A Roman marble portrait head of Faustina Minor, Antonine period, circa mid-2nd century AD. 8⅛ in (20.6 cm) high
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?
A Roman marble statue of Mercury, circa 1st century BC/AD. 60 in (153 cm) high
Since the 17th century, when gentlemen of means started making the Grand Tour of Europe, 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 Greek marble draped female figure, Hellenistic period, circa 2nd-1st century BC. 67¾ in (172 cm) high. Sold for £126,000 on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London
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 Venus, circa 1st-2nd century A.D. 44¼ in (112.3 cm) high. Sold for $930,000 on 13 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York
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.
A Roman marble female head, Julio-Claudian period, circa 1st century BC/AD. 9 13/16 in (25 cm) high. Sold for £23,940 on 5 July 2023 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.
The elaborate hairstyle of the female portrait below, with a central parting and four hair loops either side and plaits coiled around the sides and a bun at the back — along with the Antonine eye shape — means that it can be identified as representing Faustina Minor (the Younger), daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius. Although multiple portrait types for members of the Imperial household is well-documented, Faustina Minor is an exceptionally well represented member of the Antonine Imperial household with nine distinct versions.
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 fragment with Herakles, Hellenistic period, circa 3rd-2nd century BC. 14 in (35.5 cm) high. Sold for $100,800 on 26 January 2023 at Christie’s in New York
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.
The marble above may be fragmentary, but it is highly expressive and detailed, presenting Herakles as a strong, powerful hero, despite only capturing his head in profile.
A Roman marble figure of a youth, circa 1st century AD. 24 in (61 cm) high
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 Roman marble Athena head of Vescovali type, late Flavian-early Trajanic, circa 2nd century AD. 14 in (36 cm) high. Sold for £819,000 on 7 July 2022 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 AD. 8¾ in (22.2 cm) high. Sold for $23,940 on 26 January 2023 at Christie’s in New York
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Where can I learn more?
A Greek marble head of a satyr, Hellenistic period, circa 3rd-2nd century BC. 5 13/16 in (14.8 cm) high. Sold for £15,120 on 5 July 2023 at Christie’s in London
The British Museum in London is also home to one of the most prestigious collections of ancient marbles, including 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.