A guide to Greek and Roman marble sculpture

With marble sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome priced to attract a wide range of buyers, Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi offers advice on what to consider when starting a collection — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

A Roman marble portrait head of Faustina Minor, Antonine period, circa mid-2nd century A.D.

A Roman marble portrait head of Faustina Minor, Antonine period, circa mid-2nd century A.D.

Once the preserve of the wealthy, marble sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome are now accessible to a much wider audience, with prices for these millennia-old artworks starting from just a few thousand pounds. 

But before setting out on building a collection, there are some clear starting points to bear in mind: know your budget and acquire the best you can in that bracket; think about how and where you plan to display the pieces; and don’t buy anything unless it engages and excites you. 

Here, Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi suggests seven questions prospective collectors should ask when looking at marbles.

Where has it been?

Since the 17th century, when gentlemen of means started making the Grand Tour, ancient marble statues have adorned the houses of European collectors. The ideal provenance will trace a marble’s history from its moment of discovery — often an excavation, and sometimes as early as the 16th century — to the present day. Famous Grand Tourist names add a value that won’t diminish.

The Greek female figure below, for example, belonged to Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), who formed the first important collection of classical sculptures in England.

A savvy collector will always ask about provenance, and responsible dealers and auction houses will endeavour to provide as much information as possible. As online archives become bigger and better, research into collection names, locations and specific objects can also be undertaken from home.

If you feel there are questions unanswered, or you are not 100 per cent happy with the information provided, walk away.

Is the subject iconic or unique?

Some subjects occur very frequently in ancient art, owing to their popularity at the time. Nude Venuses, muscular male torsos of gods and heroes, and fragments of decorated sarcophagi, for example, have survived in great numbers and appear regularly on the market.

These iconic marbles are timeless and always in vogue. They are universally recognised, whether by novices or experienced collectors, and widely available, which may make them more affordable.

However, if you find a one-of-a-kind work of art, it can be a statement piece, marking your collection as unique. Such pieces might come with a higher price tag, but they can help distinguish a collector’s taste.

A Roman marble head of a Satyr, circa 1st century B.C./A.D. 10⅞ in (27.5) cm high. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Who is being depicted?

In the ancient world, portraiture was an important way of indicating the status of rulers and other respected figures. Surviving examples allow us to look into the faces of history-makers from 2,000 years ago.

Many of these portraits originally had inscriptions or were placed in a context that made the sitter’s identity clear; unfortunately, many of these have now been lost. In order to identify them today, scholars need to act as detectives, using artefacts with surviving inscriptions — such as coins and other sculptures — to compare likenesses.

Open link https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6492154

A Roman marble portrait head of a youth, late Trajanic - early Hadrianic period, circa 120 A.D. 13½ in (34 cm) high. Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Open link https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-6492153

A Roman marble male portrait bust, circa 3rd-4th century A.D. 26 in (66 cm) high. Estimate: £45,000-60,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Hairstyles are key to dating Roman portraits. Emperors or empresses would distinguish themselves from their predecessors with their unique coiffures. These styles then circulated throughout the empire and were adopted by citizens in general for their portraits.

What are the signs of ageing?

A work of art that is 2,000 years old should have signs of age. Spiderweb-like calcified root marks and encrustations are the most common and reliable. While they’re not always aesthetically pleasing, these important details are an assurance of authenticity and can add to a marble’s value. (On a related point, marbles shouldn’t be over-cleaned: a sparkling white piece is not what the market wants.) 

The extent of repairs or restoration can significantly affect the price and desirability of a marble. Each collector must decide how much they’re comfortable with — it’s about the balance between visual appeal and compromising the originality of the artwork.

A Greek marble relief head of a woman, late Classical period, circa 4th century B.C. 8 in (20.3 cm) high. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Ancient marbles are rarely complete. So rather than focus on what’s missing, look at what has been preserved. Fragments can be evocative — it’s about powerful shapes, interesting details and confident lines.

A Roman marble male torso, circa 2nd century A.D. 13½ in (34.5 cm) high. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

Marbles with missing limbs ending in smooth surfaces were probably restored in Italian workshops, because Grand Tourists preferred complete statues. In the 20th century it became fashionable to remove these restorations, which is unfortunate as they’re part of the object’s history. Broken limbs ending in irregular surfaces suggest that the statue is still in the state in which it was discovered.

Is it Greek or Roman?

Greek marbles are older and rarer than their Roman counterparts and therefore historically more sought-after (although the idea that Greek sculpture is inherently of higher quality is outdated). 

The style, subject and type of marble used can help determine whether a sculpture is Greek or Roman. For example, the Greeks depicted the body in a highly naturalised way, maximising modelling without drill-work or the surface polish favoured later by the Romans.

A Greek marble draped male torso, late Hellenistic period, circa 1st century B.C. 64 in (163 cm) high. Estimate: £50,000-80,000. Offered in Antiquities on 3 July 2024 at Christie’s in London

By the early imperial period, the Romans had developed a love of Greek arts and culture, and when the supply of Greek marbles dwindled, Roman copyists began making near replicas with subtle variations to meet the demand of the market. These marbles decorated theatres, bath complexes, public spaces and the homes of Roman aristocrats. 

Identifying a Roman copy isn’t always easy and can often only be done if the original Greek marble or bronze is known — either because it survives or has been described in ancient texts.

What colour is the marble?

White is only one of many colours found in marble sculptures. Most would have been painted in bright colours in antiquity, and the Romans in particular sourced marble from across their empire in colours spanning from white through cream to black. The Roman herm head of Alexander the Great shown below is carved from giallo antico, a beautiful orange marble with red or pink veins.

A Roman giallo antico herm head of Alexander the Great, circa 1st century A.D. 8¾ in (22.2 cm) high. Sold for $23,940 on 26 January 2023 at Christie’s in New York

You could consider expanding your collection to include Cypriot sculpture, which was nearly always carved from limestone, or ancient alabaster sculptures, which have a milky complexion. Then there are 5,000-year-old Cycladic idols — the first marbles produced in the Mediterranean.

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

Where can I learn more?

Some of the best collections of ancient marbles can be found at major institutions like the Louvre in Paris and the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is also home to one of the most prestigious collections of ancient sculpture, including an impressive collection of Greek marbles including marble Kouroi and grave stelai, the ‘Hope Dionysos’ and the Cycladic marble seated harp player. You can take virtual tours or listen to audio tours available online.

In London, the The British Museum’s holdings include the Parthenon sculptures (also known as the Elgin marbles), the Crouching Venus (on loan from the Royal Collection) and the Westmacott Athlete. You can take a virtual walk around the museum while listening to one of the audio tours available online.

There are also journals such as Minerva, which is dedicated to archaeology and ancient art. And if you’ve still got unanswered questions, Christie’s specialists are on hand to help.

Classic Week — Art from antiquity to the 20th century — takes place from 2 to 10 July 2024 at Christie’s in London. Highlights include Titian’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the rediscovered The Madonna of the Cherries by Quentin Metsys and Frans Hals’s Portrait of a gentleman of the de Wolff family. The pre-sale view opens on 28 June

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content