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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The eurocrisis provided defenders of the encyclopedic museum with an argument this month, as “austerity measures” in Greece prompted ever-deeper cuts in cultural spending, particularly in archeology, endangering objects and sites, and bringing scholarship to a halt. Keep those treasures safely in the museums, wherever they are.

Within this context Sotheby’s and Christie’s hosted their spring New York sales of antiquities, June 7-8, 2012, which feature Greek and Roman artifacts as well as material from ancient Africa and the Near East. 

Sotheby’s 79-lot sale on June 7 brought in $5 million for 62 lots sold, or 79 percent. The auction included several items from the estate of late restaurateur -- owner of the now-forgotten Lüchows on East 14th Street -- and collector Jan Mitchell, who gifted his unbelievable “treasury” of Precolumbian gold to the Metropolitan Museum in 1993.

Top lot was a 4th-century BC Greek marble gravestone from the Mitchell collection that shows a young boy (his name was Onatoridas) in three-quarter view, a small poodle-like dog nipping at a dove in the boy’s hand. The stele, which retains traces of blue and red paint, fetched $902,500 against a high estimate of $500,000. Like many of the top Mitchell lots, it had been on long-term loan to the Met, from the 1960s up until last year.

A late 1st-century AD statue of Artemis of the “Dresden type” (thought in the 19th century to be based on a 4th century original by Praxiteles) was the second priciest lot, selling for $398,500. The 53-inch tall female figure. wearing sandals and peplos, is missing its head and arms, save for part of the left arm, making the carving of the fabric around the breasts, especially the way it gathers around the strap of the now-lost quiver, the real center of attention.

A ca. 5th century marble of a wing, measuring 18 inches long and bearing traces of red pigment, could be said to appeal to a more contemporary sensibility. It sold for $242,500, an impressive multiple of its presale high estimate of $15,000.

A high price was also paid for a red-figure calyx krater from the Mitchell estate, dating to the 4th century BC. The complicated scene shows Dionysos reclining on a couch and lifting a cup, while being serenaded by a female harp player and attended by a nude youth, who delicately caresses the back of Dionysos’ left hand. The homoerotic vase, once in the collection of William Randolph Hearst, sold for $338,500, well above the $90,000 presale high estimate. Another red-figure krater with the same provenance, though featuring a slightly more sparse but arguably sexier scene of a naked Dionysos and Pan, drinking and contemplating “the theatre,” brought $134,500 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

Several pieces of gold were also chased to prices in excess of presale expectations. A gold Greek olive wreath from the 4th-century BC -- that’s what it says, anyway -- brought $332,500 (est. $40,000-$60,000), a Roman Imperial armlet with repousse in high relief fetched $230,000 (est. $20,000-$30,000), and a pair of large Etruscan gold earrings sold for $182,500 (est. $50,000-$80,000). All three pieces came from Jan Mitchell.

Christie’s much larger sale the following day totaled $9 million, with 184 of 261 lots selling, or 71 percent. The auction’s most hotly anticipated lot was a Neolithic limestone mask, 9,000 years old, ostensibly from the Judean desert and perhaps relating to death rituals or ancestor worship, which the auction house publicized as the oldest artwork it has ever offered. The mask has a simply defined pair of eyes and a nose, with a seemingly disproportional amount of care paid to shaping individual teeth in the mouth. Estimated to bring in the realm of $600,000, it failed to find a buyer.

The sale’s top lot was a 73-inch-tall Roman marble sculpture of an actor in costume from around the 1st or 2nd centuries AD, his human features visible through the mask’s “megaphone-shaped” mouth. The figure is just over two feet high and the costume is that of an old man, one of the stock characters in Roman comedic theater. It sold for $926,500, almost quadruple the $250,000 presale high estimate, reportedly to a North American buyer. Three other Roman marble carvings from the same time period also made the top ten.

A notable exception to the Greco-Roman dominance of the sales was a very well preserved Egyptian textile from ca. 1300-1200 BC that was also the session’s cover lot. The painting on linen shows worshippers of the cow goddess Hathor, who is depicted on the right side of the panel (as a cow). Deaccessioned by the Heckscher Museum on Long Island, the work was estimated at $80,000-$120,000 and ended up selling for $782,500 -- a nice chunk of change for a regional museum that focuses primarily on American landscape painting.

Perhaps an indication of things to come, the first lot of the sale was an ancient Egyptian flint blade that sold for more than ten times its high estimate of $7,000 ($80,500).

Also selling in the top ten were a Syrian bronze goddess from around 1950-1750 BC with conical breasts and an almost owl-like face that was purchased for $242,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000) and a Hattian bronze bull standard (ca. 2300 BC) that sold within presale estimates for $206,500.

Another high-priced lot was a Greek terracotta zoomachia -- literally, “animal fight” -- picturing a lion gnawing a bulls neck. It brought $266,500 against a high estimate of $15,000. Later in the sale, a 4th or 3rd century BC Greek parcel-gilt patera, or ritual libation vessel, with the head of Medusa in the center of the well, sold for $662,500, about double the $300,000 presale high estimate.  

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.