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antiquities in new york

by Fred Stern  

At Sotheby's:

Black granite relief fragment
360-282 BC

Polychrome limestone relief
ca. 2150 BC

Bronze figure of Pantheistic Bes
664-525 BC

Hellenistic marble figure
of Aphrodite
ca. 2nd century BC

Greek Terracotta Protome
of Demeter
600-460 BC

Bronze figure of Aphrodite
ca. 2nd century AD

At Christie's:

Byzantine amethyst cameo
ca. late 12th century AD

Attic black-figure Lekythos
ca. 500 BC

Roman bronze bust
of Serapis
ca. 2nd century AD

Granite temple relief
380-280 BC

Roman marble mosaic panel
4th century AD
   Sotheby's Antiquities and Islamic Art, June 4
A careful blend of Egyptian statuary, Greek kraters, Roman figures, Babylonian seals and Islamic tiles resulted in a strong sale in which 353 of 415 lots sold, a little over 85 percent, realizing a grand total of $3,201,931. Prices given here include the auction-house commission, 15 percent on the first $50,000 and l0 percent on the remainder.

A note for aspiring collectors: One of the great things about antiquities sales is the wide mix of material, in terms of price as well as culture. Small, jewel-like objects, thousands of years old, can still be had for only a few thousand dollars (or less!), whether its a Babylonian cylinder seal, a Roman glass bottle or an Egyptian amulet.

The highlight of the sale proved to be a black granite or basalt relief fragment of a queen or goddess of the 30th Dynasty (360-282 BC) [lot 63]. At $211,500, it more than tripled its $60,000 high estimate. Carved in shallow relief, the image (featured on the catalogue cover) of woman's profile has a vulture headdress and the cosmetically elongated upper eyelid so beloved of contemporary mystics. Nose, lips and eyes are heavily accented and the impression was one of majesty and proud intelligence.

A pair of limestone reliefs of the 6th Dynasty (circa 2150 BC) [lot 38] provided the second highlight of the sale, selling for $167,000, substantially exceeding its high estimate of $120,000. The tablets showed the owner holding a long walking stick and a scepter in full regalia of a lector-priest of the period.

A bronze figure of the pantheistic god Bes of the 26th Dynasty (664-525) [79] brought in $118,000, almost twice its high estimate. This fantastical, four-armed figure, its body engraved with a network of human eyes, has spread wings, an erect phallus and four animal heads emerging from behind each ear (jackal, lion, falcon, baboon, bull, ram, cat and crocodile).

A limestone relief fragment from the 25th or early 26th Dynasty (680-640 BCE) [lot 40] proved to be another bidder favorite. Probably from the tomb of the Mayor of Thebes, this finely carved shallow relief tablet showed a procession of men carrying tables and royal paraphernalia. Heavy bidding brought $107,000 against a high estimate of $70,000.

Exquisitely carved, a statue of a Hellenistic Aphrodite in marble, 2nd Century BC [lot 107], received eager bidding from an attentive salesroom, garnering $104,250 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

An anonymous dealer bought the 13-inch-tall terra-cotta statue of Demeter (600-460 BC) [lot 114], most dignified in its appearance with a faintly smiling mouth, dimpled chin and straight nose. The hair, parted in the center, falls in long ribbed plaits to the shoulders. At $101,500, it exceeded its high estimate of $60,000 by $41,500.

Yet another Aphrodite, this time a bronze Roman Imperial figure of the 2nd century A.D. [lot 141], caused a bidding frenzy. The 13-inch statue showed a voluptuous figure, standing on a pedestal, wearing a necklace with six pendants, gold earrings ornamented with garnets and pearls and a crescent diadem engraved with strolling vine. At $76,500, it bettered the high estimate by $16,750.

The British Rail Pension Fund offered a bronze figure of a Kore (another name for Persephone when undergoing a religious change) from around 675 BC [lot 140]. The 14-inch-tall statue wears a long chiton with a belt at the waist, a colorful garment reaching to her ankles and a finely beaded diadem. It sold for $74,000, close to its high estimate.

