A Roman marble head of a god, Hadrianic to Antonine period, circa early to mid 2nd century AD. Right, a Roman marble Apollo, circa 1st-2nd century AD. Sold for $504,000 on 6 October 2022 at

Collecting guide: Ancient marbles

Christie’s Antiquities specialist Hannah Solomon advises on seven things to consider before buying ancient marbles

With a wealth of marbles surviving from ancient Greece and Rome, says Christie’s Antiquities specialist Hannah Solomon, buyers can acquire these precious millennia-old works of art starting from just a few thousand dollars.

But before setting out to buy a sculpture or two, or to build a collection, there are some clear starting points: know your budget and buy the best you can in that bracket; think about your purpose and where you will display the pieces; and ensure the marble engages and excites you.

Here we present Hannah’s top seven tips for finding your perfect marble.

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  • Where has it been?

Since the 17th century, when young 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. 

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 can be undertaken from home regarding collection names, locations and specific objects. If you feel there are questions unanswered, or you don’t feel 100% happy with the information provided, walk away.

A Roman marble figure of the Muse Erato or Terpsichore, circa 2nd century AD

A Roman marble figure of the Muse Erato or Terpsichore, circa 2nd century AD

The Roman marble figure of the Muse Erato or Terpsichore, above, was first recorded in the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut’s photo archive in 1926, confirming it was on the Munich art market at that time. The DAI’s online photo database is an invaluable resource for conducting provenance research from anywhere in the world. The Muse was then acquired by Dr. Taher Khorassani of Vienna by 1957 and was passed down through his descendants until it was sold by them at Christie’s London in 2015.

An Attic marble Stele for Medeia, Classical period, circa 375-350 BC

An Attic marble Stele for Medeia, Classical period, circa 375-350 BC

The Attic marble Stele for Medeia, above, on the other hand, first made its appearance with the Athenian dealer T. Zoumpoulakis in 1923, who then sold it to the renowned New York and Parisian dealers Joseph and Ernest Brummer. Thankfully, the Brummer Gallery archive has been preserved at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and there is record of this relief in the inventory cards to document the earliest ownership history. Like the DAI, the Brummer Gallery Records are a powerful digital resource for tracing artworks that passed through the European and American ancient art markets.

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  • Subject — iconic or unique?

Some subjects occurred more frequently in the ancient world, owing to their popularity at the time. Nude Venuses, muscular male torsos of gods and heroes and fragments of ornately-decorated sarcophagi, for example, appear regularly on the market as they have survived in great number.

These iconic marbles are timeless and always in vogue. They are universally recognized by novices and experienced collectors and easier to find on the market, which may make them more affordable. However, when you find a one-of-a-kind work of art, Hannah adds, it is a statement piece and marks the collection as unique. These pieces might come with a higher price tag but can help distinguish the collector’s eye and taste.

A Roman marble head of a God, Hadrianic to Antonine period, circa early to mid 2nd century AD

A Roman marble head of a God, Hadrianic to Antonine period, circa early to mid 2nd century AD

No better example of a unique ancient sculpture is this Roman marble head of a God, above, the top lot in Christie’s October 6th sale, The Devoted Classicist: The Private Collection of a New York Antiquarian. While his beauty is clear, his identity is a mystery. Appearing almost androgenous, this finely sculpted head depicts a male god with an idealized visage, without a wrinkle or defining mark, dreamy almond shaped eyes, a straight nose and full bow-shaped lips. His flowing locks of undulating curls are secured with a wreath of wheat and laurel, an unusual combination. His uniqueness coupled with his striking good looks makes him a knockout, Hannah adds, and an ideal statement piece for a discerning collector.

The Roman marble triple-headed Herm of Dionysus is another rare work of art. Preserving three distinct depictions of Dionysus, this sculpture is based upon Greek prototypes from the Archaic and Classical periods. While there are examples of herms with three heads, this example may be unique in its depiction of the same deity in three different styles and represents the Roman artist’s awareness of earlier Greek models.

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  • Who am I?

Imperial portraiture was an important propaganda tool for the Roman Empire. The surviving examples allow us to look into the faces of these history-makers from 2,000 years ago. 

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 regular citizens for their portraits. With her elaborate coiffure consisting of three rows of ringlets and with a tress behind each ear, the below portrait head of a woman can be narrowly dated to the reign of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68 AD). The inclusion of a diadem is especially compelling, as only members of the elite or the Imperial family were permitted to don these crowns in their portraits.

A Roman marble portrait head of a woman, Julio-Claudian period, reign of Emperor Nero, circa 54-68 AD

A Roman marble portrait head of a woman, Julio-Claudian period, reign of Emperor Nero, circa 54-68 AD

Figures from the 1st century AD are also popular. They depict the Julio-Claudian dynasty rulers as classical Greek gods, eternally youthful and divine. 

As with all marbles, condition is paramount, but this rule can be overlooked if the subject is exceptionally rare or engaging. In 2015, Christie’s sold a portrait, below, of the notorious megalomaniac Caligula (12-41 AD) — the first emperor to be assassinated — for £206,500 (more than triple its low estimate), despite the fact that it appeared to have been defaced in antiquity.

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  • The importance 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. And don’t over-clean your marbles: a sparkling white piece is not what the market looks for. 

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.

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, which is a piece from a larger Greek “Hero Relief,” may be fragmentary but it is highly expressive and detailed, and includes a lion-legged tripod table surmounted by ritual food.

A Roman marble Apollo, circa 1st-2nd century AD. Sold for $504,000 on 6 October 2022 at Christie’s in New York
A Roman marble Apollo, circa 1st-2nd century AD. Sold for $504,000 on 6 October 2022 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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  • 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 naturalized way, maximizing modelling without running drillwork or the surface polish favored later by the Romans.

The torso of an athlete, illustrated above, is a remarkable survival from the Classical period in Greece. Here, the form of the body is muscular but retains its fleshiness as the artist plays with the juxtaposition of the rigid musculature and skeletal form, as seen through the exaggerated arch of the spine, against the softness of flesh of the iliac crest and the pectorals.

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 the homes of Roman aristocrats, theatres, bath complexes and public spaces. 

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.

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  • Don’t limit yourself to white

Most marbles would have been painted in bright colours in antiquity, and the Romans in particular were known to source marble from across their empire in colours spanning from white through cream to black. The Roman torso of a youth, below, is carved from bigio morato, a fine-grained gray marble.

You could consider expanding your collection further 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.

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  • Keep learning

Some of the best collections of ancient marbles can be found at major institutions like the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Then there are smaller institutions, like the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford or the Mougins Museum of Classical Art in France, which was set up by the collector Christian Levett.

A Roman marble Mercury, circa 2nd century AD

A Roman marble Mercury, circa 2nd century AD

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.

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.