Since the 17th century, when young gentlemen of means started making the Grand Tour of Europe, ancient marble sculptures have adorned the houses of collectors. Once the preserve of the very wealthy, these beautiful works of art are now accessible to a much wider audience.
Christie’s Antiquities specialist Laetitia Delaloye says the starting points for collectors are clear: know your budget and buy the best you can in that bracket; think about your purpose and where you are going to display the piece; and ensure the marble engages and excites you. Here we present Laetitia’s top five tips for finding your marbles.
Some subjects occur more frequently than others, their popularity having already been established in antiquity. Nude Venuses, muscular deities and heroes, and fragments of ornately decorated sarcophagi, for example, regularly appear on the market.
The upside of this is that, in the field of ancient marbles, these subjects are seen to be iconic. However it also means that they feature in a large number of collections. A rarer subject will often come with a higher price tag, but may add an unexpected element to a collection.
Imperial portraiture was an important propaganda tool for the Roman Empire. Many examples have survived, allowing us to look into the faces of the history-makers of 2,000 years ago. Due to their relative rarity, the most desirable examples date to the Republican period (200-31 B.C.) when verism — the ‘warts and all’ approach — was at its peak, and the 1st century A.D., which saw the flourishing of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. As with all marbles, condition is paramount, but it can be compromised if the subject is exceptionally rare or engages the imagination. A portrait of the notorious emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.) recently sold for more than double its high estimate, despite having been defaced in antiquity.
A work of art that is 2,000 years old should have signs of age on its surface. Root marks and encrustation are the most common and reliable signs. Although not always aesthetically pleasing, these are important details and a reassurance of authenticity. We would never suggest over-cleaning marble: a sparkling white piece is not what our market is looking for.
The extent of repairs or restoration significantly affects the price and desirability of a marble. Each collector must decide how much restoration they are comfortable with — it is about the balance between making a piece visually attractive and compromising the original artwork.
Ancient marbles are very rarely complete. It is not about what is missing but about what has been preserved since antiquity. Fragmentary marble can be very evocative, as well as creating powerful shapes and interesting lines.
Marbles with missing limbs ending in smooth surfaces were probably restored in Italian workshops, because the Grand Tourists preferred complete statues. In the 20th century it became fashionable to remove these restorations, which is unfortunate as they are part of the statue’s history. Broken limbs ending in irregular surfaces suggest that the statue is still in the state in which it was first found.
Greek marbles are rarer and older than their Roman counterparts and therefore have been historically more sought-after (although the idea that Greek sculpture is of intrinsically higher quality is outdated). Simply put, Greek marbles fetch a higher price than Roman.
The style, subject and type of marble used will often help you to determine whether a sculpture is Greek or Roman. For example, the Greeks, until the time of Alexander the Great, very rarely made portraits of private individuals. They preferred depictions of victorious athletes, and funerary sculptures were also very important to them.
A further category to consider is Roman copies of Greek originals. By the early imperial period the Romans had developed a love of Greek art and culture. After the supply of original Greek marbles dwindled, copyists began turning out near replicas and pieces with slight alterations and variations that met the demands of the Roman market. Such marbles ornamented the homes of the Roman aristocracy, theatres, bath complexes and public spaces.
Identifying a replica isn’t easy, and can often only be done if the original Greek marble or bronze sculpture is known — either because it has survived to the present day, or because it has been described in the literary record.
The collection history of a piece is very important to consider. The ideal provenance traces the movement of an object from the point of excavation, sometimes as early as the 16th century, to the present day. Such pieces, especially if they have a famous Grand Tour name attached to them, have a real added value that will not diminish. Thomas Hope, Lansdowne, Hamilton, Jenkins and Cavaceppi are names to look out for.
A savvy collector will always ask for all available information, and responsible dealers and auction houses will endeavour to provide as much as they can. With online archives becoming bigger and better, you can do a lot of research yourself on collection names, locations and specific objects. If you feel that there are some unanswered questions, or you don’t feel 100 per cent comfortable with the information you’ve been given, walk away.