A serpentine ushbati (statue) of Amenhotep III, 18th Dynasty (1390-1353 BC) [lot 41] shows the ruler in full regalia holding an ankh-sign. The statue has six columns of inscriptions and comes from the world-renowned collection of Rene Withofs, Brussels. Bidding went to $74,000, topping the high estimate of $50,000 by $24,000.

The high estimate for a Roman marble figure of a man (1st or 2nd century AD) of $30,000 was more than doubled. The tall handsome statue came in at $71,250.

Ottoman tiles from the 16th and 17th century far exceeded their estimates in this sale. Lot 235 brought $9,000, more than four times the high estimate of $1,800. Similar results were achieved for tiles in Lots 236, 237, 238.

Christie's Antiquities, June 5
G. Max Bernheimer, head of Christie's antiquities department, reported enthusiastically that "these sales achieved the highest total ever for a Christie's antiquities auction." While only 69 percent of the lots offered were sold, the sum of $2,547,207 was reached.

A translucent violet colored Byzantine amethyst cameo [lot 320] soared above its pre-sale estimate and reached $255,500 (est. $20,000-$30,000), the highest price realized in l998 for an antiquity at auction. Fiercely contested, this oval gem, from the late 12th century AD, depicts a veiled and haloed Virgin and Child. It is strikingly similar to a cameo in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Bidder enthusiasm ran high for an Attic Black-Figure Lekythos, ca. 500 BC [lot 129], attributed to the Edinburgh painter. The 12-inch-tall vessel portrays Herakles battling the Lernean Hydra, grasping one of the monster's seven serpentine necks in his left hand and holding a sickle-shaped harpe knife in his left. Previously in a Swiss private collection, it fetched $156,500, far exceeding its high estimate of $90,000.

The cover lot is a large, second century AD Roman bronze bust of Serapis [lot 182], a cult figure thought to have been introduced to Egypt by Alexander the Great. The 14-inch-tall sculpture is a replica of the famous statue made by Bryaxis (ca. 286-78 BC) at the cult's main temple in Alexandra. (The popular new god, said to be loving and devoted to the well-being of his followers, became something of a rival to Christ when the emperor Hadrian refurbished his temple in the second century AD.). The bust reached $156,500 in a fiercely contested bidding war, more than $66,000 over its high estimate.

Another hotly contested lot in this sale was a tall statue of a Hellenistic Period terra-cotta (around 300 BC) from a European collection [lot 144]. It depicts a young girl wearing a diaphanous himation (a shawl or cloak) over a chiton, her winsome face with its lidded eyes and finely chiseled mouth showing an assured smile. It sold for $123,500, well over its high estimate of $90,000.

A granite temple relief dating from the XXX Dynasty to Early Ptolemaic Period (380-280 BC) [lot 54], offered by Pratt Institute to support its exhibition program, shows two fecundity figures in right profile, tripartite wigs with sagging breasts and swollen bellies. It realized $77,300 against a high estimate of $35,000.

The sixth highest bid in this sale was for a life-size Roman marble figure of a god from about 130 AD [lot 297]. Depicting Zeus or Asklepius, the figure wears a himation draped over his left shoulder exposing a muscular upper torso. It came in close to its low estimate realizing $74,000.

A 4th century BC Etruscan gold and banded agate finger ring engraved with a maenad (mermaid) [lot 215], her head thrown back in Dionysiac ecstasy, realized $70,700, almost four times the projected high of $18,000.

A 10-inch-tall Attic black-figure jug, or olpe, attributed to the Circle of the Andokides Painter, (ca. 510 BC) [lot 124], depicting the struggle between Heracles and Apollo for the Delphic tripod, brought $57,500 against a high estimate of $45,000.

Roman marble mosaics were one of the weak points of the sale. One exception was an 87-inch-wide, 4th century AD panel depicting a leaping deer within a stylized landscape of trees [lot 318], which sold for $48,300 (est. $25,000-$35,000).

The widely favored Roman ring group included a banded agate from the 1st century AD [lot 217]. The oval stone featured a deeply set bearded comic mask. It sold for $48,300, more than three times its $12,000 high estimate.

Ancient glass offers [lots l83-l98] met their estimates, by and large, but a number of amphoras and skyphos were bought in.

FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.