it seems, was exhibited first as a plaster model at the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts in 1902, and then as a cast in 1903 (polychrome bronze) and 1904 (gilt bronze). The cataloguer continues in inspired vein, suggesting that it offers a “…beguiling and provocative interpretation of femininity, and one that is deeply embedded in the fatalistic and crepuscular symbolism of fin-de-siècle society. The artistic and cultural avant garde of the twilight of the 19th century harboured a morbid fascination with the strange fruits borne from the intoxicated realms of fantasy, imagination and the Occult. The celebration of these primeval, mysterious and urgent impulses, which were manifest across so many aspects of contemporary art, literature and music, can retrospectively be considered as a reaction against a society that was increasingly mechanised, urbanised and thus considered void of soul.”

We are also told that the bronze “…brings form to the seductive irrevocability of Destiny that had recently been celebrated in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and most certainly offers a homage to [the actress] Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923)…who [had] garnered additional notoriety by sleeping in a coffin.” And there is more. It seems that family anecdote hints at a relationship between Agathon Léonard (1841-1923) and Bernhardt, “…who, it must be recalled, was herself also a sculptress, who in 1880 cast herself as part-woman, part-bat in an autobiographical bronze inkwell now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In all probability, however, the actual model who posed for Léonard was a certain Augustine, with the dancer Cléo de Mérode posing for the portrait.”

What more could I possibly I add?

Well, Le Vampire proved popular when first seen, and smaller versions were cast from 1903 onwards, but while this larger model was reckoned to be worth around $100,000 in a Christie’s 20th-century decorative arts sale of May 1, bidding—perhaps inflamed by the cataloguer’s passion—went much higher than that. It sold in the end for $786,130!



The Iron Age gold bracelet sold for $804,780 by Christie’s on May 2.

 


Two views of the Achaemenid glass bowl, or phiale, sold by Bonhams for $748,545 on May 1.

Iberian Iron Age Gold and Achaemenid Glass from Persia

Though this “Letter” also includes an Iron Age gold bangle, an ancient Persian glass bowl, and an Egyptian stone falcon that all brought huge prices, one of the bigger antiquities stories of recent weeks concerns items that were not sold at Christie’s on May 2.

As reported by Gabriel Berner in the U.K. weekly Antiques Trade Gazette, “A U.K.-based businessman has been arrested on suspicion of looting Egyptian artefacts after he consigned several items into a Christie’s antiquities sale in London.”

The six items were not pieces of high value (estimates ranged from $1500 to $3000), and the London man who consigned them claimed that he had inherited them from an uncle who, having served in Egypt during World War II, stayed on for a few years and brought the pieces back with him in the 1950’s. They were, however, withdrawn just days before the sale when investigations that involved Christie’s, the British Museum’s Egyptology department, the Egyptian Embassy in London, the Art Loss Register, and Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiquities Squad led to a belief that these items had in fact been stolen from a recently discovered tomb in Thebes.

A statement issued by Christie’s said that they “…work closely with international authorities and organisations towards our shared objective of preventing the illicit trade in improperly exported or stolen works of art” and stated that “On 26 April, Christie’s informed the police that it believed six lots consigned to its antiquities sale had been recently stolen from Egypt. Christie’s also notified the Egyptian Embassy on the same day and confirmed that it had withdrawn the suspect lots and would be working with the police to ensure their speedy return to Egypt. We hope that this case—and the consequences for the seller—will send a strong message to those engaged in the illicit trade.”

An Egyptian newspaper, El Ahram, also quoted Christie’s director of communications, Matthew Paton, as saying that the auction house “…pledged extra vigilance considering Egyptian antiquities authorities’ concerns after the 2011 revolution….”

And so, on to two of those big sales.

Dating from the dawn of the European Iron Age—around 1000 B.C.—the fine, heavy gold bracelet shown here may be the only example of its type still in private hands. Found in Portalegre, Portugal, it is of a type known across the Iberian Peninsula and closely related to the 28 bracelets in the Villena treasure, a hoard discovered in 1963 near Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, that contained more than nine kilos of gold objects in all.

