Collecting guide: ancient marbles
Christie’s Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi advises on seven things to consider before buying ancient marbles
Once the preserve of the wealthy, marble sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome are now accessible to a wider audience, says Christie’s Antiquities specialist Claudio Corsi, and prices for these millennia-old artworks start from just a few thousand pounds.
But before setting out on building 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 Corsi’s top seven tips for finding your perfect marble.
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 they can. 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 per cent happy with the information you’ve been given, walk away.
The Roman marble figure of Dionysus, above left, was discovered at Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli in 1775 by the enterprising Scottish painter and excavator Gavin Hamilton. Hamilton brokered the sale of many marbles between Rome and the English aristocracy. He sold this figure to the statesman William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, as part of a contract worth £6,050 to furnish the nobleman’s mansion on Berkeley Square in London with, among other things, ‘16 fine antique statues’.
Eventually, Petty’s collection of ancient marbles would become one of the best in 18th-century Britain. In 1930 the collection was offered at Christie’s.
The Roman marble Venus, above right, on the other hand, was part of one of Britain’s earliest collections of marbles, begun in the 1670s by Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke, at Wilton House in Wiltshire. This sculpture was one of the 179 mentioned in a description of Wilton House’s gallery in 1835, and remained in the Pembroke family for more than two centuries before being consigned to Christie’s in 1961.
Some subjects occur more frequently than others owing to their popularity in the ancient world. Nude Venuses, muscular gods and heroes and fragments of ornately decorated sarcophagi, for example, appear regularly on the market.
The upside of this is that, in the field of ancient marbles, these subjects are iconic. However, it also means that they are seen frequently in collections. Rarer pieces normally come with a higher price tag but can add an unusual twist to a collection.
The Roman marble relief above, which was sold by Christie’s in 2019, depicts the mythological twin half-brothers Castor and Pollux. Castor was the mortal son of Tyndareus, king of Sparta, while Pollux was the divine son of Zeus, who had seduced their mother Leda in the guise of a swan. Showing the brothers with their horses, a cock, a bull and a wild boar, this marble was most likely made to ask for their spiritual protection or assistance.
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.
Due to their relative rarity, some of the most desirable examples date from the Roman Republican period (509-27 BC) when Verism — a ‘warts and all’ approach to portraying the sitter as wise through age — was at its peak. The 1st century BC marble bust of a man below, with his sunken cheeks and creased forehead, is a fine example.
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.
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 of architectural detailing, may be fragmentary but is in great condition and highly expressive, which helped it achieve £87,500 at Christie’s in 2016.
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.
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, until Alexander the Great, rarely made portraits of private individuals. They preferred depictions of gods and athletes, or funerary sculpture.
The Greek head above could be a portrait of King Demetrios I Poliorcetes, a successor to Alexander the Great. The king’s flowing hair and furrowed brow reference Alexander’s famous portrait type, perhaps in a bid to validate his own power.
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.
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 monumental Roman head of Minerva, below, is carved from dark grey 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.
Some of the best collections of ancient marbles can be found at major institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, 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. You can see how he displays his ancient marbles in his home here.
The British Museum in London is also home to one of the most prestigious collections of ancient sculpture, including 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.