Collecting guide: Cycladic art

Specialist Chanel Clarke is our guide to the enduring appeal of Cycladic art, some 5,000 years after the islands’ craftsmen first began to make their sculptures from marble and clay. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s


In the third millennium BC, a Bronze Age civilisation called Cycladic culture flourished throughout the Greek islands of the Cyclades, an archipelago of approximately 35 islands and numerous islets in the southwestern Aegean. 

The islands are rich in mineral resources, including iron ores, copper, lead ores, gold, silver, emery, obsidian, and marble. This, together with the short distances between the islands, enabled sea-faring and trade from an early stage. Cycladic culture can be counted among the three main ancient Aegean cultures, together with the Minoan civilisation on Crete and the Mycenaean civilisation on mainland Greece. 

A Cycladic marble beaker, early Cycladic I, circa 3200-2700 BC. 7¼ in (18.4 cm) high. Estimate: $20,000-30,000. Offered in Antiquities on 13 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Broadly speaking, Cycladic art consists of small, stylised figures and vessels, either sculpted from marble or moulded from clay. The majority of these were produced during the Grotta-Pelos (Early Cycladic I) culture (c. 3200?-2700 BC) and the Keros-Syros (Early Cycladic II) culture (c. 2700-2400/2300 BC). 

These names correspond to significant burial sites, from which most excavated examples originate. Although the exact function of these figures is unknown, it is probable that they served as religious idols prior to their entombment.

The modern rediscovery of Cycladic sculpture occurred in the 19th century, when figures were collected by travellers. Examples soon entered museum collections such as those of the Louvre and the British Museum.

A Cycladic marble reclining female figure, late Spedos variety, early Cycladic II, circa 2500-2400 BC. 12½ in (31.7 cm) high. Estimate: $700,000-900,000. Offered in Antiquities on 13 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

The abstract nature of Cycladic sculpture and its simple lines have, explains Antiquities specialist Chanel Clarke, ‘inspired many modern and contemporary artists, including Constantin Brancusi, Amedeo Modigliani, Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore’. 

Early in the 20th century, avant-garde artists, particularly in Paris, sought to distance themselves from the accepted perception of art that had been established in the West. ‘They drew inspiration from tribal artefacts from Africa and the Pacific, as well as from ancient sculpture from the Cyclades,’ explains the specialist. ‘A nearly life-sized head of a Cycladic figure, thought to be from the Cycladic island of Keros, was acquired by the Louvre in 1873 and is said to have influenced Brancusi.’

Although excellent examples of Cycladic art regularly come to market, collectors are advised to tread carefully when it comes to restoration, repairs and provenance.

Which key materials were used? 

Cycladic figures were almost exclusively carved from white marble and decorated with bright colours. We know this from the traces of red and blue pigment found on a variety of surviving Cycladic objects. Clarke says that this suggests Cycladic culture may have practiced body painting or tattooing. 

In some figures, only the anatomical features are painted; in others, decorative patterns, such as dots or zigzags, are painted onto the surface of the marble. It is, however, exceptionally rare to encounter idols or figures with visible traces of paint today. 

A Cycladic marble kandila, early Cycladic I, circa 3200-2700 BC. 8 in (21 cm) high. Sold for £15,000 on 4 December 2019 at Christie’s in London

What is the significance of ‘ghost paint’?

In the instances where traces of paint are still visible, the paint is referred to as ‘ghost paint’. This part of the surface tend to look as if it has been rendered in low relief, with the paint having protected the marble surface from corrosion.

Although the significance of the use of pigment on Cycladic figures is still debated, it is a desirable additional feature for many collectors.

Two Cycladic marble leg fragments, late Spedos variety, early Cycladic II, circa 2500-2400 BC. 5⅞ in (14.8 cm) high max

There’s more to Cycladic art than marble figures

The marble used to make Cycladic sculpture was predominantly worked with stone tools. The first step was to roughly shape the marble into the form of a figure or vessel, using a mallet. After this, an abrasive such as emery (a dark granular rock) was used to work and polish the surface until smooth. This was a lengthy process that required considerable skill.

Although the folded-arm marble figures are among the most sought-after Cycladic works of art today, Clarke points out that the contemporary aesthetic of other everyday objects — vessels and tools made of marble, clay and metals — can be just as appealing. ‘Their simplistic forms required the same level of skill and precision as the marble figures,’ the specialist points out, ‘and they boast a sense of symmetry and minimalism that has come to characterise Cycladic art.’

A Cycladic marble lidded spherical pyxis (lidded vase), early Cycladic I-II, circa 3200-2300 BC. 3 in (7.6 cm) high, 4¾ in (12 cm) wide. Sold for £106,250 on 3 July 2019 at Christie’s in London

Research the different styles and types

Cycladic figures, in particular folded-arm figures, were the dominant sculptural type during the Early Cycladic II Phase (circa 2700-2200 BC). Over the course of this period many sculptors focused on the female form, perfecting their skills and refining their unique styes. This has allowed scholars to identify the individual hand of a specific craftsmen, and where significant numbers survive, even trace their stylistic development.

A Cycladic marble reclining female figure, name-piece of the Schuster Master, early Cycladic II, circa 2400 BC. 11½ in (29.2 cm) high. Sold for $16,882,500 on 9 December 2010 at Christie’s in New York

Once a single hand or workshop has been identified, they are given a conventional name by which their works can be categorised, such as the ‘Naxos Muesum Master’ or the ‘Schuster Master’. Pieces attributed to a named sculptor, says Clarke, are highly sought-after and achieve the highest prices at auction. 

In 2010 a marble reclining female figure dated to circa 2400 BC and attributed to the Schuster Master was sold in New York for $16,882,500, a world record for a Cycladic figure at auction.  ‘As the only surviving unbroken figure by the artist, it was indisputably the most important Cycladic idol to ever come to auction,’ says the specialist.

So far only 12 sculptures have been recognised as the work of the Schuster Master, who takes his name from the piece sold at Christie’s in 2010. Broadly speaking, works by the Schuster Master are characterised by a broad curving top and a crescent-shaped ridge at the back, lightly arched shoulders, a long aquiline nose, and well-defined knees. Most of his works represent the female in a pregnant state, with a slightly swelling belly. According to the specialist, the position of the feet pointing downwards indicates that the figures are meant to be perceived as reclining. 

Other known pieces by the Schuster Master can be found in the Getty Villa, LA, British Museum, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, as well as in several notable private collections.

Fragments can be just as appealing

As a result of their age, ancient Cycladic marbles are not always complete. Heads, torsos, legs and feet — or an appropriate combination of these — are among the most desirable surviving examples of figural marble fragments on the market. They can be powerfully evocative of their original complete state and, according to the specialist, appeal to contemporary buyers because of their decorative nature. 

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Tête, 1910-12. Limestone. Height: 64 cm (25¼ in). Sold for €43,185,000 on 14 June 2010 at Christie’s in Paris

Henry Moore, (1898-1986), Head, circa 1934-36. Hopton wood stone. 10⅝ in (27 cm) high. Sold for £4,621,250 on 19 June 2018 at Christie’s in London

Heads in particular demonstrate the sublime skills of the ancient Cycladic sculptor, and it is arguably these fragments that illustrate best the link between Cycladic art and 20th-century sculptors such as Modigliani, Picasso and Moore.

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