The decorative schemes on these bracelets mostly involve longitudinal ridges, lines of raised “cones” and piercings in designs that seem entirely geometric and without figural or representational purpose.

The development of furnaces capable of achieving the high temperatures necessary for iron production also provided the craftsmen with the technology to melt larger masses of gold than before—and there was a further benefit. The iron itself could be used to make sharper and more durable tools with which to work the gold—tools that were more effective than the earlier copper alloy implements.

This bracelet, offered as part of a May 2 antiquities sale at Christie’s South Kensington, was made from a single piece of gold weighing almost 600 grams, or just over 19 troy ounces, and the intricate, regular design was cleanly cut and shaped with a range of sharp metal tools. The great skill and precision exhibited in its workmanship, and the similarities between this bracelet and those from Villena and Estremoz (another Portuguese site, near Portalegre) have raised the question as to whether there was just one workshop responsible for all these bracelets—albeit the locations in which they were found are separated by a few hundred miles.

The gold itself is of high purity—around 22 to 23 karats in modern terms—meaning that it was soft and malleable.

Christie’s were looking for $60,000/90,000, but this was yet another instance of much higher than expected bidding. On the day, it sold for $804,780.

Lots that made far more than their estimates suggested are something of a feature of this month’s selection, and the 2500-year-old glass bowl, or phiale, is another of them. Dating from 5th- or early 4th-century B.C. Iran, the pale greenish bowl with flared rim, 8" in diameter, was produced using the lost wax casting process and then ground and polished. The interior is without decoration, but the base, as the second illustration shows, features 12 projecting tear-shaped lobes, interspersed with a further dozen elongated petals.

Luxury vessels such as this, made of the finest quality coloured glass, derived their forms from Achaemenid silver and bronze wares and were specially made in imitation of the even more highly prized rock crystal wares.

The largest group of Persian glass so far found was recovered in the early 1930’s from the palace treasury at Persepolis, the royal residence destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., and among the 24 vessels found in that excavation was a phiale with the same lobes and cut-flower decoration.

A similar bowl, though with a more hemispherical profile, may be seen in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but this one, according to the catalogue description produced by Bonhams for a May 1 antiquities sale, has been in an English private collection since its acquisition in the 1950’s.

The bowl was valued at $45,000/75,000, but what Madeleine Perridge, head of the Bonhams antiquities department, called its “incredible rarity, excellent condition and its great provenance”—the latter rather vague, but pretty good in antiquities terms—brought much higher bidding. It sold in the end for $748,545.


Agate Boys Bring a Near Thousandfold Bonus

Something else to add to the list of seriously undervalued lots in this month’s selection—two small Chinese agate carvings of two boys, one playing with a cat that has a bat in its paws, the other beating a drum, and with the natural markings of the stone defining the features.

In a May 23 Asian art sale held by Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury (Wiltshire), they were catalogued as 19th/20th century and valued at just $300/450, but it seems that a number of Far Eastern bidders thought they were much older, and far more valuable. One of their number paid $275,660, which must have made the day of the English dealer who entered the figures for sale, even if he, like the salesroom, remains somewhat puzzled by the result!

Such occurrences are not unknown in sales of Chinese works of art, and though a provincial salesroom, Woolley & Wallis have a proven ­speciality in Asian sales. On the previous day, they had sold the Luís Esteves Fernandes collection of Asian art for around $3.5 million, and they have a number of other six- and seven-figure individual sales to their credit, as some readers may recall. In the July 2009 issue of M.A.D., I wrote about and illustrated a jade water buffalo that they sold for $6.216 million.

However, Chinese agate carvings can date back to the 17th century, and it seems that this may have been what got the bidders excited.


An Indian Garden Swinger

 Fancy something out of the ordinary for the garden or porch seat? Then how about this Indian carved and painted wooden swing of the early 20th century? The roof, if that is the right word, and the uprights are adorned with pairs of goddesses and the seat is suspended by brass chains. In a Christie’s South Kensington “Interiors” sale of May 21, this unusual piece of garden furniture sold at a much higher than predicted $20,005.


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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